The Jewish Ghetto of Shanghai

The Ohel Moshe Synagogue

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.
Inside the synagogue. Location of the Torah.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 mView of tenement housing from the 2nd floor of the synagogueemorial park I saw an interesting historic sign that said “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees”.

European classical-style street scapeIt 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.

Categories: China

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One thought on “The Jewish Ghetto of Shanghai

  1. Lee Stokes

    Hi Merrilee, fascinating that Shanghai hosted a large Jewish community fleeing the Nazis and that today, religious Jewish people can’t worship in this Chinese city’s synagogue. I knew about Jewish people managing to flee to Latin America and Britain but I didn’t know they had also fled to China and made a successful life there.

    The story reminds me of my last trip to Istanbul and my visit to the Aghia Sophia Christian Cathedral, which the Turks turned into a museum, then a mosque, then a museum again and now want to turn it back into a mosque. But the Turkish authorities have never allowed the dwindling original Christian population of the city to worship in Aghia Sophia, which is a shame as it is one of the most beautiful churches in the world.

    I look forward to more of your great stories from China!

    P.S. Enjoyed hearing about the English Corner in your previous blog and how educated Chinese people believe that their country is a superpower to challenge the United States. It looks like all of us in the West are going to have to work harder and smarter or the Asian tigers will leave us behind!

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