Known for its booming commerce, growing prestige and the ever-impressive skyline of Lujiazui, Shanghai is fast becoming a masterpiece of a city. It is the face of modern China, illuminating the country’s rapid economic development and success to the world, but, beyond the bright lights and tall towers, there is more to this city than meets the eye. Whilst many are acquainted with Shanghai’s colourful history, few Westerners are aware of Shanghai’s unique heritage in offering amnesty to Jewish refugees from the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s. With an estimated 20 to 30 thousand European Jews having settled temporarily in Shanghai during the wartime era, this incredible and heart-warming story is articulated beautifully in what is known as the “Jewish Refugees Museum” in Hongkou district. Having visited this museum during my first time in Shanghai, it proved itself to be amongst the best sites I went to in the city.
The Museum is built within the site of an old Synagogue, known as the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, established by Russians in the early 20th century, coming to prominence as the heart of the refugee community. Fleeing the Holocaust in Europe and with few options nearby, many refugees were forced to turn Eastwards to China for safety, one of the few countries which accepted them at the time. Despite the fact that the Japanese, allied to Germany, later occupied the city and forced the refugees into a squalor area known as the “Shanghai Ghetto”, ultimately the Shanghai Jewish community did not fall victim to the tragedies in Europe. Following the end of World War II, the majority of the refugees returned home, nevertheless expressing gratitude to the compassion shown by the residents of Shanghai.
These events in mind, the Museum presents the stories of the refugees and the wider historical events with great detail, quality and empathy. Accurately and powerfully, the visitor is struck by the horrors and plights of the Holocaust whilst being filled with the hope and sadness of the refugee journey, directly dipping into the words of those who experienced it and their life within China. The Synagogue itself has been preserved well, with many distinctive things to note within and around the facility, including a commemorative plaque given by the government of Israel, accompanied with a glass star of David inscribed in Hebrew with the Torah. Outside in the courtyard stands an enormous metal memorial wall, inscribed with the names of thousands of refugees. All of these things together create a solemn and emotional atmosphere, one which is unlikely to be found in any other part of the city.
Above all, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is incredible. It demonstrates to the visitor a new side to the city, and to China as a whole, which is often never recognised in popular connotations. The museum and its historical legacy is powerful, it stands as a testimony to the humanitarian and egalitarian nature of Chinese culture, elucidating the country’s history to us on a different angle. If you’re planning to visit Shanghai, you will without a doubt have all the usual big-name sites on your bucketlist, but don’t forget here, for all it may be small, it will undoubtedly prove to deliver a stronger experience than the Oriental Pearl Tower and such can. Thus, in more ways than none, the Jewish Refugees Museum shows us Shanghai at its very best.