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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

At first the Jewish refugees lived throughout the city, but in 1943, the Japanese, under pressure from their German allies, ordered them into Hongkou, where Wang's family lived.

In 1939, when he was 2, the artist Peter Max and his family fled Berlin for Shanghai. At first the family lived in a large house, but they were later moved to Hongkou, which he remembers as a chaotic, colorful neighborhood.

"It wasn't really a ghetto," Max, ne Finkelstein, said recently at his New York studio. "There were two cinemas. We could listen to jazz. There was an old man who sat cross-legged on the street selling American comic books."

Max attended an English-language school funded by the Kadoorie family and learned rudimentary Chinese from kids on the street. More important, he learned to draw from his baby-sitter, a Chinese girl who was a few years older and the daughter of an artist.

Now 74, Max is planning his first return trip to Shanghai this fall and has launched a search for the baby-sitter, though he doubts she is still alive.

For Chinese such as Wang, some of the friendships with Jews lasted a lifetime.

"My father got along very well with them," said Wang's son Wang Jianmin. "After the Cultural Revolution, his old friends started to send him letters. They would come to Shanghai to visit him."

Wang Kaiyan, an English-language major in college, says she regrets she was too young to hear more of her grandfather's stories before his death. But she's pursuing his legacy just the same: as a volunteer tour guide at the museum.

"Jewish people come to the museum who still remember my grandfather and ask about him," Wang said. "I feel bad saying that he's dead and I didn't spend as much time as I should have listening to his stories."

More recently, Chinese tourists have started visiting the old Jewish quarter.

"When we first opened, 90% of the visitors were foreign, but now increasingly we get Chinese tourists and students who want to learn the history of the Jews in Shanghai," museum director Rita Tan said.

Admittedly, it is a steep learning curve. Even He Zheng, a 23-year-old business student who was a volunteer guide, acknowledged to visitors that he still knew little about Jewish culture.

"Are there foods that Jewish people don't eat?" he asked one visitor.

She patiently explained kosher dietary rules, emboldening the guide to pose another question.

"Are there things that Jews don't talk about?"

She replied, "Oh no, they talk about everything."


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