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China's Little Vienna

Shanghai rediscovers the history of the 20,000 European Jews who fled to the city during WWII

September 18, 2012|Barbara Demick
  • A tour group takes in Shanghai's former Jewish neighborhood, where European emigres found refuge during the persecution of World War II.
A tour group takes in Shanghai's former Jewish neighborhood, where… (Barbara Demick / Los Angeles…)

SHANGHAI — The family always knew there was something mysterious about Wang Fanglian, secrets he dared not share with even his closest relatives.

Although he was just an ordinary worker at a diesel engine factory, he spoke four languages, among them English with a guttural German accent. His narrow brick-faced house had a flush toilet, a gas stove and a balcony for drying clothes, all strange luxuries in his rickshaw-wide Shanghai alley.

Only late in life did Wang explain himself, when it was safe to talk about his friendships with Jews.

During World War II, 20,000 European Jews fled to Shanghai, one of the few places in the world they could go without a visa, and one of the few that put no limit on the number of Jews it would accept. Under Japanese occupation, they were squeezed into one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, living cheek by jowl with working-class Chinese such as Wang.

"They were good friends. They lived together. They played together. They suffered together under the Japanese occupation," said Wang Fanglian's 21-year-old granddaughter, Wang Kaiyan.

The old man learned English and French from his Jewish neighbors -- and Japanese from the occupiers. He bought his house, the one with the Western luxuries, at the end of the war from a departing Jewish family.

Then when the remaining Jews, along with other foreigners, fled China after the communist victory in 1949, this chapter of Shanghai history was tucked away and forgotten.

"Because of the Cultural Revolution, people didn't want to talk about relations with foreigners," said the granddaughter, referring to the communist purges of the 1960s and 1970s against what were seen as bourgeois influences.

To call it a revival would be an overstatement, but the Jewish history of Shanghai is gradually coming out from the shadows.

The old Jewish quarter is in a quaintly ramshackle neighborhood called Hongkou with red-and-gray brick houses, many of them with patterned gables and fluted turrets, a weird fusion of Asian and European architecture that is uniquely Shanghai. So many Jews were here, along with cafes, cabarets, German bakeries, delicatessens, dance halls and music conservatories, that the neighborhood was nicknamed Little Vienna at the time.

Most of the neighborhood has since been rebuilt, the European cafes demolished or turned into Chinese restaurants.

The only remaining Jewish landmark, a onetime synagogue that had been turned into a psychiatric hospital, reopened in 2007 as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. Wang Fanglian conducted tours there briefly before his death in 2008. Wang's old house still stands and occasionally receives tourists, though there's little trace of the former Jewish occupants.

In March and April, a theater company performed a play about a romance between a young Jewish woman and a Chinese resistance fighter, with funding partially provided by the Israeli Consulate.

There are now more than half a dozen academic programs at Chinese universities -- in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Nanjing among others -- devoted to Jewish studies. The Shanghai Jewish Studies Youth Forum, for Chinese students studying Jewish history, held a conference here in July.

The government-owned Shanghai Film Studios is developing a television miniseries about the Jewish emigres in partnership with "Black Swan" producer Mike Medavoy, who was born in Shanghai to Ukrainian Jewish refugees.

"We want something like 'Schindler's List,' " said Pan Guang, an advisor to the project, who heads the Center for Jewish Studies in Shanghai.

Pan says Chinese awareness about the Holocaust is a natural offshoot of rising interest in World War II and in the Nanjing massacre in 1937, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese were killed by the Japanese. The massacre was the subject of Zhang Yimou's film "The Flowers of War," starring Christian Bale.

"This is a very hot topic among graduate students right now," Pan said.

The story of Shanghai's Jews is also a feel-good one that runs counter to the criticism of China over its human rights record.

"No city saved so many Jewish lives as Shanghai," said Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli expatriate who gives tours of the old Jewish neighborhood. "For the Chinese, this is a 'good face' story."

During World War II, few countries were willing to accept Jews fleeing Europe. (At the 1938 Evian conference, only the Dominican Republic, out of 32 countries attending, agreed to admit a sizable number.) Shanghai was an open port without visa requirements and had a well-established Jewish community that included wealthy families such as the Sassons and Kadoories who'd made fortunes in real estate and banking. They helped the new arrivals, as did several courageous diplomats.

The Chinese consul in Vienna, Ho Feng-shan, supplied about 2,000 visas that the Austrian government required for Jews to leave. A Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, issued thousands more for Jewish refugees to exit through Japan as a transit point to Shanghai.

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