Surviving the War in Shanghai
The Polish Jewish refugees had heard in Japan that Shanghai was a crowded, unsanitary, and crime-ridden “hellhole.” Still, they were shocked by the sights and smells that greeted them when they disembarked. In the city’s International Settlement, hundreds of thousands of destitute Chinese lived amid a foreign community dominated by a wealthy elite of British and American traders and financiers. The refugees also found an established community of some 4,000 Russian Jews to assist them, and more than 17,000 struggling German and Austrian Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi persecution.
Trapped in Shanghai by the Pacific war, Jewish refugees suffered from shortages of food, clothing, and medicine while enduring unemployment and isolation with no news from their families. They were subjected to countless Japanese decrees and forced into a “designated area” for “stateless refugees.” Nevertheless, Japanese treatment of Jews in Shanghai was comparatively benign, a fact the refugees themselves grasped only at war’s end when they learned about the Holocaust.
German-Jewish Refugee Community
Most of Shanghai’s German and Austrian Jewish refugees lived in crowded, dilapidated housing, the worst off in barracks (ironically called Heime or homes) funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Still, these earlier arrivals were managing. Some had opened small shops and cottage industries. Others had set themselves up as builders and landlords transforming whole segments of Hongkew, an industrial area of the International Settlement heavily damaged in 1932 and 1937 during Sino-Japanese fighting.
The only woman on the overseas staff of the “Joint,” Laura Margolis first assisted German refugees trying to enter Cuba in 1939. She was sent to Shanghai in May 1941, but the outbreak of the Pacific war ended her efforts to help refugees emigrate. Margolis raised funds from Shanghai’s Jewish community and administered aid to 8,000 refugees. In early 1942 the Japanese interned her as an enemy alien. Margolis returned to the United States as part of a prisoner exchange in September 1942.
After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese authorities in Shanghai imposed stricter security measures. Accepting that their Nazi ally had left German and Austrian Jews “stateless” by stripping them of their national citizenship, in early 1943 the Japanese ordered stateless refugees – including Jews from Poland – to live within a “designated area” of the International Settlement. Limited movement and wartime deprivations made life difficult in the “Shanghai ghetto,” as residents called it, though they did not suffer the daily terrors of ghettoized Jews in Europe.
“This proclamation came as a bombshell to Shanghai Jews. . . . To the refugees this seemed like almost the last thing that could ever happen to them after what they had previously been through.”
—Laura Margolis, 1944
Culture and Politics
Polish Jewish writers used a Yiddish expression to describe Shanghai: shond khay, “a shame of a life.” Despite such sentiments, however, life went on in this foreign and isolated setting. The reading of Yiddish poems, publication of Yiddish and Polish newspapers, and creation of artwork and plays, though sporadic due to logistical problems and Japanese censorship, helped sustain the remnant of refugees transplanted from Poland. The Japanese forbade overt political expression, but Zionists and Bundists remained surreptitiously active throughout the war.
Mir Yeshiva Community
Refugee yeshiva students spent the war years continuing their studies. They used books reprinted from those few carried to Shanghai from Poland or sent to them from supporters, notably Rabbi Kalmanovich in New York. The Mir Yeshiva gathered in the Beth Aharon Synagogue built by one of the wealthiest members of Shanghai’s Sephardic Jewish community. Through the twists of fate and the choices made by their leaders that led them from Poland to Japan and Shanghai, the Mir Yeshiva emerged as the only eastern European yeshiva to survive the Holocaust intact.
End of War
Shortly before the end of the war, an American bombing of industrial Hongkew killed 40 Jewish refugees, including seven Polish Jews, and hundreds of Chinese. The entry of American troops into Shanghai provoked jubilation that was quickly tempered by news of the Holocaust. Most refugees had heard nothing since the spring of 1941 from relatives left behind in occupied Poland. It would take them many more months to learn the fate of individual family members and friends. Approximately six million Jews perished in the Holocaust, of whom three million were Polish Jews.
“The rumors that all the Jews in Poland were annihilated are true. . . . We Polish refugees go around with tear-stained faces because we left everybody on the other side. Many feel guilty that they survived, when their loved ones died a terrible death.”
—Rose Shoshana Kahan, Shanghai, September 8, 1945