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Shanghai serving as haven for Jewish refugees during wartime

Editor: Li Kun 丨CCTV.com

08-21-2015 16:02 BJT

By Dr. Wang Jian, a professor of history and international political economy at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS)

From 1933 to 1941, nearly 30,000 European Jews escaped from Nazi persecution and found their Noah’s Ark in Shanghai. According to reports from the local Jewish newspaper ’Israel’s Messenger’, the peak of refugees poured into the city shortly after Kristallnacht in November 1938.

On November 24, the ship carried about 200 refugees to Shanghai, and gradually the figures had risen to surpass 1,000 per month and until the end of August 1939, total refugees accounted for 16,000.

Considering the accommodations, a restriction decree was announced in August 1939 by the Municipal Council and the Japanese authority in Shanghai. Afterwards, the number of refugees had dropped sharply. But still more than 6,000 refugees came to Shanghai through various means.

In 1941, the annual report of the Committee for Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai announced it had received 23,310 Jewish refugees by the end of last year. Afterwards, the number changed since some refugees arrived from Siberia, northeast China, Korea and Japan while some left Shanghai. Accordingly, Shanghai had sheltered around 25,000 Jewish refugees during World War II.

Some refugees had passed by other Chinese cities and lived there for various reasons.  The Chinese cities of Harbin, Dalian, Qingdao, Tianjin had welcomed at least 1,500 Jewish refugees. 

Refugees came to Shanghai because after the August 13 Incident in 1937, Japanese troops occupied most parts of Shanghai, but did not invade the city’s International Settlement and French Concession, which were transformed into ‘isolated islands’. The Chinese government was powerless to continue its control of the Shanghai region. Consequently, Shanghai was the only metropolis in the world where foreigners could enter without visas and financial guarantees from 1937 to 1939. It is attracted to the Central-European Jewish refugees, because most of them left penniless and many had just escaped from concentration camps.

Although Shanghai had an open door to refugees, they still needed visa to let the Nazi believe that they would leave. Without a visa, they could have been sent to a concentration camp.

They were desperate, but no countries opened doors for them. But at that time, a heroic Chinese diplomat, Ho Feng-shan, the Chinese consul-general in Vienna, had signed thousands of visas for Jewish refugees.

It’s difficult to determine the exact number of “life visas” during Ho’s term from March 1938 to May 1940. However, a Jewish refugee’s passport was signed with visa No. 238 on June 1938, while only a month later, another passport’s visa number exceeded No. 1,200. He signed nearly 1000 visas a month.

And from August 1938 to August 1939, when around 4,000 Austrian Jews traveled to Shanghai, most had arrived with Ho’s visas. Additionally, many Jewish people used the China visa as a certificate to escape from concentration camps, and went to other places such as Palestine.

Mr. Ho had signed at least 5,000 visas for Jewish refugees. The number was greater than the 3,500 visas signed by Sugihara Chiune, Japanese Vice-Consul in Lithuania. He faced tremendous pressure from his superior, Chinese ambassador to Germany, Chen Jie, who thought it would harm Sino-German relations.

When Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai,they were assisted by the local Jewish assistance organizations, the international Jewish assistance organs such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and local Chinese people. They felt a friendly atmosphere, especially when they were in trouble.

Yet the Nazis didn’t ignore them. In 1942, German Colonel Josef Albert Meisinger visited Shanghai requesting the Japanese eliminate them. The Meisinger plan included starvation on freighters off the coast of China and to build a concentration camp on Chongming Island.

After the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, the value of the Jewish presence in China became meaningless for Japanese officials. They once proposed the so-called  “fugu plan” to use them to develop Manchuria and to maintain good relations with the US; but they still thought that if they carried the “Meisinger plan”, they would provoke outrage from the worldwide Jewish community.

Unwilling to spark a Jewish massacre, the Japanese authority had decided to construct a ghetto in Hongkou, a one-square-mile area named the Designated Area for Stateless Refugees, where approximately 16,000 Jewish refugees were relocated to live here since 1943.

The measure the Japanese had taken is similar to what they had done to the city’s allied nationals, who was forced into interment camps. This meant that the Japanese authority had changed their attitude on the Jews from considering them a valuable resource to a dangerous target as the alien enemy. Hence, Jewish life in the ghetto from then on was miserable as the Jews had lost their cherished freedoms.


( The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Panview or CCTV.com. )



Panview offers a new window of understanding the world as well as China through the views, opinions, and analysis of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.

Panview offers an alternative angle on China and the rest of the world through the analyses and opinions of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.


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