Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

I’ve been to Shanghai many times, but never had the time to visit the Jewish Refugees Museum. This time I had a couple of hours free before Shabbat, so I took the metro to Dalian Road station in Hongku district, and walked down Changyang Road to the museum.

Jewish history in China started more than 1,000 years ago, with Persian Jews who travelled to China by invitation of the Emperor and settled in Kaifeng. Some even trace the roots of these Jews back to those who fled Judea after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. Kaifeng Jews have since completely assimilated with the local Chinese population, but there are still families there who say they are descendants of Jews. In the 19th century an Iraqi Jew, Elias Sassoon, opened up business in China and many Iraqi and Indian Jews immigrated to Shanghai to work for him. Others settled in Hong Kong and in Harbin. Russian Jews were next, and they established the Ashkenazi community in Shanghai.

But the massive (and temporary) Jewish influx into China happened in the years before the Second World War, with Jews fleeing Europe from the Nazis. The museum tells the story of these Jewish refugees.

During the 1930s, about 18,000 Jews made their way from Europe to Shanghai, which was then under Japanese occupation. The Japanese allowed them to stay and concentrated about 14,000 of them in a ghetto they named “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees”. These Jews lived with the local Chinese population, many of them working outside the ghetto, despite the difficulty in obtaining passes to leave the confined area.

The spiritual center for the Jews was the Ohel Moshe synagogue. It was originally built by Russian Jews. The synagogue laid deserted for many years until the Chinese renovated it based on old architectural plans they found in the city hall. The plans appear on a plaque inside the synagogue.



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The synagogue today is not active. It is part of the museum. To enter it, one must wear plastic bags over the shoes (like in semiconductor fabs).




Yitzhak Rabin, the former Prime Minister of Israel, visited the site in 1994 and left a written note, which today stands in the museum. Apparently he had family relatives who were part of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai. Indeed, I found some “Rabin” names in the database of Jews in the museum.






The third floor of the synagogue hosts an exhibition on German death camps, mainly Auschwitz.

The main exhibition hall displays more than 100 photos depicting the life of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, from the time they disembarked from the ships that brought them here, through their daily life inside and outside the ghetto. There is also a duplication of the “Shanghai Jewish Chronicle”, a newspaper published in Yiddish.





The third exhibition hall contains stories of individuals who were in Shanghai. This is probably the most touching of all exhibitions at the museum, as the stories are very personal and show what happened to the people after the war.

The only thing I found a little missing in the museum was the basic fact that all this was possible only because the Japanese authorities allowed it to happen. The museum understandably puts a lot of emphasis on the local Chinese population and how they helped the Jews make Shanghai their home for several years. But the permits to come to Shanghai were possible only thanks to the Japanese. Moreover, the Nazis heard about the Jewish concentration in Shanghai and sent officers there to take care of the problem, but Japanese refused to allow the Nazis to touch the Jews under their protection. This lacuna is perhaps illustrated best in the following picture, which shows two diplomats who gave out permits to European Jews to go to Shanghai – one Chinese and one Japanese. Guess who appears in the larger frame, even though he issued fewer permits than his counterpart and with much less risk to himself. The Japanese diplomat is, of course, Chiune Sugihara.



This museum is a must stop for anyone visiting Shanghai. The ticket is 50 RMB (about $8) and you get a free (human) guide to walk you around and explain things. The amazing “Miracle of Shanghai” as one historian put it, is one of the few good stories to have come out of European Jewry during the Holocaust and this museum is a fitting memorial to this miracle.


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