Home History The Shanghai Jews: The Story of China's Jewish Refugees

The Shanghai Jews: The Story of China's Jewish Refugees


Among the citizens of Shanghai, there remains today a small, tightknit Jewish community.

These descendants of European refugees share a stunning history, the story of tireless efforts to pursue freedom in the face of Nazi persecution.

Following the Nazi rise to power in 1933, state-sponsored anti-Semitism reared its head across Germany, in the forms of the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht in 1938.

After that night of broken glass, Jews in Europe were presented with increasingly bleak prospects, as employment, education and eventually housing options were seized one by one.

As the first round ups began to take place, Jewish families searched for safe places to flee to, with even those prospects looing dim. Countries like the US, UK and Canada started tightening immigration laws just when European Jewry needed them most.

In Shanghai, however, thousands of Jews found respite. The city, then occupied by Japanese forces, allowed entry without visa or passport, an incredibly attractive quality to European residents facing closed embassies and passport offices. Two other Jewish communities were already established in Shanghai, thanks to local Russian émigrés and the wealthy Kadoorie and Sassoon families, making for easy assimilation.

In 1939 alone, more than 12,000 European Jews made the trek to Shanghai.

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In 1942, however, an estimated 18,000 Jews in Shanghai were ordered by the Japanese occupiers to relocate to the Hongkew district, a 1-square-mile space of land that would become known as the Shanghai Ghetto.

Circumstances were strained, with little food and cramped housing, though local families and Jewish groups abroad stepped in to make up the difference. The refugees banded together and soon formed a blossoming community, with businesses, offices, cultural activities and schools.

Conditions worsened after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, with restrictions keeping up during the last few years of the war. Following liberation, many of the Shanghai Jews made aliyah to the newly established Israel and the US, though a handful of families stayed behind.

Today, Jews return in hordes to visit some of the historical Shanghai spots. A monument stands at Houshan Park in the old Hongkou district and several of the diplomats who aided in bringing the Jews to Asia have been named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Jewish Shanghai Tours, a local business providing detailed tours of the city’s Jewish history, takes thousands of travelers through the district each year.

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