How Shanghai Saved 20,000 Jews from the Nazis
While most of the history of the approximately 30,000 Jews who lived in Shanghai has been destroyed, paved over, or carted away, astounding stories can still be discovered.
SHANGHAI—Before he starts his walking tour of Jewish Shanghai, Dvir Bar-Gal warns his audience that they will be disappointed.
“Do you want to see,” he’ll start, before finishing the question with “a Jewish cemetery?... The shadow left by a long-gone mezuzah?... A once-thriving synagogue?”
At first, the tourists forget Bar-Gal’s advice. They respond eagerly to his questions: “Yes! Yes! We’d love to see that!” They soon learn that Bar-Gal’s standard response, delivered in his gruff, Israeli-accented English, is always “Forget about it.”
Most of this history has been destroyed, knocked down, paved over, carted away. The country is changing, and perhaps no city is evolving as quickly as Shanghai, which in a 30-year period has doubled its population, to about 24.1 million people, and seen mud flats and low-slung factories replaced by some of the world’s tallest buildings, creating a skyline and nightly light show that rivals that of New York City.
“Everything is complicated,” Bar-Gal shrugs during a recent tour as his guests—visitors from the U.S., Australia, the U.K. and France, mostly Jewish—bemoaned the loss of such rich cultural pieces.
But perhaps what’s more important, what hasn’t been lost, is the story of the Shanghai Jews, one kept alive by people like Bar-Gal, who shares it with tour groups every day, something he’s done for 16 years.
As World War II began, approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Shanghai. About 20,000 had arrived seeking refuge as the Nazis gained strength. Another 6,000 had settled in the city a decade or so earlier, escaping the pogroms in Russia. Holocaust scholar David Kranzler calls this the “Miracle of Shanghai.”
“No other [city] in the world saved so many Jewish lives,” Bar-Gal says. “Yet one question I always get is, ‘How come I never heard of this before?’”
A native of Israel, Bar-Gal did not move to China to tell this story. He came to find others. A journalist by trade, he settled in the city known as the “Pearl of the Orient” in August 2001 seeking freelance television work. China, he thought, was underrepresented in the international media and the country’s on-going evolution would undoubtedly be of interest in the years ahead.
But after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 that year, news outlets had another story to chase. China fell off assigning editors’ radars. Bar-Gal, still getting to know his new home, decided to take a tour of Jewish Shanghai led by another Israeli ex-pat, Georgia Noy.
He was soon giving the tours, with Noy’s blessing. Each starts along The Bund, a stretch of waterfront where some of the city’s oldest, most beautiful and best-known buildings stand. There were three waves of Jewish immigration to Shanghai, Bar-Gal explains. The first arrived in the mid-1800s. Many were wealthy merchants from Iraq, India, and Egypt, among them familiar family names like Kadoorie, Sassoon, and Hardoon. These immigrants, or their descendants, constructed these landmark art deco buildings such as the Peace Hotel, where Bar-Gal meets his tour groups.
The second wave landed around 1900, fleeing first anti-Jewish pograms, then the 1917 revolution in Russia. While not wealthy, these families built a community in the northern part of the city, opening shops, businesses and synagogues. In 1932, one of the newspapers serving the Jewish community called Shanghai “the Tel Abib (sic) of the Orient.”
While those in first wave were Sephardic Jews, those in the second were Ashkenazi. Does anyone know the difference between the two, Bar-Gal asks. No one does, so he answers his own question, “Rice and noodles.” Most of those on the tour are Jewish, so the line gets big laughs.
Bar-Gal’s audience is attentive, asking questions, answering questions. But the group turns solemn when they sit along a low wall in Huoshan Park. This was once part of the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees,” the so-called “Shanghai Ghetto,” where Chinese and Jewish refugees lived as many as 30 people to a room, strangers living on top of strangers.
It’s time to learn about the third wave of Jewish immigrants to China: those who fled Europe before the start of World War II. Before the concentration camps and the “Final Solution,” when Jewish families were allowed to leave Europe. It began after Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938.
“There was no other city in the world during the Holocaust that ended up saving so many Jewish lives like Shanghai did, approximately 20,000,” Bar-Gal says. “But why Shanghai? You live in Austria. You live in Germany or Poland. Why are you coming here?”
Carol, from Los Angeles, ventures a guess, “Because nobody else would take them?”
That’s part of it, Bar-Gal explains. Most countries had closed their borders to Jews fleeing Europe. The Americans turned away most of those seeking asylum, saying the country had already met its quota. The Australian position was summed up by the country’s Trade and Customs Minister: “As we have no real racial problems, we are not desirous of importing one.” And a Canadian official, asked how many Jewish refugees his country would take, answered “None is too many.”
But the port of Shanghai was open. No passport, no permissions, no questions. Families came by land and by sea, each person allowed to take up to 10 Deutschemarks, about $4.17 today, the maximum the Nazis would allow them to take.
“Imagine yourself,” Bar-Gal says, “to cross the world to start a new life with less than five dollars.”
Another reason many Jewish refugees found themselves in Shanghai? Two brave men—one Chinese, one Japanese—working in Europe.
One was Chiune Sugihara, an officer in Japan’s Lithuanian consulate, who in 1940 recognized the growing danger Jewish citizens faced and began issuing exit visas. It’s unknown how many people’s lives he saved as entire families could leave the country with one signature, but some believe the figure is around 6,000, Bar-Gal explains.
“Every day and every night, he and his wife together were signing hundreds of papers,” Bar-Gal says, holding up a photo of Sugihara and noting there is a statue honoring him in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood. “This is a very righteous man.”
The other was Feng-Shan Ho, a diplomat in China’s Vienna consulate, who defied a superior’s orders and issued thousands of visas between 1938 and 1940.
“With his Chinese chop” a seal that has the same authority as a signature—“with that, the man gave them life,” he says.
Bar-Gal holds a directory of Shanghai’s Jewish residents compiled in 1939. Every page, he notes, has 10 to 20 people who give their home city as Vienna. That’s thanks to Dr. Ho.
“Did any of you ever hear of him?” Bar-Gal asks his group. None have. “You’re not surprising me. I ask myself, ‘We know so much about the Holocaust, how come we’re missing such an important man?’”
Bar-Gal shares his theories. Those who received travel documents signed by Ho didn’t know his name and “can any member of the Goldman family read his name in Chinese on the paper? I don’t think so.” Ho never spoke about what he’d done, initially out of fear for his family, later out of modesty.
“This man was awarded by God to live 96 years,” Bar-Gal says. “He only died in 1977 in San Francisco and only after he passed away, only then, his daughter, who still lives in San Francisco, opened her father’s archives and figured out what her father was doing.”
When the tour guide warns that those who take his walk will be disappointed, he’s obviously joking. Because while some of the physical signs of Jewish Shanghai are gone, the stories remain. Many of them are told in the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which opened in 2007 with Bar-Gal’s input.
En route to the museum, there are more stories. Bar-Gal explains that while the neighborhood street names have changed, the numbering system has not. That means he can find specific addresses upon request.
“Sometimes once a week, sometimes twice in a tour, somebody will ask me to find the house where their family used to live… and I can find it,” he said, walking past a building with a plaque marking that former U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal lived there with his parents after they fled Germany in 1939. “You can only imagine the excitement.”
He walks on, pointing out where a hospital that served ghetto residents once stood. About 400 Jewish babies were born here during the war, he says. More than 30 Jews and an unknown number of Chinese were killed here when American planes bombed the building accidentally in 1945.
“Imagine these people, the last place they could get to was Shanghai,” Bar-Gal says. “Imagine surviving the war and dying from friendly American fire, fire that was intended to liberate the city, three weeks before Hiroshima.”
Just as there are heroes in this history, there are also villains. The Jews who sought refuge in Shanghai had no way of knowing that Japan would not only enter World War II as an ally of Germany, but that the Japanese would occupy long-time rival China.
In 1942, SS Colonel Josef Meisinger, the so-called “Butcher of Warsaw,” was serving as a liaison between the Nazis and the Japanese government. He suggested a few ways the Japanese could eliminate their Jewish problem. One idea: to load the Jewish residents of Shanghai onto a barge, tow it to the Yangtze River, then release it.
“They would drift to their deaths,” Bar-Gal says. “But the Japanese didn’t carry religious motivation to hate… The Jews were no enemy or threat.”
In 1943, in an attempt to appease the Germans, Japanese authorities created the Designated Area for Stateless Refugees, confining Jews to the small section of the city that became known as the Shanghai Ghetto. Kanoh Ghoya, a Japanese official, was named the area’s overseer. When refugees wanted to leave the area—perhaps to see a doctor—the “little man with a bad temper” held all the power.
“To ask for a permit you had to go to the office,” Bar-Gal says. “If you are taller than him—and trust me, everyone was taller than him—if you’re smarter than him, he will kick and scream and jump on his desk with rage… He called himself the king of the Jewish people. The Jewish people only have one king, and it’s not a Japanese midget.”
In the end, almost all of the Jews in Shanghai emigrated to the new state of Israel, and to Australia, England, and the US. They moved pretty quickly after the fall of the old Chinese government in 1949. Today, the Jewish population of Shanghai is about 3,000.
At the museum, Bar-Gal encourages the group to take in the exhibits on their own before asking them to cluster around him. He once warned his questions would pave the way to disappointment. He’s about to change that.
He calls them to circle ‘round, then points out two photos, one of a Caucasian man, the other a Chinese woman. In 2010, he begins, Shanghai was hosting the World Expo. One morning, Bar-Gal was leading a large group of tourists that included two young African-American women. At one point, the pair told him their grandfather used to live in the Shanghai Ghetto.
“I said, ‘What was your grandfather doing here?’” Bar-Gal recalls. “They said, ‘He was a Jewish refugee.’ Then they started to tell the story and I realized I knew this story. I knew how it began but I never knew how it evolved.”
Robert Sokol was 12 when his family fled Vienna for Shanghai in 1938. He met Julie Chenchu Yang while studying on scholarship at St. John’s College.
“These two, they are falling in love, though her family, they were anxious, they resisted any romantic connection to the refugee family,” Bar-Gal says.
In 1947, Sokol received a fellowship to study in Chicago. In 1948, Julie made “a very very crucial decision in her own life: To follow love.” She, too, traveled to America, where she converted to Judaism and married Robert. The couple had a daughter and a son, Hannah and David. Hannah’s twin daughters, Hadassah and Yaffa Holmes, were the pair who returned to China to take Bar-Gal’s tour. Robert and Julie were married for 64 years, until Robert’s death in 2012.
Bar-Gal’s audience is enchanted, but he’s not done.
“Good story? Would you like to make it an excellent story?” he asks, receiving nods and mutters of agreement.
Robert Sokol, Bar-Gal explains, traveled to America by ship. During the long journey, he befriended a man named Monto Ho. The two were about the same age and both spoke Chinese, German and English. Both were going to the United States to study. “The guys become the best friends ever,” Bar-Gal says.
When they reached the States, the two went to different cities, different universities, and fell out of touch. Besides having a family, Sokol was a scientist who co-founded the field of numerical taxonomy. Ho, who died in 2013, also married and had children. He later became a medical researcher, an infectious disease specialist.
The men did not speak again for 50 years, Bar-Gal says, but when they reconnected, they realized their lives had become intertwined long before they’d met on a ship crossing to America. Monto Ho’s father was Feng-Shan Ho, the Chinese diplomat whose bravery allowed the Sokol family to escape from Vienna.
“Robert’s whole family was saved from the Holocaust because of the initiative of the father of his friend,” Bar-Gal finishes, looking at his listeners with a slight smile on his face. They’ve been hanging on his every word.
“Excellent story?” he says. “Can it get any better than that?”
“Yes!” they practically shout. “Go on. Tell us.”
No one is disappointed.