“Shanghai: The Last Jewish Refuge” by ECHS Joshua Lee Earns Place at National History Day in Washington DC

South San Francisco, CA   May 14, 2016    Submitted by John Horgan, SSFUSD & Mr Daniel Lunt, ECHS Principal

El Camino HS Student to Compete in History Day Contest

A research paper written by Joshua Lee, a student at El Camino High School, has been selected to be part of National History Day competition scheduled next month in Washington, D.C. His treatise, “Shanghai: The Last Jewish Refuge,” involves the history of Jewish Holocaust refugees living in Shanghai. The paper was chosen recently as a California representative in the National History Day competition.




Shanghai, the Last Jewish Refuge

Joshua Lee

National History Day

Individual Paper – Senior Division






It is the summer of 1937. The war had not yet begun, at least not until August. The Japanese have seized the old capital of Peking and are steadily marching south. Shanghai, the great metropolis of the East, sits at a strategic harbor to the Pacific. China mobilizes its forces to take Shanghai out of Japanese influence. As the weeks go by, tensions arise. Eventually, on the morning of August 13th, Chinese forces skirmished with the Japanese and by sunset, the Japanese began occupying major parts of the city. The Chinese fought hard against the Japanese army through the following months, but by November, the enemy had conducted an amphibious landing and captured the city. The Battle of Shanghai was the first major conflict to take place in front of an international community, which would report it firsthand (Peck). It would escalate tensions between the Japanese and the local communities, leading to increased suspicion and isolation.  Shanghai was an open city at this point in time, with a loose immigration policy for all people and would be the only city to accept Jewish refugees. In the period from 1939-1945 Jewish immigrants to Shanghai explored dangerous circumstances as refugees and encountered varying degrees of attention from other foreign communities, while facing struggles settling in their own native community in the Shanghai area; these events would prove a challenge to preserve Jewish culture and the heritage of their people.


The Jewish people at this time were at great risk due to the rise of Nazi Germany and its belief in Aryan supremacy. Many Germans assumed the Jewish community was to blame for many problems that occurred after the First World War and Germany’s descent into economic failure. The rise of Hitler would alert the European Jews to their impending fate, and so many left for other countries, such as the United States, the British Mandate of Palestine, and the United Kingdom. As 1939 dawned it became evident that these countries would not be entirely open to a large influx of Jewish refugees. Their options tightened, many departed for Shanghai, the last city to open their doors as a refuge. There were already two other groups of Jews in Shanghai at this time, the wealthy Sephardic Jews from Britain and Iran, and the Ashkenazi Jews who were from Russia (Shanghai). The newly arrived refugees from Europe came to a squalid yet splendorous city, where wild parties thrived and glowing lights shined next to crowded housing and filthy conditions- all infused with a rich multicultural heritage (Gluckman).


“The Paris of the East”, as it was commonly known, grew up as a trading port for the Western powers. The title suits the city well as the Western-influenced metropolis was first opened to foreign trade and occupation in 1842 as a result of the Opium Wars, in which the city blossomed under the watch of its imperial overseers. Shanghai was divided into four main districts, the International Settlement occupied by the British and the Americans, the Japanese section of the city, the French Concession, and the old Chinese city. Each part of the international community became an extension of its colonial homeland, with the French Concession and International Settlement having a distinctly Western design with many buildings akin to those in Britain or America. Once arriving in Shanghai, the Jews could have lived anywhere in China. However, it is highly likely that many of the Jews settled in the International Settlement as most had come from Europe and wanted a smooth transition into their new lives, finding similarities with their culture and community (Ebeling).


The Jewish people had no idea about their future or how they would survive, but for some of the refugees that were leaving the frigid and war-torn landscape of Europe the only option left was Shanghai. It would be a perilous and frightening journey, with many obstacles and constraints along the way needing to be overcome. In the blink of an eye, the Jewish people in German-occupied territories had their livelihoods and fortunes whisked away; the noose on their lives growing ever tighter. Many Jewish people as a result needed to find passage out of Europe and the only legal way out was through visas issued by various consulates, which were not easily obtained. Some officials were willing to risk their positions to help the fleeing Jewish population, such as Dr. Feng Shan Ho, a Chinese diplomat operating in Vienna. He issued many hundreds of Chinese visas against the warnings of his superior, Chen Jia, the Chinese ambassador to Berlin. Chen didn’t want to stir up any trouble with Germany and tried to stop Dr. Ho’s actions. But the visas kept coming, with many Jews across Europe finding hope (Ho). In an interview with the Times of Israel, Nina Admoni, a former Jewish inhabitant of Shanghai who originally lived in Poland, reported that “’on the basis of [an end destination visa], the Japanese consul gave us a transit visa (in 1940), and we also got an exit visa from the Soviets’ — not a small feat at the time because people could not ‘come and go as they pleased,’” (Shmulovich). In other words, there were many legal processes that the emigrants had to go through and although the author does not say directly it can be implied that there was a shrinking window of escape for the departing refugees due to prejudices against Jews overwhelming host countries, although the trip to Shanghai would be just as harrowing. On the way to Shanghai refugees took many forms of transportation, like when Admoni “‘took a train to Moscow, and then the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, a 10-day trip. You had to pay in dollars,’ Nina said. And it was extremely dangerous to be found with dollars at that time…The family then took a ship from Vladivostok to Suruga, a Japanese port” (Shmulovich). The journey was very lengthy and there were many risks involved in transit and monetary circumstances. The importance of the trip is that the Jewish people had to use many means to get out of Europe, even by finagling the smallest opportunity for a chance at freedom.


They could be placed in old ships and set adrift on the East China Sea, so that they would eventually die of hunger; they could be forced to toil themselves to death in the abandoned salt-mines on the upper reaches of the Huangpu River; or the Japanese could set up a concentration camp on Chongming Island, where the Jews would be subjected to medical experiments and die of their sufferings. (Guang)


At this point in time the general Asian opinion of the Jewish population was one of ambiguity, and “as a result of the Confucian cultural tradition, East Asia did not foster the same religious, racial, and cultural prejudices against Jews, which were prevalent in Christian Europe” (Guang). The Japanese found killing innocent Jews that had nothing to do with their imperialist ambitions a difficult task that was morally challenging to their beliefs. It is a striking contrast to the startling violence and brutality that the Imperial Japanese Army conducted on the native Chinese, whom they treated like animals. The alliance with the Third Reich and pressure from the German government eventually forced the Japanese to concede to the Meisinger Plan, and “in 1943, pushed by their German allies, the city’s Japanese military authority drove Jewish refugees to a ‘stateless- refugee-defined ghetto’” (Yan). The Japanese thus would eventually capitulate but not implement the plan fully, due to internal conflicts which are further evidenced by the fact that “Mr. Shibata, Japanese Vice-Consul in Shanghai, was arrested because he gave secret support to Jews” (Guang). The reaction of the Germans and the Japanese would put the Jewish community on high alert as they would encounter potentially dangerous relations and have a precarious reputation in Shanghai with the stateless Jews being in the midst of a situation that they could not control.


In addition to the Meisinger Plan, the Jewish community in Shanghai faced a slow degradation of their new livelihoods as the war tightened everyone’s resources and the Japanese restricted the actions of the Jewish community. In Shanghai, life was difficult for new immigrants and “in his memoir, [Michael] Blumenthal wrote that Jewish emigres expected life in Shanghai to be challenging but they had few other options. His parents tried to earn what little money they could trading petty items” (Yan) and With the advent of the war in the Pacific, events took a turn for the worse for the refugees when the transmission of private funds, as well as public funds from the American Joint, was forbidden by the United States government. Representatives of the Joint in Shanghai borrowed money locally for almost a year, on the Joint’s postwar repayment guarantee, though many refugees were still forced to sell their last belongings to buy food. (Shanghai)


Monetarily the Jewish people had been constrained as the authors have explained; this would be one of the many problems of daily life that would be encountered in Shanghai, especially as the Japanese had immense control over the city in the 1940s. The establishment of the Shanghai ghetto in 1943 would force the Jewish community to operate entirely within the ghetto walls; the area was regulated constantly by the Japanese, and “Among them was a short little fellow by name of Ghoya whose responsibility it was to issue passes for you to leave the ghetto if you had to… Sometimes he give you a pass and sometimes he doesn’t. If you want a month’s pass, he would give you a day’s pass” (Heppner).  The Japanese thus strictly controlled who went in and out of the ghetto area, enforcing it almost as the Germans had done by not necessarily having a standard for how many would be able to pass through. This would force the Jews to rely on themselves and build a stronger Jewish community in Shanghai, which would be strengthened by the re-establishment of Jewish schools and cultural centers that were transplanted from the chaos of Europe. According to Moses Zupnik, a rabbi that taught at the Mir Yeshiva school, “When we called to Shanghai that we have to come there, in 1940, [I asked] ‘where will I get to put 300 people?’ ‘Here, you got the synagogue, use it as you wish.’ So… it was a very large synagogue–at the beginning we slept in the corridors and there was a dining room and there was a study hall” (Zupnik).  Jewish rituals and culture were maintained by opening and utilizing the spaces available in the ghetto along with the assistance and contributions of the locals nearby. The Jews in Shanghai would be alienated by the other communities and thus encounter problems due to the limited options open to the Jews and the closing of legal channels to transport money and other important resources; the constraints helped them come together as one cultural group through the tumultuous years of the Second World War while limiting their exchanges outside of their community.


At the end of the war, the foreign legations and ethnic communities began to fade away as the International Settlement and other foreign concessions were handed over to the Republic of China. Slowly, many of the city’s international inhabitants trickled out, departing for new destinations across the world. Along with the rest of the foreign population, the Jewish communities in Shanghai felt no reason to stay behind, aside from fond memories. This exodus would be further hastened by events four years later. Shanghai in May 1949 was a seemingly placid city with life as it was continuing as usual. But trouble brewed right outside the city walls. According to a telegram from the American consul-general in Shanghai,


Powerful Shanghai interests deeming military defense city hopeless and anxious minimize destruction and make best of inevitable Communist occupation are seeking complete secret arrangements with Communists looking to early takeover city by intermediate regime made up of various local groups (Chambers Commerce, guilds, etc.) and backed by Yang Hu-Tu Yueh-sheng Green-Red Gangs organization …This plan envisages prior neutralization of at least part Nationalist troops and police through propaganda or bribery and special steps to protect vital properties and (allegedly) foreign lives” (Cabot)


Shanghai thus was threatened by the Communists, who had just captured the capital of Nanjing and were only just a short distance away up the river. Many of the Jewish refugees, alarmed at the potential danger of remaining in the city, fled to places like the newly created nation of Israel or the United States and settled as refugees, their exodus finally over. The issue of refugee crises and assisting people groups who needed help, however, would be a tense issue that would echo throughout the years to come.


The Jewish community would experience many perils and gain much support through the ten years that they were sheltered in Shanghai. They had to explore new situations as they were at increasing risk of being captured or restricted both on the way to China and in Shanghai. This would force them to be alert and promote unity and amalgamation among the Jewish community into a distinct group. The Shanghai Jews would also encounter problems in their living situations and dangerous relations with other foreign communities. This would be an easier transition as Jews could adjust to the new community through the existing Jewish population. The Jewish migration to Shanghai would be significant as it would retain Jewish heritage at a time where their culture was in great danger; the protection and rescue of the Mir Yeshiva in Shanghai was a significant preservation of Jewish tradition. The school would be the only one from Europe to survive the Holocaust with minimal damage, as others were destroyed by the Axis powers. Today, the foreign legations and the Jewish ghetto have long disappeared from Shanghai, but throughout the world, many descendants of Jewish refugees are alive as a result of their safe haven in the Paris of the East.



Works Cited

Primary Sources

Cabot, John M. “Document 344.” Telegram to Secretary of State Dean Acheson. 4 May 1949.

Foreign Relations of the United States 1949 Volume VIII, The Far East: China, 1949, U.S. Department of State: The Office of the Historian. John M. Cabot, the American consul-general in Shanghai, underlines the urgency and chaotic situation of Shanghai in 1949, showing how the most powerful Shanghai businessmen and foreign officials are bracing for the Communist invasion and many foreigners are supposedly under protection. Many foreigners are preparing to leave as even the wealthy Shanghainese are securing their passage and lives.

Gluckman, Ron. “From Shanghai to Vegas.” Ron Gluckman’s Reporting Pages. N.p., Sept. 1996.

Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <http://www.gluckman.com/ShanghaiJews2.html#exaltedperiod>. Ron Gluckman speaks of the influence and glamour of the city of Shanghai during its golden age before the war began, with wild parties, extravagant abundance, and a center of culture and wonder; how it all went away during the resulting World War and the Communist Revolution, and the fading past of the survivors. This connects to exchange as the foreigners were able to communicate with other inhabitants and survivors from the time, and revel in the once glorious city.


Heppner, Ernest G. “Polish Jewish Refugees in the Shanghai Ghetto,1941-1945.” Interview by

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1999. Web. 2 Nov. 2015. <https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_oi.php?ModuleId=10006236&MediaId=4016>. Ernest G. Heppner details the process that kept Jews that lived in Shanghai within the Hongkou Ghetto and their gradual acceptance of their fate within the walls of the isolated ghetto. This connects to encounter as they encountered new problems with their status as “stateless refugees”.

Ho, Manli. “On the Wings of the Phoenix: Dr. Feng Shan Ho and the Rescue of Austrian Jews.”

Chinese Historical Society of America. 965 Clay Street, San Francisco, CA 94108. 2012. This exhibit on the Chinese diplomat Dr. Feng Shan Ho featured at the Chinese Historical Society of America provided a great deal of information on the rescue of Jewish refugees and their transfer to Shanghai during the early years of the war. It showed how many refugees were stranded and were able to find a ticket of safety out of Europe. This exhibit also was the primary inspiration for writing this paper as it had been an intriguing topic that warranted investigation to the fate of the Jewish population after their departure.


Shmulovich, Michal. “Saved in Shanghai – a Young Girl’s Story Highlights a Rare WWII Place

of Refuge.” The Times of Israel. The Times of Israel, 15 Aug. 2012. Web. 5 Oct. 2015. <http://www.timesofisrael.com/a-young-jewish-girls-escape-from-death-to-idyllic-shanghai-during-world-war-ii/>. Michal Shmulovich talks about how the Jews’ journey to and establishment in Shanghai during WWII was very perilous and dangerous; many Jews did not know where to go and how. Many stopped over at cities like Kobe, Japan and Vladivostok, Russia before traveling on. Once the journey ended in Shanghai, many were dismayed at having arrived at a wild city with crowds, filth, and scarcity. The Jewish arrivals settled down and interacted with the local Chinese and other foreigners in the concessions, until the arrival of the Axis powers and the occupation of the city by the Japanese. They were sent to live in the Hongkou Ghetto as a partial concession to the Meisinger Plan.

Zupnik, Moses. “Mir Yeshiva — Oral History.” Interview by United States Holocaust Memorial

Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1999. Web. 28 Jan. 2016. <https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_oi.php?MediaId=5269>. Moses Zupnik details the conditions the Jewish schools had to adapt to during the war as they were relocated form Lithuania and had to go to Shanghai, encountering less than ideal conditions but making the best of it. This further connects to encounter as they came across numerous problems and shortages but managed to pull through, sustaining Jewish culture and being the only Jewish school to escape the Holocaust in Europe.


Secondary Sources

Ebeling, Richard. “Shanghai’s History: A Tale of Successful Capitalism.” Somewhat

Reasonable. The Heartland Institute, 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Jan. 2016. <http://blog.heartland.org/2014/01/shanghais-history-a-tale-of-successful-capitalism/>. Richard Ebeling speaks of the city of Shanghai and its prominence as the great metropolis of the East along with its great diversity and opportunities. The article also details the many cultural institutions and entertainments, with its divisions among races and colonialists. This would allow openings for the Jews and allow them to flourish in a relatively free city, albeit under colonial and Japanese rule during the 1940s.

Guang, Pan. “Shanghai: A Haven for Holocaust Victims.” The Holocaust and the United Nations

Outreach Programme. United Nations, 17 Jan. 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2015. <http://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/docs/paper15.shtml>. Pan Guang documents Shanghai’s Jewish population grew during the last years of the nineteenth century and it blossomed into a diverse community with three major Jewish groups: the Sephardic Jews from Britain, Iraq, and British colonies; the Ashkenazi Jews from Russia, and the German and Austrian Jews. They were able to establish their own European-style communities with grocers, pharmacies, and bakeries, among other things. The Jews of Shanghai prospered until the Second World War, where the occupying Japanese were advised by the Germans to implement the Meisinger Plan to exterminate the Jews through many methods. The Shanghai Jews escaped as anti-Semitism was not as prevalent in East Asia as in Europe.


Peck, Michael. “Shanghai 1937 Is China’s Forgotten Stalingrad.” War Is Boring. A Medium

Corporation, 15 Apr. 2014. Web. 14 Jan. 2016. <https://medium.com/war-is-boring/shanghai-1937-is-chinas-forgotten-stalingrad-d86975c6cdb0#.9mtou3cgb>. Michael Peck describes the tense situation and internal conflicts in the city leading up to the climactic Battle of Shanghai, where the Japanese went out in full force. This helped to set the stage for the chaotic and harrowing environment the Jewish people had to face when arriving from Europe.

“Shanghai.” Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Ed. Israel Gutman. New York: Macmillan Reference

USA, 1990. N. pag. World History in Context. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. <http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/whic/ReferenceDetailsPage/ReferenceDetailsWindow?failOverType=&query=&prodId=WHIC&windowstate=normal&contentModules=&display-query=&mode=view&displayGroupName=Reference&limiter=&currPage=&disableHighlighting=false&displayGroups=&sortBy=&search_within_results=&p=WHIC:UHIC&action=e&catId=&activityType=&scanId=&documentId=GALE|BT2339204025&source=Bookmark&u=plan_smcol&jsid=b5e8a96fe74124bf0dfd8f48f205a28a>. Israel Gutman speaks of the various aspects of the Jewish community in Shanghai and establishes the basic foundations and chronology of the immigrants and the various events during the Second World War. The text also talks about how the various Jewish populations came to Shanghai and established their foothold in China. It documents their survival story and how they were affected by the Holocaust in Europe, encountering new problems with the foreign powers.


Yan, Alice. “How Shanghai Opened Its Doors to Jews Fleeing Nazi Persecution.” South China

Morning Post. N.p., 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 2 Nov. 2015. <http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1767647/how-shanghai-opened-its-doors-jews-fleeing-nazi>. Alice Yan details the many hardships the Shanghai Jewish community experienced during the Second World War, with disease, unemployment, and corruption under the rule of the Japanese; by 1945 American bombings had destroyed much of the city and the foreign community struggled.



1 comment for ““Shanghai: The Last Jewish Refuge” by ECHS Joshua Lee Earns Place at National History Day in Washington DC

  1. Donna Fentanes
    May 16, 2016 at 8:29 am

    Great essay, Joshua. Good luck in DC. Thank you for posting.

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