By Joshua Shi, Shanghai Star. 2001-02-15
IT is a poignant scene on Zhoushan Lu in Hongkou District: Old blue- and-red brick houses, with patches of their wall peeled off, look old, heavy, weighed down with experience.
A bonsai pot on the window, a jacket of latest fashion hanging on a long bamboo pole and the noise down on the bustling street remind you it is 21st century Shanghai.
But these houses that survived all the neglect, weathering and over-crowdedness were once home to thousands of Jewish refugees during World War II.
Turn the clock back and all Shanghai's favourite ghosts come to life: Viennese gentlemen sip coffee outside Austrian bakeries, so authentic that the Hongkou ghetto is called Little Vienna. Jewish diners read papers printed in German, Polish and even Yiddish. Students are learning books under the guidance of the rabbi and tango is danced every night at Silk Hat in the French Concession...
Early in the 1840s, a unique group of Sephardic Jewish merchants from the Middle East came to Shanghai and thrived here. Among them were the Sassoons and Kadoories. They built some of Shanghai's finest colonial structures.
This small Jewish circle was affected in the early 1900s by the second wave of immigration that brought Russian Jews seeking asylum.
However, the largest influx of Jews came in the 1930s to escape Adolf Hitler's Holocaust. The Nazis massacred 6 million Jews in Europe. For many Jewish people, flight to Shanghai became the only choice since, at that time, Shanghai was the only city in the world allowing Jews to enter visa-free.
Most arrived between 1937 and 1939 and the number during the peak time was between 20,000 and 40,000.
Many carried the visas issued by Feng Shan Ho, then the Chinese Consul General in Vienna.
A few merely passed through, en route to the America, Palestine or Australia, but about 90 per cent stayed.
In Shanghai, even amidst the large international settlements, the Jews stood out as a distinct community with its own synagogues, schools, theatres and hospitals, clubs, cemeteries and publishing establishments.
Restriction were put on immigration in August 1939, but still they came in droves until the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941. Finally in 1943, the Japanese authorities declared a "Designated Area For Stateless Refugees" and forcefully ordered all Jewish refugees to move into the area in Hongkou within a month.
There was no barbed wire and it was not heavily patrolled, but adults needed passes to go out.
Shanghai people welcomed the "people without a country." Some became business partners of Jews, providing food or small delivery services. There were intermarriages and there were a great many friendships.
Mike Blumenthal, former US Treasury Secretary, lived in the Hongkou ghetto for 10 years. He said, "Shanghai and Hongkou occupy forever a place in the history of the Jews."
After the war, the Jewish community quickly rebuilt itself, but the ensuing civil war resulted the exodus of foreigners and the Jewish people gradually left Shanghai.
Jacob Keidar, consul general of Israel in Shanghai, said his country and people are always grateful to Chinese people who helped to save the lives of thousands of Jews.
"In our Jewish Bible there is a saying that he who ever saved one person has saved the whole world," said Keidar.
And the Chinese have a saying too: To him who ever gave you a water-drop of a favour, you should return a bubbling well in gratitude. And the Jews have the same value.
All this history and friendship wells up in Shanghai and China. Now there are increasing trade and cultural exchanges and joint projects between the two countries.
Shanghai people have developed an increasing interest in the city's Jewish heritage. Among them are novelist Chen Danyan, who recorded the city's Jewish legacy in her bestseller, "Shanghai Memorabilia."
Local artist Chen Yifei also shot a movie called "Shanghai Ark," which documented the city's Jewish history during World War II from a nostalgic angle.
There are now a dozen associations in Israel, Europe and the United States preserving the Jewish legacy in China. Many such associations have recruited some of the Western Jewish businessmen to invest in Shanghai and help their cause.
And there are more and more Jewish people coming to Shanghai seeking their roots.
Among them were Rene Powell Chen and her son Alex. "When the rest of world closed its doors to the Jews, Shanghai opened its arms," said Chen. "China is very beautiful."