- Voices from Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China
Step by step, starting in 1933, German Jews became second-class citizens of Germany. It was a key target of Nazi Germany to foster emigration of German Jews. This measure was intensified after the events of Kristallnacht and remained in place until the outbreak of World War II. However, nearly all countries characterized Jewish immigration as a hardship for their own countries and rejected raising immigration quotas. Emigration from Germany for German Jews meant only surviving and not taking any belongings on the journey. Moreover, Jewish refugees lost their German citizenship when leaving the territory of the German Reich, according to the German Reichsbürgergesetz, the Law for Protection of Law and Honor, issued in 1935. Their property was confiscated by the German state, and they were allowed to take only ten Reichsmark with them. Almost twenty thousand Jewish refugees [End Page 554] fled to Japanese-occupied Shanghai mostly on German, Italian, French, and Japanese vessels from November 1938 to September 1939. The outbreak of World War II made travel by ship almost impossible. Nevertheless, until June 1941, Jews arrived overland via Harbin and Dalian to the international city of Shanghai. With the German attack on the Soviet Union, this option became impossible.
But how could Shanghai, a remote port city in China, develop into a destination for the refugees far away from Europe? Two Jewish communities in Shanghai already existed prior to the arrival of the émigrés from Nazi-occupied Europe. Individual Jews might have come to China already during the eighth century. In the city of Kaifeng, the first Jewish community in China was established during the thirteenth century. However, not until the middle of the nineteenth century was a more significant Jewish community established. As a consequence of the Opium War of 1840–1842 and the peace treaty of Nanking, Western powers gained control over places and cities in China, including the city of Shanghai. This led to the settlement in Shanghai of Sephardic Jews from Baghdad, the so-called Baghdad Jews, who were involved in the international trade business. The Ashkenazi community, mainly consisting of Russian Jews, was established shortly after the pogroms of 1905.
Following David H. Kranzler's dissertation The History of the Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, 1938–1945 (Yeshiva University, 1971), which was published as a book under the title Japanese, Nazis and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, 1938–1945 (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1988), a thought-provoking body of scholarship connecting Jewish and general history with the history of Jewish exile during the Nazi reign emerged. In particular, in Germany, an intensifying discussion about the role of these emigrants, previously citizens of Germany, materialized during the 1990s, and in 1997 led to the invitation of three hundred ex-Berliners who fled to Shanghai by the city of Berlin. The Jewish Museum in Berlin, with its director and former emigrant to Shanghai, Michael W. Blumenthal, had organized an exhibition and a symposium discussing the significance of this exile. Moreover, movies such as Ulrike Oettinger's Exil Shanghai came along with this emerging interest in the German public sphere.
Blumenthal, who escaped as a child from Berlin to Shanghai, has described the exile in Shanghai as the very last choice to escape the Nazi terror. Shanghai was never the first choice. As it developed into a secure yet not comfortable haven for Jewish refugees from Europe, the United States, Britain, and Palestine were already closed to them because of forced immigration policies and the extreme difficulty of [End Page 555] leaving wartime Europe. Jews came to Shanghai by ship or by train via the Trans-Siberian Railway. In Shanghai there was no immigration quota, and even refugees with less supportive connections found a safe place here. In her book Voices from Shanghai, Irene Eber, the Louis Fridberg Professor of East Asian Studies Emeritus at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has collected letters, diary entries, poems, and short stories written by those who fled to Shanghai...