Once a Vibrant Community, Shanghai Jews Struggle to Be Remembered

Only two of the synagogues built during the Jewish community's 20th century heydey still stand - one has now been converted into a memorial museum.

Hilary Saunders
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Hilary Saunders

Eighteen million people live in Shanghai, China, but only 2,000 of them are Jewish.

With such a small population, Shanghai Jews have limited options as to where they can pray and be remembered.

Only two of the seven synagogues built during the Jewish community's 20th century heydey still stand and neither are regularly active as places of worship.

The Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which once hosted regular services, weddings, and Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, has now been turned into a museum to honor and preserve the memory of the 30,000 Jews who fled from Europe during the Holocaust as well as the few still living in greater Shanghai today.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, loacted on the Changyang Road in the Hongkou District, attracts more than 10,000 people each year. It is divided into two areas - the former Ohel Moshe synagogue and the accompanying galleries.

Ohel Moshe was one of seven Jewish temples in Shanghai in that time. Today, only it and Ohel Rachel still stand and neither function normally as active religious sites.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum brings in visitors from Europe, Argentina, Thailand, the United States, Australia, Brazil, and a slew of other countries, said Wang Yao Hua, who has served as a guide for the museum over the last eight years.

"The museum is a reminder of the original Orthodox synagogue from 1928," Wang said.

In 2007, the People's Government of Hongkou District allocated the equivalent of $1 million for the renovation of Ohel Moshe. The main architectural body has been restored according to the original drawings found in the city's archives. Built by Russian Jews, it served as a main gathering point for refugees during World War II.

Today, the synagogue looks drab and unused. Six benches, in three rows of two, nearly fill the entire hall of worship. A wooden bema stands only a step above the ground. There is no ark, no Torah, and eternal flame has been turned off.

The area above the main hall, where the women used to pray, has been turned into a small museum that hosts temporary exhibits. Pictures of former Israeli prime ministers and other foreign dignitaries who have visited the museum hang on the walls. A section of antiques displays a Singer sewing machine, radio, and violin. A desk is set up in the corner with a computer so visitors can search through the Shanghai Jews database. In the center of the room stands a row of artwork inspired by the plight of the Jewish people.

Upon exiting the former synagogue through the back, visitors approach two other galleries.

An exhibit called "Visas for Life" pays tribute to Dr. Feng Shan Ho, the former Chinese Consul-General in Vienna, who issued thousands of Shanghai visas to Jews desperate to leave Austria after the Kristallnacht pogroms in 1938.

Nearly 200,000 Jews tried to leave Austria then, but they neeeded proof of emigration or some sort of tangible ticket or visa in order to do so. Thirty-two countries at the Evian Conference refused to assist them. Dr. Ho, however, recognized the humanitarian crisis and ignored his superior's orders, providing visas to those who would later bolster the Shanghai Jewish community.

This history is explained in the exhibit with testimonials from Jewish refugees and informational signs. The museum even has a Certificate of Honor for Feng Shan Ho, given by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Inspiring quotes from Dr. Ho, written in Times New Roman and placed in simple black frames, hang on the white walls. Wooden floors and fake bouquets create a plain, somber, and commemorative atmosphere.

The other gallery further details the escape of the Jews from Europe. It lists six phases of their integration to Chinese life: "Fleeing to Shanghai," "Life of Jewish Refugee Community," "Hard Times in the Hongkou Ghetto," "Sympathy and Mutual Help," "Starting a New Life," and "Unforgettable Episode of History."

More than 100 photos hang on the walls and from the ceiling. A lit timeline display on the floor chronicles World War II history and video interviews with survivors play on multimedia systems. Newspapers such as the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle, the "largest running German-language Jewish newspaper in Shanghai" also fill the exhibit, alongside maps and portraits.

Dror Cohen, an Israeli who has been living in Shanghai for eight months, said that while community numbers have waned, efforts are being made to provide an active life for area Jews. The city has four Israeli rabbis on hand who supply kosher food, an area to pray, and offer a "new alternative" for Shanghai Jews, said Cohen.

He also said that the Jews and Chinese have had a history of co-existence and friendship throughout the existence of the community.

With the history provided in the museum and through his alternative outreach program, Cohen said, he hopes this friendship "can be preserved for years."

Wang, the guide at the Jewish Refugee Museum, agreed, saying: "The Jewish people are friends with the Chinese. I think the Jewish people are very clever and I like to study Jewish history and culture. I like to learn English and make Jewish friends."

Hilary Saunders is a student of journalism at the University of Miami and spent a semester abroad in Shanghai.