The Parable of the Good Chinese: the Making of Shanghai’s WWII Jewish Refugees into a Chinese Myth (I)

On an early afternoon this June, I took a stroll at Huoshan Park in Shanghai. Behind the park there used to be a Jewish cemetery, along with three others scattered throughout the city — all gone, of course, by now. In a state-led effort to remodel the cityscape in accordance with Chinese communist aesthetics, Shanghai, in 1958, disinterred all the 3,700 Jewish tombs and transferred them to a large open burial ground, on the outlying fields to the west of the city.

Many, in the subsequent two decades, were severely marred or even shattered in the manic social upheavals of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution: villagers nearby, in their unquenchable revolutionary enthusiasm, pulled out the hexagram-shaped metal pieces embedded in the tombstones; not knowing the Jewish symbol’s religious and cultural significance, they dumped the magen davids into their communes’ backyard steel furnaces, as scrap metal, together with their pans, pots, shovels, to produce “high-quality steel,” which, in result, turned out to be chunks of useless high carbon pig iron. It was a common practice in the Great Leap Forward under the dictates of Mao, who ironmastered the project nationwide to outnumber the imperialist U.S. and U.K. in steel production, but in part caused, arguably, the 1958-1961 Great Famine during which tens of millions of Chinese starved to death. Since then, hundreds of Jewish tombstones have been witnessed parts of squalid cottages, bases, bridges, and sewerage covers all over the countryside. Some, who knows, might have even made their ways to many a concrete jungle burgeoned in past three decades, as Shanghai, since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform, has been gnawing at the environs in its rapid urban sprawl, both horizontal and vertical.

It was indeed an airless, sultry day in June, very typical of Shanghai’s summer. I exited the park promptly and arrived on Huoshan Road, or Wayside Road as it used to be called — rendered in Chinese characters as 霍山, meaning Mount Huo, Huoshan, if pronounced in Shanghainese, is enlighteningly the phonetic transliteration of “Wayside” in English. No sooner had I stopped before the crosswalk than a group of Israeli tourists, about thirty of them, in their forties or fifties probably, turned up on the other side. They stood there for a while; so I walked through them. Their young Chinese tour guide, holding a glitzy umbrella to block the sun, looked quite distraught by the heat.

Passing by, I overheard part of her drawn-out speech, in proud tones: “as we all know, we Chinese people saved many poor Jews from the Nazis in our war against Japanese invaders.” She paused for a moment, pen pointing at rows of historic buildings, “Here we are. Look at these houses. Here is where we Chinese and you Jews used to live door by door as good neighbors. This is a testament of our peoples’ deep friendship. We shall never forget.”

At the height of WWII in Europe circulated a grim, albeit telling joke among the German Jews — that after Hitler seized power, there were only two types of Jews in the Third Reich: optimists and pessimists. The pessimists all went in exile, and the optimists, died miserably in concentration camps. Hitler’s persecution in the 1930s resulted a massive wave of Jews leaving Germany, at first more or less in the form of forced emigration but as the regime’s anti-Semitic assaults intensified, more and more Jews were ready to bid farewell to their Heimat willingly. The refugees tried to relocate to Germany’s neighboring countries, America, Britain, also Mandatory Palestine, and practically anywhere else possible. According to USHMM, 340,000 Jews had fled Nazi Germany before the outbreak of WWII, and about one third of them, lamentably, landed on territories that would be soon subjugated by Hitler during the war.

From 1933 to 1941, many of these “pessimists,” more than 20,000 Central European Jews, also voyaged, typically in large groups, either from various European ports or through the trans-Siberian railway, to a most unlikely destination — Shanghai. The giant city was one of a few places in China that first received, before 1938, a small number of Jewish professionals who were discriminated against in Germany and forced to expatriate — as said, the Nazi regime initially allowed and assisted the emigration of Jews, making every effort to render Germany judenrein. After the Nazis annexed Austria and the Sudetenland in March and September 1938, and especially after Kristallnacht later the same year, Italian ship companies started to inundate the city with Jewish refugees coming in their hundreds and thousands.

In the first half of the 20th century, Shanghai was undoubtedly the most “un-Chinese” city in China. While having a huge and constantly growing population gradually identifying with a Chinese nationstate— the legacies of the Chinese Empire, nevertheless, didn’t just fall with it in 1911— the city was also home to a noticeable amount of “foreigners,” more than fifty different nationals all told, many of whom, born in the Chinese city and referring themselves as Shanghailanders, were, in many ways, even more native to the city than many new-in-town Chinese. Not only did the Shanghai’s architecture then look dominantly European and American, but it was also, effectively run at the hands of western businessmen, representing their own family, national, or corporal interest. After being captured in November 1937, Shanghai was occupied by Imperial Japan, yet with two self-governing extraterritorial “islands” that reminded Shanghai of the city’s colonial origin, namely, the International Settlement and concession française, administered by the British and the French, respectively.

A city as such, Shanghai attracted industrialists, missionaries, bandits, revolutionaries, opportunities, immigrants, and during the war, refugees. Most historical immigrants in China came from the Jiangnan area, some even as far as Canton and Min, or Mukden(Shenyang) and Tientsin(Tianjin) in the north. The rich would usually move into the concession française, and live in well furnished garden houses, the hoyhuyhangfhang, with yards and pools, or at least modern apartments with electricity and heating. The poor, on the other hand, perished on the street, with no one noticing, in Shanghai’s unbearable winters or summers. Since its very onset, Shanghai had never been a city of much egalitarianism.

The Shanghai Customs had a tight grip on the flows of goods and capitals, but in terms of the movement of people, the various authorities in Shanghai usually couldn’t care less (how ironic that the opposite is today) : when the Jews first arrived en masse from Europe, they just needed to present their passports and ship tickets, sometime even without a visa, to enter the city. By mere chance, the oriental metropolis became one of the few places still admitting Jews, when the “civilized” nations failed European Jewry at Évian-les-Bains in July 1938 — the Évian Conference, called on by Franklin Roosevelt to discuss the possibilities of raising immigration quotas for the “victims of German anti-Semitism,” ended up an embarrassing fiasco. Among the thirty-odd countries who participated in the eight-day meeting, only the Dominican Republic was willing to accept a substantial amount of Jewish refugees, but even that unrealistic, financially unsounding plan, was not made for altruistic reasons: the Caribbean island’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo, was eager to whitewash his international reputation after ordering the Parsley massacre in 1937 that resulted the deaths of thousands of Haitians. The Jewish exiles in Europe, having no other choices after 1938, went to Shanghai, of whose name many had never even heard before knowing it as an option. They would eventually spend around ten years there, under regular alterations of governing policies as well as governing powers. After WWII concluded in the Pacific theater, almost all of them, most surviving, made plans to leave for America, Australia and Palestine, or the State of Israel, after May 1948.

Back to Shanghai June 2015 again. Hearing what their tour guide was saying about the Chinese and Jews living together here in WWII, the Israelis glanced around, wanting to get an impression of the neighborhood. They hesitated a bit before reaching for their iPhones in the pockets or securing the cameras dangling from their necks. And then they took pictures: brick houses with vines encrusted sporadically, rusty racks jutted out from the wall, colorful T-shirts and underwear hanging overhead, plus a few unsmiling Chinese faces, standing or sitting in profile, looking out over the arched windows — all half silhouetted against the clear sky. In spite of the clamor on the street, everything just looked so calm and nice. These should make for very good souvenir photos.

While some in the group were already in the mood to appreciate and commemorate, others, apparently learning of this history for the first time, seemed slightly overwhelmed and wary: it’s all but unimaginable, nonetheless, for those European Jews to arrive and live in such a remote locale in such a different country that takes the Israelis more than 13 hours to fly today, with at least one layover.

Questions abounded. The Israelis now looked askance at their surroundings to try to find anything Jewish, but to no avail. It was simply another buzzy street of Shanghai, except for the century-old historic buildings that were becoming a real rarity. The Chinese on the two sides, obviously too used to the scene, carried on with their own doings undisturbed — cooking street food, playing Xiangqi, mending shoes, as if the Israelis didn’t exist at all. Foreign tourists in this area, according to a local I have briefly spoken with last year, are “too conspicuous to be noticed (jiàn guài bú guài le).”

Quite a few in the neighborhood today would, at your mention of yóutàirén or yhotanin, meaning Jews, turn red-faced and talkative. Not always making sense, still, they speak with an avowed certainty, of how the Jewish refugees fared in the wartime years and how the Chinese unconditionally helped them. Some can even describe the nitty-gritty of their life, as if they themselves had lived through the war right there, too, though most residents here now, never. There has been massive demographic changes in the area since the end of WWII, and the WWII survivors who experienced it as adults or teenagers have almost all passed away. As I will elaborate in the second part of this article, a frequently told story among the Chinese, that I have been very skeptical of, is at the core of Shanghai people’s collective memory of the city’s wartime Jewish refugees. Proving to be just speculative, it nonetheless reveals that the Chinese today, remember the Jewish refugees in Shanghai not as history, but as myth.

Another common topic that the locals love to put on the table is Yitzhak Rabin, surprisingly. As in Israel, people commemorate the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination this week (by the way, the world, alas, seemed a much more beloved place in the early 1990s, on its slow but sure move for an entrusted future), the Chinese living around Huoshan park also know something of the Israeli statesman, who visited Shanghai in 1993 as the state leader, one year after the official establishment of China-Israel diplomatic ties. Unfortunately, the locals get it all wrongly, claiming that Rabin was born in Shanghai, his parents were buried right in the cemetery behind Huoshan park, and this was the major reason that Rabin really pushed to restore the two countries’ relationship. An article appeared in June on People’s Daily, the Chinese official state newspaper, also confirmed the hearsay. But this is just factually wrong, and farcical. Rabin’s parents had never set foot on Chinese soil and just a quick checkup would show that Rabin was born in Jerusalem in 1922. This misunderstanding, this is purely my guess, may be because the locals and a lot more people mistook Rabin for the last Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, whose father, Mordechai Olmert, had taught Russian and Chinese to the Chinese in Harbin and whose grandfather indeed was and still is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Harbin. Olmert’s family belonged to another historical community of Jewish refugees that escaped the revolutions and pogroms in Russia and Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th century, along the newly-constructed Chinese Eastern Railway, in search of new life in China.

However, some get very defensive when they are told the historical fact, not understanding the motives of Rabin’s visits to their little Huoshan park. This made me realize that in a sense, the Communist Party of China has been so successful in converting Shanghai into an exclusively Chinese city that not only the landscapes had changed — Jewish, and basically all non-Chinese, thus tagged colonialist, imperialist, China-invading, Chinese-slaving, memorials and statues were reconfigured in the communism’s heyday. Personal memories, in many social and political movements, were rewashed and recast, to form a self-censored image of the past that only contributes to the raison d’être of the Chinese state today.

What was it like when the European Jews came to Shanghai, then? Did the Chinese people, like the tour guide said, really “saved many poor Jews from the Nazis?” Would they know who the Jews were? And how did the Jewish refugees manage? The shortest answer, excuse my bluntness, is that they came, they survived, and they left. The Chinese, before and during the war, only played a partial role, a limited one, in supporting them. The Jewish refugees didn’t come by Chinese invitation, and were certainly not received with flowers and hugs, or “welcoming tea ceremonies”— since they are quite popular now— from the Chinese. The warm scenes in German train stations to welcome the Syrian refugees weeks ago didn’t happen in Shanghai during WWII, though there also hadn’t been those stupid anti-refugee riots and attacks, either. What waited for the Jews on Shanghai’s Bund were magnificent bank building, teeming crowds of people, elegant women dressed in latest fashion, and piles of human waste, kids running in bare foot and Europeans lashing their Chinese coolies.

Trying to adapt to an excruciating and unfamiliar environment, the Jewish refugees in Shanghai were, for the most part, taken care of by Shanghai’s respected Jewish magnates, the nearly uninterrupted injection of international aids, and perhaps most importantly, the refugees themselves. No substantial help, financial or political, was received from China’s legit government at the time, the R.O.C. (the Republic of China), whose ruling party, Kuomintang, or the Nationalist Party, had already fled to the inner city Chongqing, since its defeat in the bloody Songhu Huizhan, or Battle of Shanghai in late 1937 and the immediately followed fall of its capital Nanking (Nanjing).

It should be noted that by no means do I suggest there were no interactions between the Chinese and the Jews in Shanghai, or that the Chinese living next to them didn’t helped them as best as possible. Many refugees had to accommodate to their new life, and learn from the locals. A few refugees started small businesses, usually with the help of Chinese translators or mediators that later turned into friendships. They also had to get accustomed to cooking in the yard or on the street, which is still seen sometimes in rundown areas in Shanghai. In a time when interracial matrimony was frowned upon as taboos, especially in Chinese and Jewish culture then, there had been a tickle of intermarriages between the Chinese and the Jews.

But at the same time, undeniably, there also existed racism and hostility, from Europeans to Asians, from Japanese to Chinese, and hence the other way around, too. On the one hand, better-off Jewish families, usually those arriving earlier than 1938, hired Chinese chefs, servants, and nannies like many westerners in Shanghai did, not realizing that a good of their daily practices, speeches, and ways of thinking were part of the colonial mindset. On the other hand, life in Shanghai was not always fine for the Jews, especially after 1942. In the hardest time, the Jewish refugees worked as rickshaw drivers and coolies, too, the jobs that were usually done by the Chinese. While researching the police records, I have also run into a Svejkish story of a Jewish car thief, which, in his antiheroic charm, spoke so very nakedly of the agitated sensitive wartime nerves.

I am stating, therefore, that throughout their decade in Shanghai, the European Jewish refugees, as a whole, remained a quite isolated community — one that they were very self conscious of, and one that the Chinese usually didn’t understand well enough— or better termed, communities, since there had been lots of internal heterogeneities: the refugees were, often bilingual or sometimes trilingual, speakers of several Central Europe languages, German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, you name it. There were socialists, Bundists, liberalists, Zionists, and anti-Zionists — the connotations of these political jargons, I cannot emphasize more, were untranslatable to many Chinese. The Jewish refugees themselves also didn’t always cohabitate peacefully. Some freethinking Germans, for instance, with stereotypes of Ostjuden, never liked the pious Poles much.

Roughly regarded as one group, however, the Jewish refugees were not very different from refugee communities living in alien countries today. In our world today, claimed by many to be freer, opener, and more civilized than ever, integration yet seldom happens. And when it does, it usually takes time, a generation or two, under certain conditions: either sharing a common linguistic, religious, ethnic or cultural background — think of the Syrians in Turkey now— or under strong political interventions— a civil, liberal society that ensures the rights of refugees, or a coercive state demanding for assimilation, would both theoretically work.

Though many social categories we take for granted now were not as fixed and permanent in the 1930s and 1940s, the situation in Shanghai was similar. Shanghai was all chaos then and couldn’t promise anything for the refuge-seeking Jews. The city’s many peoples and cultures, however, did in a way exempt the Jews — as white educated Europeans— from not only racism, but also the kind of radicalism and brutality, for example, that happened in Nanking — again, Shanghai was under Japanese control from 1937 to the end of the war. If there was anyone to take blame for any issue emerged in the occupation, the Chinese, among all the nations, would invariably be the first, and among the Chinese, the communists.

Many Austrian Jews, after the Anschluss in March 1938, obtained visas to Shanghai from Dr. Ho Feng-shan, Consul General in Vienna sent by the R.O.C. in 1938. Therefore, Ho has been quoted as the single strongest evidence that the Chinese saved the Jews. But to make things more complicated, I have to point out that China’s archenemy in WWII (and still today?), Japan, also issued thousands of visas to the Jews, although most were transit visas, just adequate enough for them to leave Germany, and the practice came to an end in 1941. So did Manchukuo, once a critical Qing territory but after 1931 colonized by Japan. And contrary to the common belief that Ho acted against the order of his superior in Berlin to continue giving visas to Jews, he didn’t operate under administrative pressure from the Nationalist government, which supposedly, would avoid harming its bona fide relationship with Germany. But this doesn’t sound logical, because if the R.O.C. banned issuing visas to Jews in its foreign offices in Europe, and Ho, in his maximized capacities, could produce a few thousands of visas, where would the rest of thousands of refugees get theirs?

This widely accepted belief has also been challenged by serious scholars: Irene Eber, in her excellent overview of the Central European Jewish refugees in Shanghai, explained that Chen Jie, China’s ambassador to Germany who allegedly instructed Ho to terminate issuing visas to Jews, “didn’t present his credentials until November 16, 1938, and by then Sino-German relations were already in cold storage.” Moreover, according to Dr. Ho’s own autobiography, the R.O.C. offered no consistent policy on issuing visas to Jewish subjects in Europe: Europeans, especially those with professional skills, were welcomed to settle in China as a rule upon the present of some affidavit. It would have been shocking, too, if Kuomintang had refused the Jews, because Sun Yat-sen’s party had always been pronouncedly pro-Jewish: the R.O.C. was the first government in Asia to grant de jure recognition to the State of Israel in March 1949. Sun, though himself a victim of world Jewish conspiracy, was a sympathizer with Zionism, which he further developed in his own theory as a working comparison to evoke nationalism in China in the early 20th century. And when the influx of thousands of Jewish refugees alerted the R.O.C. in Chongqing in late 1938 and early 1939, it even briefly talked about establishing a Jewish autonomous region in China. Many Chinese provinces were listed as options and Yunnan, the ethnic cauldron in southern China, was suggested, unsurprisingly, by Sun Ko, Sun Yat-sen’s son. These plans never passed to their executive phase, as in terms of feasibility, they were probably less likely than Nazi’s notorious Madagascar project.

All in all, until more firsthand records surface, it is not fully clear with what rationale the Reich passports with a big red J on the corner were assessed in Chinese foreign offices in Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Hamburg, Rome, etc., to what extent the applicants desperate to leave Europe were seen as Jews, to what extent, Germans, or Austrians likewise. But it is fair to say, still, many individual diplomats, some listed among Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations like Ho Feng-shan or Chiune Sugihara, and some not, like Wang Tifu, representing Manchukuo in Berlin, were of crucial importance to Jewish refugees. Although Shanghai at times didn’t ask for a visa, Nazi Germany in the late 1930s did require one. In that sense, they did save the Jews. But as is shown, they were not only Chinese, but also Japanese, or even hanjian — “Chinese traitors cooperated with the enemy.” A better explanation may be that nationality, and political affiliations, were simply irrelevant when it boiled down to do the right thing.

The very word Chinese, usually mistakenly taken as a single homogenous group in western languages, was very fluid and contested at the time: it meant very differently in many parts of the country. Not considering the vastness of China, its meaning has also undergone tremendous change in time. That Ho received his formal recognition in the P.R.C. as late as in 2001 indicates the Chinese government, too, had struggled with this fluctuation and even contradiction of meaning but eventually chose to underscore Ho’s honorable “Chineseness” and understate his political background, as a solution. After the communist seized power in 1949, Ho fled to Taiwan with the Kuomintang and later served as ambassadors to a few Latin American countries. After an unsuccessful and interrupted political career, Ho retired in California and died there in 1997.

Today, on a board at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum that marks off countries whose nationals have visited the museum with their corresponding flags, there is no Taiwanese flag. Not that there has never been anyone from Taiwan visiting— I myself have taken a few there. This is simply due to the fact the R.O.C. flag cannot be recognized in Mainland China, simple not presentable. Meanwhile, under the picture of Dr. Ho Feng-shan inside the museum exhibition hall reads a laconic line “China’s Consul General in Vienna”, without articulating his party allegiance and detailed duties. The communists, despite their epic visions and grand narratives, are true masters of petty lexicons that, if read between the lines, convey so much more.

For the Chinese today, all the nuances, complexities and contexts of this simply don’t matter. The Jewish refugees in Shanghai are repeatedly cited as some sort of history lesson coated with moral values, in order to accredit the Chinese, who were so good that they rescued the Jews when no one did, and would have otherwise rescued anyone in danger — a parable of the good Chinese. Indulging in a self-important imagination of Schindler-like heroism, “the good Chinese” today hold such a firm belief that it was no one but them who pretty much singlehandedly completed this great rescue. This may in part explain why Shanghai municipality has invested so much government money, in recent years, in building statues, museums, memorials, and parks about the Jewish refugees. Last year, the Hongkou district government, in which the mentioned refugee museum stands, even seriously considered a proposal to rid the wartime Jewish neighborhood of its current Chinese residents, predominantly aging retirees. The obviously ridiculous proposal advocated to create a soi-disant historic area, dedicated to the restoration of the wartime Jewish neighborhood and celebration of Jewish culture, or as I see it, a disneylandification of the are aiming to attract international tourists, at the expenses of dislocating those who live there now. With its first Disneyland soon open in the Spring, and more its likes scheduled for the next decades, Shanghai, indeed, can never have too many theme parks.

The good Chinese parable, also, speaks to the fact that a bit too frequently was Israel on the Chinese news in the past few months, when China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the victory over Japan the 66th of the founding of the P.R.C. The state media pretty much revolved around Israel’s gratitude toward Shanghai, and really not much was there about the Jewish state’s challenging status quo in the Middle East, nor its rapidly expanding, lucrative trade in high tech and weaponry with China. PM Binyamin Netanyahu, with his now world famous expertise in history, officially expressed Israel’s gratitude to China for sheltering European Jews in an video uploaded online by the Israeli consulate in Shanghai, later played in public spaces in the city. I am currently writing another piece on that, and as I will argue, the recent Chinese fascination with Shanghai’s Jewish refugees probably has more to do with the Japanese than with the Jews. And although Shanghai deserves recognition for its past cosmopolitan culture, its relative absence of anti-Semitism, and its accidental but nevertheless lifesaving status as “a safe haven” for the Jewish refugees, I highly doubt that the city today, with its stricter-than-ever border control over the flow of persons and a narrow-minded internationalism that redefines, instead of reflects on, nationalist statehood, would do the same thing for another wave of refugees from an unknown land.

About the Author
A failed history student of modern Europe, a predictor about the puzzling past, and a hopelessly curious mind. Du holds a TOI blog in Chinese, too, where he occasionally pens on topics related to Israel that the Chinese don’t bother to know or, well, care. Here, he primarily writes on Jewish history in Asia, Sino-Israeli relations, and the politics of the Middle East and Middle Kingdom.
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