- Wartime Shanghai and the Jewish Refugees from Central Europe: Survival, Co-Existence, and Identity in a Multi-Ethnic City by Irene Eber
The story of the refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria in the 1930s has been told before, but what separates this work from others is embedded in the book’s sub-title: “Survival, Co-Existence, and Identity in a Multi-Ethnic City.” Previous studies have tended to consider Shanghai an idyllic refuge for Jews during the Shoah, and as an international city where visas were not required. As Eber shows, neither was the case. [End Page 519]
While it is true that Shanghai was well placed to take in Jewish refugees from Nazism, these Jews hardly found the resettlement process ideal. As Eber points out, there were two established Jewish communities there already: a Sephardi community dating to the nineteenth century, and a more recent Russian-Jewish émigré community that had been trickling in over the previous three decades or so. In addition, the foreign population of Shanghai was essentially divided into two enclaves: the International Settlement, which was administered by a municipal council of Western powers, and a French Concession, directed by the French consul general. Both sectors were home to Jewish communities.
Shanghai’s International Settlement was unique in that its policing and passport controls were implemented by an autonomous board governed by non-Chinese. In this environment, all that was needed for admission was an approved departure visa for residents leaving from European ports. Refugees faced few restrictions upon their arrival in Shanghai.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Shanghai between the armies of China and Japan (August–November 1937), the city was occupied by the Japanese army. Large sections fell under direct Japanese control. These neighborhoods included Hongkew—part of the International Settlement. Soon after this, Jews began to arrive from Germany and Austria.
Some refugees had come to Shanghai earlier (even as far back as 1933), but the majority of the refugees from the Third Reich came in the aftermath of Kristallnacht (November 1938). Once war broke out in September 1939, the inflow of German and Austrian Jews was reinforced by Jews from Poland and, eventually, other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe.
The refugees from Germany and Austria, most of whom entered Shanghai as family groups, were impoverished owing to the Nazi policy of extracting exorbitant sums before allowing Jews to leave the Reich. Often, as Eber shows, they faced a difficult time upon arrival in Shanghai as well. Overcrowding of living space encouraged poverty of a kind many of the refugees had never before experienced. This situation only got worse when it became apparent that there were too many people in certain specialist occupations that were not attuned to a pioneering lifestyle: doctors, musicians, artists, writers, and “intellectuals” in significant numbers were not what the Jewish communities of Shanghai needed at that time. Further, the resources of these communities were limited, and it became increasingly difficult to carry those Jewish refugees who were not viewed as productive members of society. That harsh reality led to resentments on both sides of the Jewish community—which, as shown, was far from homogenous to begin with.
Over time, impoverished new arrivals found themselves forced into the destitute Hongkew District because they could not afford to live anywhere else in the International Settlement. With the onset of war, many became increasingly dependent upon welfare assistance; this, fortunately, was forthcoming from organizations such as the American [End Page 520] Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The local Jewish community tried to assist as best it could: aid was provided by two refugee organizations, the International Committee for European Immigrants, and the Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees. But these initiatives, by themselves, were never enough.
Despite the difficulties they faced, the Jewish refugees not only endured, but transformed the city. Viennese-style cafes opened alongside Central European delicatessens and bakeries. A Jewish theater scene emerged and even...