Tag Archives: Shanghai


Shanghai Jewish Refugee PicDuring World War II, Shanghai became one of the very few places in the world that would accept European Jews fleeing from the Nazis without documentation.  From Germany and Austria alone, 20,000 Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai beginning in 1938.  “The main thing was to get out of Germany, and really at this point, people did not care where we went, anywhere just to get away from Germany” was what Ernest Heppner recalled about fleeing his homeland and escaping to Shanghai with his mother in 1939.

Shanghai kitchenAlthough the well-established Sephardic community prepared a social service system to aid the refugees, Shanghai was still a huge culture shock. Refugees who came to Shanghai on a European liner and served breakfast, now found themselves waiting on a line in a soup kitchen.  They were very poor and jobs were hard to find.   As time went on, many started to adapt.   Some launched small cafes, shops, or small factories; others worked as doctors or architects.  The Heppners opened up a place called Café Louis, which became a popular spot for the refugees to gather.  The refugees developed their own little area called “Little Vienna” due to the cluster of European restaurants and shops.

Shanghai Cafe

They dealt with rumors of being deported without warning.  They combated diseases by soaking fruits in chemicals before eating.  Bathing was an extravagance as hot water could only be bought in stores.  Dormitories were filled over capacity and everyone shared a single washroom.  Living situations weren’t the only thing; disease was an enormous problem.  By the end of 1939, scarlet fever killed well over 100 people in shelters; and by the end of 1944, hunger and infection killed about 1,000 of the Jewish population.

Even though they managed, it still wasn’t a glamorous lifestyle for the German and Austrian Jews.  “The conditions in Shanghai were terrible, but it wasn’t Auschwitz,” said Ingrid Wilmot, a survivor of the hard times.

Most survivors left China in the late 1940s; and they refrained from talking much about the experience.  China recently opened the Shanghai Jewish Museum to honor their history.








Jewish Refugees of Shanghai during WWII

Shanghai pic_street

Jewish “Little Vienna” neighborhood in Shanghai (circa 1930s)

I’m a woman of Chinese heritage who converted to Judaism after a long personal and soul-examining journey.  The connection had surprised even me.  So much so, that I searched for a link that would tie these two seemingly different cultures together.  In an unusual discovery, I found there was a historical connection:  World War II.

Young Jewish Refugee surrounded by Chinese friends

 From the early 1930s to mid-1940s, approximately 20,000 stateless Jewish refugees fled Hitler’s wrath and horrific Nazi persecution to one of the few places that would accept them without the required and hard-to- obtain immigration visa – Shanghai.  This fascinating and little-known past had me captivated –I had to learn more.

Serendipitously, I discovered a Jewish Tour of China, being led by Professor Xu Xin of Nanjing University.  It turned out that Professor Xu Xin is one of the premiere experts on Jewish history in China.  So in 2003 I traveled with him and a small group through China and Shanghai.

The highlight of the trip for me was of course our time in Shanghai.  Here we visited the Hongkew District, walked along the Bund, where many of the buildings of the 1930s still stand, and the longtangs where the Chinese resided and operated their businesses.  We also went to the synagogue frequented by the WWII Jewish population.  Here I met the elderly Chinese caretaker who was there during those times.  I felt a bridge to the people who fascinated me so.

The intermingling of cultures here has and continues to be a source of inspiration for me, so much so that I wrote the recently published novel, Shanghai Love.

Who would have known that it would’ve caused such a barrage remarks about the subject?  I’ve been inundated with questions about the history, the people and cultures.  Happily surprised and with so much rich material to share, I’ll explore these and other related topics here in my blog.

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And please comment and let me know your thoughts and connections.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Until next time,