During 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.
Although 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.
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.