Shanghai Ghetto (上海难民营)

Shanghai Ghetto [Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum]

Prior to the arrival of German and Austrian Jews, there were already two relatively well established Jewish communities in Shanghai – the Sephardic Baghdadi Jews, numbering roughly 800, and the Ashkenazi Russian Jews, numbering roughly 4,000. Both communities, due to differences in religious practices, were relatively isolated from each other, except when it came to helping out the influx of Jewish refugees.

Between 1938 and 1939, nearly 23,000 destitute central European Jews arrived in Shanghai. The burden to look after them fell almost completely on the local Jewish communities.

On their arrival, they were often taken directly to the Embankment House which Sir Victor Sassoon, the owner, had already converted into a refugee shelter with a capacity to accommodate 2,500 people. They were able to stay there until they could find permanent lodging elsewhere.

Refugee life in Shanghai was tough. Harsh weather and inadequate sewage contributed to a high illness and death rate. The Sino-Japanese War and Japanese occupation completely destroyed the economy and wiped out nearly all employment opportunities. The men had even more difficult time adjusting because they mostly came from well-educated and well-respected professional backgrounds; the harsh reality of living on third-party aid was extremely degrading and hard to accept. Interaction with Chinese neighbours, themselves oppressed by the Japanese, was made even more strenuous due to the language barrier and fighting over extremely limited resources.

By end of 1939, the Jewish communities took care of the basic needs of almost 16,000 refugees.

On 7th December, 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and officially entered the Second World War. The Japanese took over the foreign concessions and now took control of the entire Shanghai. They ended all foreign aid, including that of the American Jewish Community.

By February 1943, the Japanese established the Shanghai Ghetto (上海难民营), officially called “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees (无国籍难民限定地区)”, and ordered all Jews who arrived after 1937 to move both their residence and business there. The refugees were kept in this area until the end of the Second World War.

With the ensuing Chinese civil war and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, almost all Jews who arrived in China following the First Opium War left the country.

About the Author
I was born in Hong Kong and currently studying in a school in Oxford, UK. I am fascinated in Jewish history, particularly in China; this points towards Jewish communities in Shanghai, Harbin, Hong Kong, and above all Kaifeng. This is a fairly niche area of interest and would like to share what I learn on my academic journeys with everyone.
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