German Jewish refugees in Shanghai
From the heart of Europe to the Far East: Following the American liberation of Shanghai and the renewal of communications with the free world, the refugees’ situation improved significantly. By GUY MIRO -@ New York Jewish Guide.com
In Germany in the late 1930s, the name Shanghai was associated with crime, prostitution, corruption and illness. It was considered the end of the earth, the worst possible option for émigrés. Nonetheless, under the harsh conditions that arose, between 18,000 and 20,000 Jews from Germany and Austria were bound for the Chinese city. This wave of emigration started in the summer of 1938, in the wake of Adolf Eichmann’s policy of forced emigration of Viennese Jews. Beginning in November 1938, large groups of German Jews joined the flow.
The largest number of Jews – between 14,000 and 15,000 – arrived in Shanghai from central Europe between December 1938 and June 1939. Both the Japanese who occupied the city and the city council recoiled from this large Jewish influx, especially once World War II started, resulting in a significant drop in Jewish immigration to the city. The last group of Jewish refugees to arrive came from Eastern Europe and numbered about 1,500. Among them were rabbis and students from the Mir Yeshiva, who had been in Japan and were sent to Shanghai in 1941.
What were the international conditions that enabled this large immigration of Jewish refugees to Shanghai? The city’s unique international status in the late 1930s derived from the combination of a colonial legacy and the Japanese conquest of the city in 1937. None of those involved in Shanghai’s international arrangement recognized the Chinese puppet ruler installed by the Japanese.
As a result, from 1938 the city was under no jurisdiction, and until 1940 no passport control was enforced upon those entering it.
Prior to the influx of Jewish immigrants from Central Europe, there already existed two veteran Jewish communities in Shanghai: a long-established community of Baghdadi origin, numbering 600-800 people, and a Russian community numbering 3,000-4,000.
On October 19, 1938, as the flow of refugees increased, the Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (CFA) was established.
The CFA provided refugees with vital assistance, first and foremost in housing and food, and eventually also in health and education. It was run by the Baghdadi Jews with help from the Joint Distribution Committee in America.
Beyond the material hardships, the prolonged stay in Shanghai presented a significant challenge to the spirit.
Most refugees expected to spend weeks, or at most months, in China, and were not mentally prepared to accept Shanghai as a permanent home. As the war continued and broadened, their future looked bleaker and less clear. They were cut off from family left behind as well as from relatives who had reached other shores.
Their interaction with the local Chinese population, themselves oppressed by the Japanese occupation, was made difficult by the language barrier.
Most of the Jewish refugees had been respectable, middle class wage earners in their old homeland and had given charity to the needy; now, many were forced into a passive life, and in the daily struggle for survival had become dependent upon charitable organizations and individuals.
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and its entry into World War II brought a tragic turning point for the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, who became increasingly isolated from the world. Worse, this isolation meant the cessation of the flow of aid from America, which crippled the city’s charitable organizations.
On February 18, 1943, the Japanese military rule ordered the concentration of all landless refugees who had arrived since the Japanese takeover in 1937. Ostensibly a general security measure, and devoid of the terms “Jewish” or “ghetto,” it was nonetheless an obvious anti-Jewish act of German influence. The ghetto was not hermetically sealed but the development had a disastrous effect – in one fell swoop, half of the Jewish refugees lost their livelihood and their dwelling.