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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

A small piece of good from a terrible time.


In the years following the First Opium War and the (forced) Treaty of Nanking in 1842, and the consequent establishment of Shanghai as a treaty port, areas of Shanghai were conceded to the Britain, the United States, and France between 1846 and 1849. Extraterritoriality applied, and foreigners were not subject to Chinese law. The French Concession (which never contained all that many French people – there were actually more Russians) was ruled essentially as a French colony – officials were appointed in Paris to adminster it. On the other hand, the British and American concessions were merged in 1863 to form something called the “International Settlement”, which elected the “Shanghai Municipal Council” to govern the city. On this basis, Shanghai was close to being an independent city state (albeit with some use of the Brtish and American legal systems and military) until the second world war.

This peculiar status still remained somewhat intact even after it was controlled by the Japanese from 1937 (who had started trading in Shanghai along with the Europeans in the first half of the twentieth century, and had gradually taken control of the city and other parts of China by force), and as a consequence Shanghai was the only port in the world unconditionally open to Jewish refugees from Europe. By 1941 over twenty thousand mostly German and Austrian but also Polish and Lithuanian Jews had arrived in Shanghai, creating a new Jewish area in the Hongkou area of Shanghai, which had once been the American concession but in the 1920s and 1930s was a predominantly Chinese area of the International Settlement. As I wrote last month, I went for a wander around this area when I was in Shanghai last month.


The Japanese had nothing against Jews (Japanese brutality being largely reserved for the Chinese), and the Jews in this area built what of a community they could, including the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, schools, theatre and newspapers, and they received some aid from the existing (very weallthy) Jewish community in Shanghai and from (largely American) Jewish philanthropic organisations. If you look very carefully, you can still see one or two handwritten signs which date from that era.


After 1941, partly under pressure from their new German allies, the Japanese confined the “stateless refugees” in Shanghai to one relatively small area of Hongkow. Conditions in this “Shanghai Ghetto” were not good, and the area was somewhat disease ridden. In 1945, thirty odd Jews were killed by an American bombing that was attempting to destroy a Japanese radio station.

But the vast majority of the Jews in Shanghai were still alive when the Americans liberated the city shortly afterwards. Joy at the arrival of the Americans was followed by news of the Holocaust and that virtually all Jewish friends and relatives back in Europe had been murdered, so it must have been a strange liberations. Over the next few years the Jews in Shanghai were dispersed to Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, the United States and Palestine, and relatively few were there when the communists took over in 1949.

Still, visiting the former Shanghai ghetto is a far less depressing thing than visiting almost anywhere described as a former ghetto in Europe. In Warsaw a couple of months ago I reflected that half a million Jews had once been confined to a small area there, and that basically all of them were subsequently murdered, something just too depressing for words. The ghetto in Shanghai is a place where at least twenty thousand were saved, and the memorials commemorate that. The Ohel Moishe Synagogue is a museum to the events of the time, and if you go there a nice Chinese gentleman welcomes you, shows you a film about the events, and shows you around the exhibits of photographs and documents of the time. (He also gave me a parish bulletin from a local (modern) Jewish community, inviting me to join them for shul and other events, but I am alas not Jewish so it didn’t really apply).


Other memorials nearby suggest much the same thing. There is a certain amount of pride in the fact that this is a place where people were saved.


8 comments to A small piece of good from a terrible time.

  • Hugh Greentree

    My father was an American doctor who passed through Shanghai during the late 30s. He spent 6 years in the far east between 1935 and 1941. After his death, I remember going through his papers and finding a society pages column from an English language Shanghai newspaper announcing my father’s presence in the city.

    My father took 8mm movies of the Japanese army marching into the international district of Shanghai (among other things…he shot a total of 6 hours of film from his travels…fortunately I transferred all the film to video in the late 1980s and had dad record an audio track).

    My father described the Jewish community in Shanghai (though I don’t remember those stories).

  • ic

    “There is a certain amount of pride in the fact that this is a place where people were saved.”

    Is there any pride in doing this:

    “Organ Harvesting in China’s Labor Camps”


  • Uain

    It never ceases to amaze me that how much the oh, so sophisticated humanists whose religion is, “goverment can attain paradise here on earth” seem to always be so threatened by the supposed “opiate of the masses”.

    ……. invariably tragic results for society from such self adulating “enlightened” ones.

  • During the ’30s, my mother maintained a correspondance with a cousin in Shanghai, but lost touch with him during WWII. Recently, thru a Jewish geneology mailing list, my brother has reestablished contact with that branch of the family, which has been in Australia since the end of the war.

  • John Rippengal

    Interesting that so much good can come of colonisation. When Marconi inaugurated his short wave Empire Beam System, Shanghai was included. That was 1922 and the other destinations were Nairobi, Salisbury (Rhodesia), Cape Town, Melbourne, and a town in Canada I have forgotten. My old Chinese friend who died only a few months ago aged 101 was active in helping with the installation. The cable companies – Eastern Extension and the Danish Great Northern – of course already had cables into there and had done since way back in the 19th century; a major factor in the city’s prosperity.

    Quite a few of the Jews from Shanghai transited Hong Kong. One told me he was changing his name to Anglicise it. He was called Karl Lipschitz. So what are you going to call yourself Karl? Charles Lipschitz!
    Funny how that has stuck in my mind.

  • John McVey

    The second paragraph could do with some judicious editing, which at present opens thusly:

    his peculiar status Its still…


  • Johnathan Pearce

    Michael, very interesting post. I studied a bit of this period of history but had no idea there was a Jewish community or had any idea of what had happened.

    Uain, generalisations about secular humanism are prone to error, since I am sure many such folk don’t regard mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism etc as threats at all, but do regard as threats those religions that explicitly refuse to accept any separation of religion and state (ie, Islam in most of its forms, etc).

  • warren arnett

    At the very end of WWII I flew a plane over Shanghai dropping leaflets to announce the end. Landing at Lungwha field we met with the Swiss Consul and stayed overnight. Our very presence seemed to verify the war’s end for prisoners in the camps. Understand a Shanghai paper carried the story . Can anyone verify the exact date this occured?