Most museums in Shanghai don’t live up to their potential. Exhibit spaces are often sparsely filled and there’s never enough historical context given (in Chinese or any other language) to help you fully appreciate displayed objects. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is different. Given this, its compact size, and the fact that I was hugely pregnant, we expected our visit last September to be a quick one. It wasn’t.
We spent two hours reading our way through its three buildings, each full of documents, photos, and memorabilia that when pieced together told a surprising-to-me story linking Shanghai with the Holocaust.
I don’t think of China as being overly welcoming — and I’m not just speaking from personal experience. It is, after all, a country that’s closed its borders more than once to foreigners. But I learned from our visit that Shanghai, of all places, was a refuge for 18,000 Jews from 1933-1941.
Perhaps we were so engaged because of personal connections to the subject matter. Our struggles in Haiyang of course pale in comparison to the refugees in Shanghai, but as expats we can relate in a way casual tourists cannot.
Plus, I’m now the mother of a daughter who is part Russian Jew. Who knows how closely or distantly related, but there were a handful of refugees that shared her last name. We found them, along with thousands of others, listed on the copper memorial wall that spans a side of the museum’s courtyard. The wall also features quotes from former residents.
Russian Jews built the Ohel Moshe Synagogue years before WWII, but it continued to serve as the center of Jewish life during it, and today is the museum’s focal point. The synagogue’s recent restoration in 2007 is obvious from the outside.
Inside, the first floor is small with a few rows of wooden pews and a simple bihma. The most notable feature is the elaborate wall hanging behind it.
Its upper floors and the two exhibition halls across the courtyard have additional materials including filmed interviews that provide first person accounts of what life was like for refugees at the time. If you, like us, have the time, you can follow over 20 different personal stories. One that stuck with me was about a man who fled to Shanghai from Europe as a young boy. He eventually immigrated to the U.S. where he became an engineer living near Pittsburgh. Another connection — that’s our hometown.
Unlike other museums we’ve visited in China (like the Former Residence of Zhou Enlai), this one didn’t gloss over hard historical truths. It praised the efforts of Dr. Ho Feng Shan, a Chinese official in Austria, who went against orders and granted visas to thousands of Jews. And it detailed the transformation of the Hongkou District from a modern-day “Noah’s Ark” to an oppressive ghetto under Japanese control between 1941-45.
If you find yourself in Shanghai one day, plan a visit to the museum and be sure to walk around the cramped lanes surrounding it to check out the European architecture that still stands.* Be on the lookout for easy-to-miss plaques that designate important historical buildings from the time.
*A PSA for any pregnant ladies out there: probably best not to go a hot, humid September day.