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In my mind, doing a walking tour during a visit to Shanghai is essential. You miss too much if you’re riding around on a bus and unless you have a guide, you’ll probably walk by a historic building and not even know it, due to the noodle shop that’s blocking the view of its Art Deco façade.
One of the most interesting chapters of Shanghai’s short but fascinating history is the Jewish story. In the 1840s, Iraqi Jews who’d made fortunes in India increased them in Shanghai and laid a foundation that catapulted the sleepy Huangpu River town to the forefront of trade. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian Jews fled anti-Semitism, founding new working-class communities in Harbin and further south in Shanghai. Finally, between 1937 and 1941, Shanghai’s open-port allowed over 20,000 European Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany. During this period, more Jews found sanctuary in China than in any other country in the world.
It was in Shanghai’s Hongkou district that many of the... Russian Jews already lived and it was here that the Japanese, under pressure from their Nazi alliance, interned the newly arrived “stateless refugees” from Europe. While not imprisoned, over 20,000 men, women, and children were thrust into an already over-crowded neighborhood and blocked from leaving without proper papers. What had once been called “Little Vienna” for its thriving community became known as the Jewish Ghetto.
I recently took one of Mr. Dvir Bar-Gal’s Jewish Heritage walking tours through the former Ghetto. What follows is a brief description of where we went and what we saw. But it’s just a taste. Mr. Bar-Gal’s intimate knowledge of Shanghai’s Jewish history makes a tour with him a must-do. Contact him at his website Shanghai Jews to inquire about booking a tour.Continue to 2 of 5 below.
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First Stop: Huoshan Park
This little green space sits just across from several housing blocks dating from the 1920s. Just inside the gate sits the only memorial to Shanghai’s European Jewish refugees. In Chinese, English, and Hebrew it is a small monument to the suffering these people incurred after they’d found refuge in Shanghai.
Mr. Bar-Gal will take you through a in-depth history lesson about the exodus from Europe as well as stories of “Righteous Gentiles” including a Japanese consular director in Lithuania who helped hundreds of Jews escape to Japan and then Shanghai as well as Doctor Ho, a Chinese consular director who personally approved documents for thousands of Jews leaving Europe via Vienna.Continue to 3 of 5 below.
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Second Stop: Chushan Road
Just across Huoshan Road from the park is Zhoushan Road, formerly known as Chushan Road. Once the commercial artery of Little Vienna, the lane became famous for the sheer number of Jewish families crammed into each of the flats. Sometimes housing 30 to a room with bunk beds and curtain dividers, families lived in these circumstances for years until the US liberated Shanghai in 1945.
Mr. Bar-Gal takes you down the lane and fills the houses and lanes with the stories of the Ghetto and the people who lived there.Continue to 4 of 5 below.
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Third Stop: Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum / Ohel Moishe Synagogue
Next Mr. Bar-Gal takes you to the restored Ohel Moishe Synagogue. Restored and re-opened in 2008, the synagogue was originally a place of worship for the Russian Jews who inhabited the neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s. It is one of only two standing synagogues left in Shanghai but does not hold religious services.
The site encompasses the former synagogue as well as a small art gallery and introduction video that explains a little about the history of the Jews in Shanghai.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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Fourth Stop: Inside a Lane
Lastly, Mr. Bar-Gal takes the group down one of the lanes and into a small house now occupied by Chinese families but once inhabited by Jews. While circumstances don’t appear to have improved much for people who still live in these flats that are subdivided down to each room, with no showers, running water only in the communal kitchen and honey pots to empty in the morning, one can certainly imagine how life was for the Jews who were packed into the Ghetto during 1941-45.
Aside from leading tours about Jewish heritage in Shanghai, Mr. Bar-Gal works with various organizations and the Shanghai Municipal Government to increase awareness of the Jewish story. His project, Shanghai Jewish Memorial, is a work in progress. At one point there were four Jewish cemeteries in Shanghai. All destroyed, he has now found eighty lost headstones – used for everything from bridges to washing boards – and hopes to install the collection in public as a memorial to the Jewish history in Shanghai. Read more... about Dvir Bar-Gal at Dvir Bar-Gal.
To book a tour, visit Shanghai Jews.