*Extermination and the Museum Complex: Jews in Wartime Shanghai

I have just returned from visiting Shanghai’s Jewish Refugees Museum, located in the city’s Hongkou District. The museum, a modest affair, is located on the site of the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue, and it bears witness to the unusual and inspiring history of Shanghai’s Jews. From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai accepted 30,000 Jews while much of Europe quietly went about the business of massacring them and planning for the ‘Final Solution’. Shanghai accepted more Jews in this period than Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and British India put together. (Let me underscore the fact that India was under colonial occupation; pre-colonial India was wonderfully hospitable to the Jews.) As Germany went down to defeat, and, in the years ahead, the state of Israel was born, the Jews who had found shelter in Shanghai left China. Nothing is left of Shanghai’s wartime Jewish community, and in the hour or two I was at the museum there were only three other visitors.

The history of Jews in China does not commence in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II. A Jewish community flourished in Kaifeng during the Song dynasty (908-1279 CE), and its presence over the next several centuries is attested to in various documents. In the nineteenth century, the Sassoon family, originating in Baghdad, relocated to India and in the decades ahead created a worldwide financial empire. Hong Kong and Shanghai were among the principal outposts of that empire. The backbone of the Sephardic Jewish community’s wealth was the hugely exploitive opium trade, but nevertheless the Jewish community appears not to have suffered any distress under the Chinese. The most interesting segment of the history of Jews in China perhaps dates to the 1930s, when Shanghai became a haven for them as they faced persecution and death in Europe. An area surrounding what is now the museum was set up as the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees”, and a plaque in the nearby Huo Shan Park now marks the wartime Jewish presence in Shanghai. For the ten years during which European Jews sought shelter in Shanghai, they ran schools, synagogues, businesses, and newspapers in English, German, and Yiddish, among them the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle.

Under relentless pressure from the Nazis, the Japanese military commander forced the stateless refugees from Europe into a ghetto, but he resisted calls to the very end to impose the ‘Final Solution’. In nearby Nanking, by contrast, the Japanese had displayed a ravenous appetite for death and destruction. Whatever the reasons that impelled the Japanese commander, who styled himself “King of the Jews”, to disregard the wishes of the Nazi leadership, there is in these circumstances more than a mere hint that even the most autocratic or totalitarian systems are not as closed as one might imagine. Perhaps the Japanese were not moved by considerations of anti-Semitism; perhaps, notwithstanding the alliance with Nazi Germany, they understood that in the Nazi order of things, the Japanese were not unlike the Jews in being far removed from the ideal Teutonic type. Perhaps, too, they were simply moved by the plight of the Jews. However much the inclination to stress the barbarousness of killers, it is their ordinariness that equally compels attention.

Moving as is the museum, it is at the same time a troubling tribute to Jewish history and the resilience of the Jews. In the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the permanent exhibition on the Holocaust ends with a little exhibit on the Nazi plan to build, after the Final Solution had been implemented, a comprehensive museum of Jewish history and culture. Though the Nazis could not countenance the idea of leaving alive any Jews, they nonetheless had an ardent desire to create a complete archive of Jewish history. The Nazis cannot be described as being alone in displaying this tendency: to match the enormous holocaust perpetrated against the native American population, the United States has now built a gigantic and loving tribute to the native Americans in the shape of the “National Museum of the American Indian” in the nation’s capital. The culture of the other is always a difficult affair, but it can always be celebrated through the museum complex. That has been, to a great extent, the history of the museum in the modern West, and the museum complex’s deep and hidden links to extermination and the annihilationist tendency should not be underestimated.

Designated Areas for Stateless Refugees, Shanghai.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

Designated Areas for Stateless Refugees, Shanghai. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.


2 thoughts on “*Extermination and the Museum Complex: Jews in Wartime Shanghai

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your blog with us, Vinay. I enjoyed reading your piece on the Jewish museum in Shanghai. There is a documentary called Shanghai Ghetto that covers the history of what you discuss here. I haven’t seen the film myself but thought it might be of interest to you.

    I was surprised to learn that the Nazis were planning to build a museum of Jewish history. What do you think is the link between the desire for the annihilation of the Other and the disire to memorialize them? Kristeva’s idea of abjection comes to mind and so does Ruth Gilmore’s idea of a “perpetual ememy who always has to be fought but cannot be vanquished.” Of course, Gilmore is talking about the way the U.S. political system functions, so it’s not really the same thing, but somehow it comes to mind.


    • Hi Nan, I really don’t think I can do justice to your question and observations in a short reply. There
      are many analagous ideas — for example, Freud’s notion of the narcissism of minor differences. He
      argued that we tend to blow up the differences that we have with those who are very close to us.
      I’m not suggesting that something of this sort was necessarily working here in the Holocaust.
      We would also have to look at a whole complex of other ideas — for instance, the manner in which
      the ideas of the living and the dead are embodied in the museum. Notwithstanding the Nazi desire to
      eliminate the Jews, there was also a desire to have a thorough record of their history, culture, way
      of life. We can attribute this to many things — to the desire for encyclopedic knowledge, to the notion
      that there should be a complete fossil record of humanity, and so on.


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