Unlikely refuge

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The Hongkou Ghetto in Shanghai.
Photo courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Maryland

A new exhibit coming to the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore showcases the unlikely and undertold story of an East China Jewish refuge during World War II.

“It seemed an opportunity for us to share a rarely heard story that affected a fairly large community,” Jewish Museum of Maryland Executive Director Marvin Pinkert said. “In fact, the single largest city to host Jewish refugees during World War II was not New York or London, it was Shanghai. That was because Shanghai did not require a visa to enter.”


On Sunday, a week after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the museum will unveil “Jewish Refugees and Shanghai,” which runs until March 10.

One couldn’t be blamed if the exhibit’s title gives them pause, but indeed, for a decade beginning in the late 1930s, the Hongkou Ghetto in Shanghai provided sanctuary for more than 20,000 Jews fleeing Europe during pogroms.

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The exhibit is on loan from the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, which is housed in the renovated Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the former Hongkou Ghetto. Presented in both English and Chinese, it consists of 52 panels featuring photos and documents from the Hongkou Ghetto. The exhibit will also display an item from JMM’s collection, the marriage certificate and ketubah of William and Selma Kurz, a couple from Cologne, Germany, who were married in Shanghai before moving to Maryland in 1947.

The history of Jewry in Shanghai is a multifaceted tale spanning close to a century. Years before refugees settled in Hongkou, Shanghai had established Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish communities. As far back as the mid-1800s, Mizrahi Jews from Iraq and India made their way to Shanghai to pursue business opportunities, and in the early 1900s Russian Jews came to escape pogroms and the Russian Revolution. Still, another wave of Jewish refugees settled in Shanghai during World War II, after the United States and much of the western world shut its doors to Jews from Europe after the Evian Conference in France in 1938.


“That’s what left people in desperation to make their way to Shanghai,” Pinkert said. “Most of the people who made it Shanghai gave up everything to get there.”

Many took long and indirect journeys to arrive in China. Pinkert said the Kurzes settled in Shanghai after traveling by boat through the Suez Canal around Saudi Arabia to India, then Malaysia, and finally to Shanghai. It was not uncommon for those arriving in Shanghai to be destitute.

“Many arrived penniless and had to make their way,” he said. “The exhibit explains how they were able to survive the war. Some were able to go back to their professions. There was a Shanghai Dentists Association, for example, but other professions needed to find whatever labor they could.”

Selma Kurz worked as a dressmaker. But for the Jewish communities outside the Hongkou Ghetto, life wasn’t so different from the lives of American Jews, according to Pikesville resident Jack Jacob.
Born to a Russian mother and Iraqi father, Jacob and his family lived in Shanghai until 1949. He called his Jewish community outside of the ghetto in Shanghai a normal, beautiful Jewish community.

“One of the most fascinating things I can remember is that the Chinese people — the one-and-a-half billion Chinese people — left the 10,000 person Jewish enclave alone,” said Jacob. “Never bothered us, never harassed us, there was zero anti-Semitism, and we were completely left in peace. We just a lived a normal life.”

One thing Jacob’s family did have in common with the Jews from the ghetto was that once Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Communist Party of China, proclaimed the land as the People’s Republic of China in 1949, they were no longer welcome. Despite his memories of an undisrupted, peaceful Jewish community, Jacob’s family was forced to move to the then-Portuguese colony of Macau. Most Jews living in Shanghai, however, relocated and rebuilt their lives in the United States or in Israel.

Ilene Dackmon-Alon, the museum’s director of learning and visitor experience, believes current events regarding refugees and immigration make the “Jewish Refugees and Shanghai” exhibit especially poignant.

“There are parallels to current events in the United States and what was going on in World War II,” Dackmon-Alon said. “The idea of news and fake news. What does all that mean? There was a refugee problem 75 years ago and today we still hear that same rhetoric.”

Connor Graham is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of WJW.

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