American-China Public Affairs Institute screens “Shanghai Ghetto”

On Tuesday, September 8, the American-China Public Affairs Institute (ACPAI) organized an evening program around the 2002 documentary, “Shanghai Ghetto,” which chronicles the little known (at least in the U.S.) World War II Jewish community established there when 23,000 or so European Jews found a safe haven there, when so many other countries rejected refugees escaping Nazi Germany.

“Shanghai Ghetto” was not an easy film to make because Beijing for its own reasons was still restricting access to what it deemed controversial subjects. Thus, in April 2000 the filmmakers, Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann entered China clandestinely to film scenes (with a digital camera) at the site of the Jewish ghetto, which had hardly changed since the end of the war. In fact, the ghetto was just a poor neighborhood into which the Jews were pushed. It wasn’t surrounded by a wall, as opposed to the kind of ghetto called to mind by Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. In that neighborhood, known as Hongkou, the Jewish refugees and about 100,000 working class Chinese and peasants lived together 1943-1945 amicably if without much interchange because of language and cultural differences.

Shanghai was always a city of complex ways. Famous as the ‘Paris of the East,’ pre-WWII Shanghai is known to Americans as a city of gangsters, warlords and sin. WWII began in 1937 in the Far East and the Battle of Shanghai in 1937 ended with the city occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army. The Japanese military government adopted a policy of allowing entry without visas or passports. Thus, the answer to the question, why did European Jews head for Shanghai, is that simple: Shanghai was an open city to foreigners. The arriving Ashkenazi Jews, mainly German and East European, found two other Jewish communities already established. The first was comprised of wealthy Baghdadi (i.e. Iraqi) Jews such as the Kadoorie and Sassoon families that had been doing business there since the early 20th century. (Victor Sassoon built the Cathay Hotel, later the Peace Hotel, in 1929). The other group was made up of Russian Jews who had fled the pogroms in the Russian Empire before the revolution. (There was another modest-sized Russian Jewish community in Harbin, the capital of Chinese Manchuria that grew up in the last half of the 19th century based on business and trade.

As of November 1941 the Japanese occupiers, because they wanted the Jews under their strict control, had moved them into the one square mile area in Hongkou that became the ghetto neighborhood. Nazi emissaries asked the Shanghai military government to deliver up the Jews but the Japanese refused.

“Shanghai Ghetto” combines archive and new film footage along with extended recollections of several Jews who were children at the time. They recount how their families survived, what it was like to live among a densely populated Chinese community within which they were isolated, and what their feelings are about the experience fifty years later. After a difficult initial period, the Shanghai Jews of Hongkou constructed a life of their own—building educational and social institutions, a central synagogue, newspapers and a remarkable local culture melded out of Jewish people from various countries and backgrounds. The ghetto was liberated September 3, 1945. Nearly all the Shanghai Jews soon left for new destinations: most to the U.S. and the new State of Israel, a few to other countries. In 1957, it was estimated that only a hundred or so remained.

In 1992, diplomatic relations were established between China and Israel, with the Shanghai ghetto experience becoming a reference for a positive shared Sino-American history. Naturally the American Jewish community followed this story with great interest as well. Marking this piece of history, a Chinese safe haven for Jews in WWI, was the American-China Public Affairs Institute’s reason for commemorating the event.

Mr. Fred Teng, the president of ACPAI, put together a cosmopolitan occasion, with representatives of American Jewish and Chinese organizations, and several consular officials: the People’s Republic of China’s New York consul, and those of Russia, Israel, Australia and Denmark. This sort of positive civil society connection, cross-cutting whatever conflicts might complicate Sino-American relations, is, he believes, an example of how establishing a national presence in another country creates an influence in how one government regards another. The strong Chinese-American community, especially with so many foreign born, gives Beijing’s government a reason to regard America sympathetically, i.e. not only as a foreign state with which it may have conflicting interests but as a society in which the People’s Republic of China has a permanent stake.