SHANGHAI (AFP) — China is heavily promoting Shanghai’s role sheltering European Jews from the Nazis as part of its commemorations for the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan, which will culminate in a huge military parade.
As the “port of last resort,” China’s commercial hub provided a home to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled persecution in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.
Nazi Germany’s wartime ally Japan took the city in 1941, and later moved 20,000 Jews into a “designated area” — called a ghetto by some — in the northern district of Hongkou, where they lived alongside Chinese residents.
Despite cramped living conditions and mistreatment by the Japanese authorities, they were spared systematic extermination, in defiance of requests from Berlin.
“Shanghai saved our lives,” former Jewish refugee Judy Kolb, who lived in the ghetto as a child, told AFP.
A new exhibition launches this week at a museum dedicated to Jewish refugees, along with a recreation of a historic cafe, and next month a musical, “Jews in Shanghai”, and a memorial park will open.
“Shanghai was the only city foreigners could get into without visas, even without passports — the only city that opened the door,” said Pan Guang, dean of the Center of Jewish Studies in Shanghai.
The narrative appeals to Shanghai authorities as the metropolis seeks to make itself into its vision of an “international city” and given China’s tense ties with Japan, which Beijing views as insufficiently contrite for its wartime atrocities.
“The Jewish refugee story is a natural choice for this kind of commemoration, as it has many ‘feel good’ elements, including overcoming hardship, and friendship between Chinese and foreigners,” Doug Young, a professor of journalism at Fudan University, wrote in the Shanghai Daily newspaper.
Shanghai’s events fall around a giant military parade in the capital on September 3, expected to be attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin but few other major world leaders, to mark the end of what Beijing calls the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War.”
The show of strength comes as Beijing acts more assertively in the region.
But at the time China’s ruling Communist Party was largely an underground movement, and it had little involvement with Jewish settlement in Shanghai.
Before the Japanese takeover, the city was composed of the British-dominated International Settlement and the French Concession, while the Chinese area was administered by the Kuomintang (KMT) — the Communists’ hated enemies.
Feng Shan Ho, China’s KMT-appointed consul general in Vienna on the eve of World War II, is credited with offering refuge to several thousand Jews by issuing visas which allowed them to leave Austria.
“He sat in the coffeehouse next to the consulate, asked Jewish people to come and issued visas. These people didn’t need a visa to come to Shanghai, but he issued visas for these people to escape,” said Pan, of Shanghai’s Center of Jewish Studies.
Ho fled to Taiwan when the KMT lost China’s civil war to Mao Zedong’s forces in 1949.
The World Jewish Congress, which represents Jewish communities in 100 countries, has announced it will host an event with the Chinese government to mark the liberation of the Shanghai ghetto.
The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum — which includes a former synagogue — plans to apply to United Nations cultural agency UNESCO for its collection to be designated as part of the “Memory of the World” program, which seeks to preserve documentary heritage.
Its new exhibit opens on Wednesday and will include historical materials and oral testimony from former refugees, said Chen Jian, the museum’s curator.
The White Horse Inn, which was a gathering place for the Jewish community, is being re-built nearby after the city demolished the original building in 2009 to make way for road widening. “It was a popular place for them to get together,” Chen said.
Similarly the 300-square-meter memorial park due to open next month will serve to replace four former Jewish cemeteries in Shanghai — all now gone, some destroyed during the chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
A new musical, “Jews in Shanghai” about the love between a Jewish man and a Chinese woman will also have its premiere in September, state media reported.
Pan, also a professor of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, has hopes for an even bigger cultural impact, along the lines of Steven Spielberg’s multi-Oscar-winning 1993 film about a German businessman who rescues Jews.
“I have five scripts on my table, but I don’t think they are good. Always about love … or some action movie,” Pan told a seminar. “We want something like ‘Schindler’s List’.