Several waves of Jewish refugees arrived in China over the centuries, but the largest influx was around the start of the Second World War. Most of the more than 20,000 who were fleeing the Nazis survived the war living in a Jewish ghetto in the area of Shanghai known as Hongkou.
The Ohel Moshe Synagogue (see photo of brick building on right), now a museum, was built by Russian Jews in 1927. It lies in the heart of the old ghetto where the occupying forces of the Japanese forced Jews to move to in 1943. Here I met a lady from Australia who said she was friends with a couple of survivors of this ghetto; hence the reason for her visit.
The upper level of the synagogue looks out over the rooftops of the surrounding tenement buildings which had been occupied by the Jews. Exploration of the neighborhood revealed an architectural complex in European classical style which became known as “Little Vienna” during World War II (see streetscape photo). It is now part of a bustling street scene full of Chinese doing their daily business.
Nearby was an Art Deco roof garden restaurant which was a popular gathering place in the ghetto during the war. In a memorial park I saw an interesting historic sign that said “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees”.
It was with mixed emotions that I left the former ghetto that day. I had just immersed myself in a piece of world history – what I came to think of as the good, bad and the ugly. The good – that Shanghai was one of the few safe havens for Jews fleeing the Holocaust in Europe. The bad – that none of the 3000 Jews who live in Shanghai today are able to pray in the beautifully renovated Obel Moshe Synagogue because it is a museum. The ugly – that there needed to be a “Jewish isolated zone” in China in the first place.