Shanghai: China’s Safe Haven

Many Austrian Jews Survived the Holocaust by Finding Refuge In the World’s Only Visa-Free Entry Port Following the Anschuluss

News | Dominik Holter | May 2008

Emerging from the metro in Shanghai’s Hongkou district, visitors are greeted not by the gracious historic street scape of archways and mosaic but by something unexpected:

demolition. An entire block of historic brick is being knocked down to make way for new development.

This scene is a stark contrast to the newly renovated Ohel Moishe Synagogue just a few hundred meters down the road and the brick buildings from the 1930’s in the next street. That is what the tourists are coming for, some of whom I guide through the quarter, where I work as an Austrian Holocaust Memorial Staffer at the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai (CJSS), which is part of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. My work concerns the history of the Jewish emigration to Shanghai during the 1930’s and 1940’s, to which the historic buildings are testimony.

Today, Shanghai is China’s largest city – home to over 18 million people. The mega-metropolis is located on the country’s East Coast in the Yangtze River Delta, one of the parts of China that is bustling with economic activity. One result of the economic boom is a building frenzy, which makes the demolition of old quarters a common sight all over town.

Rapid urbanization and rising incomes generate demand for modern, spacious apartments that are replacing more traditional forms of housing, like Beijing’s famed Siheyuan, the single-storey brick houses built around courtyards and squares, or Shanghai’s 1930’s brick housing, in some parts of the city, reminiscent of western neo-Federal and Georgian styles of architecture. The residents of the traditional buildings are often left with little compensation to relocate and are forced to move to the outskirts of town, where housing is still affordable.

At the demolition site in Hongkou, the ground is covered with bricks; in one spot only the tiled floor of what must have been an elegant building is still largely intact. Next to this are structures still being dismantled: Wooden beams that once supported roof-tiles stand erect in the sky, surrounded by the remainder of the houses they once protected. Everything that could be of use has long been stripped away. It is the grime on the walls that is the reminder that this is a demolition site. Otherwise they could be mistaken for buildings under construction.

This patch of valuable land is right in the heart of the former ‘Area for Stateless Refugees.’ Many of the original buildings still exist and the district government of Hongkou is renovating some of them. The former Ohel Moishe Synagogue has just been renovated according to the original plans from 1927. Now it houses the "Shanghai Museum for Holocaust Victims," telling the story of the temporary Jewish emigration from Europe. The historic buildings in the side street next to the museum are in a fairly good condition and do not seem to be threatened. In the next street over, the building that used to house the headquarters of the Joint Distribution Committee that coordinated relief efforts is adorned with a large plaque relating the building’s historic significance.

Just opposite, a four-storey beauty made of bricks is Huoshan Park, which is the location of the Memorial for the ‘Area of Stateless Refugees.’ A few meters down the road another row of brick buildings was just renovated a few years ago. In addition, some Jewish Studies scholars here are trying to convince the district government to renovate the former Roy Rooftop Restaurant, which was commonly known as the "Little Vienna Café," and was located on the rooftop of the Broadway Theatre.

The demolition and renovation seem like contradictory developments, but the exact opposite is true: Both are commercial ventures. The renovated sites bring in tourists to Shanghai: an Asian city with Jewish heritage. In the age of global competition for tourist dollars, this is a valuable asset.

Meanwhile, the demolition makes place for new buildings, which rise much higher than the two to three story buildings they replace and thus offer considerably more space to rent and sell. Despite efforts by the government to cool down the speculative market, it is still hot and prices promise to keep rising. Hongkou is not right downtown, but close enough to be very interesting for developers.

Shanghai is proud of the history of the Stateless Refugees, and the area is the most visible reminder of the roughly 20,000 Jews and others who came to Shanghai, among them roughly 4500 from Austria. Many survived the Holocaust in the city by the Huangpu river, because Shanghai was the only open port in the world. First under international governance and later occupied by the Japanese, Shanghai did not require an entry visa. For the vast majority of refugees who came here, Shanghai was the only place they could go.

The ‘Area for Stateless Refugees’ was established in 1943 by the Japanese occupiers, seemingly in reaction to prodding from Nazi Germany that preferred to see the Shanghai Jews exterminated. They offered the Japanese help in doing so - free of charge.

Instead, the vast majority of Jews who had fled to Shanghai were forced to stay there. Many could not afford the expensive French Concession in downtown Shanghai, and their poverty meant that a great many of Hongkou’s Jews had to rely on relief from the Joint Distribution Committee – called "the Joint" – that maintained shelters in Hongkou for those who could not afford anything else.

From 1943 onwards, even among those who could afford it, few were allowed to live outside the area. Some were given day permits to leave the area, which was not walled or fenced but was guarded, to pursue jobs outside.

When the German and Austrian refugees arrived, they brought their traditions with them. Music, food, theatre, and cabaret from Vienna and Berlin were introduced to Shanghai. When the refugees were transferred to Hongkou, their culture and life followed them. So among the desperation, hopelessness and poverty, the "Little Vienna Café" serving Viennese coffee and Bohemian desserts was open and busy.

In her memoir Shanghai Diaries, Ursula Bacon describes the music, art and books as "the inspiration to help us rise above our misery." She also recalls the goods from the European vendors, who had been forced to relocate there, European clothing, pieces of crystal, porcelain, table linens, underwear, curtains, velvet pillows and prayer shawls. The restaurants, shops and medical practices with signs in German led Hongkou to being called "Little Vienna" and "Little Berlin." And while some of this unique history is slowly being lost to the pressures of China’s economic boom, some also is being preserved.

Since 2006, the Austrian Service Abroad, a non-profit NGO, has been sending an Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servant each year to the Center of Jewish Studies on behalf of the Austrian Government to commemorate the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust and celebrate the unique role Shanghai played in saving some of them. Which was how I came to Shanghai.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of the Center for Jewish Studies Shanghai, Austrian Service Abroad or the Austrian Federal Government.


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