In 1940 Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese consul general in Lithuania. He issued visas to 6000 Jews, against his Tokyo superiors’ instructions, allowing Jews to transit through Japan. When he ran out of authentic visas, Sugihara threw signed sheets of paper stamped with his consular seal to the Jews as the train left Lithuania to take him back to Japan.
Ho Feng-Shan was Chinese consul general in Vienna. After the Anschluss in 1938, the only way for the 200,000 Austrian Jews to escape was to get an entry visa from a foreign nation. Against the orders of his superior in Berlin, Ho issued thousands of visas for refugees going to Shanghai. Until he was ordered to return to China in 1940.
Tadeusz Romer was the Polish ambassador to Japan. When many of Sugihara's Jews reached Japan, they could still have been sent back to Nazi-occupied Poland. So Romer intervened, granting them new passports and visas to neutral countries. When the Polish embassy was shut down in 1941, “his” Jews were sent to safety in Shanghai.
Born in Berlin in 1936, three-year-old Peter Nachemstein and his parents were forced to escape Nazi Germany by fleeing to Shanghai. The SS Scharnhorst was a German liner that they boarded in Genoa in April 1939. They almost missed the boat. When the Nachemsteins were served with an eviction notice straight after the infamous Kristallnacht destruction in Nov 1938 Herbert and Ingeborg wanted tickets to Argentina. When that failed, Ingeborg's father saved them.
The voyage took Peter (aged 3) and his family through the Suez Canal with stops at Colombo, Manila and Hong Kong before the ship finally docked at Shanghai. Despite their fine surroundings on the Scharnhorst, the Nachemsteins were in fact "boat people". They were persecuted refugees who had fled their homeland with little more than their clothes. And they were disembarking, without visas, funds or language, at a Chinese port that had been invaded by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1937. Fortunately in those final few months before Hitler invaded Poland in Sept 1939, Shanghai was an open treaty port, a haven that accepted refugees without an entry visa.
Peter's friends, the Witting family, fled Berlin and arrived in Shanghai in May 1939 on the SS Conte Verde. The Wittings were met by Jewish representatives and taken to the Heime/-former refugee camps military barracks. Although 30 people packed into double bunk beds, the Wittings were fortunate. Relatives in South Africa sent money, allowing them to rent a single room in Hongkew, for eight years.
Today this massive Chinese city is glamorous for tourists. In WW2, less so. Shanghai was divided into four distinct zones along the northern banks of the Yellow River: a] Old Chinese City, b] French Concession, c] International Settlement and d] Chinese Districts which had most of the city's 4 million population.
New arrivals were issued with a blanket, sheets, tin dish, cup and spoon, and access to a soup kitchen. There were various Shanghai Relief Aid Committees which received funds from overseas donors, especially the American Joint.
The trickle of European refugees that began in the mid 1930s had become a flood by late 1939. Meanwhile thousands of impoverished Chinese were pouring into Shanghai, seeking work. Beggars were everywhere. Death was everywhere; coolies pushed carts around, picking up Chinese bodies.
The small room had 2 beds, sink, stove, table and cupboard. The Nachmensteins shared an unsewered toilet and a bathtub with two other families. Every morning Chinese workers arrived and cleaned out the toilets. The tap water had to be boiled.
Fortunately the women could collect food each day from the Heime kitchens. Survival in Shanghai was risked by poor diet, bad sanitation and low resistance to tropical diseases, but it was much better than any alternative. Compared to Europe’s death camps, Shanghai was a haven of safety.
Any Jewish refugee who could raise enough money would leave the Heime. Most hoped to settle in Hongkew in the International Settlement, which had been partially destroyed by 1937 bombs. As streets were cleared and houses rebuilt, Hongkew offered the Nachemsteins one single, subsidised room in a terraced house in Hongkew.
By Nov 1940, the Shanghai authorities were trying to stem the tide of refugees by issuing entry visas. Just in time, Ingeborg's sister and brother in law took the only escape route - they caught the train from Berlin to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian Express to Vladivostok and a boat to Shanghai. Then Hitler declared war on Soviet Union and escapes ended.
The Shanghai Jews did not have to face anti-Semitism. Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese, Confucianist or Buddhist, treated Jews any differently to other foreigners. Life was stable until Dec 1941 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. Suddenly Shanghai was swamped with Japanese military and civilian personnel searching for housing. A very polite Japanese family moved into the Nash’s terrace house, occupying the entire first floor. The Japanese only targeted American and British nationals. Some Sephardic Jews from the Middle East or India had British passports and were treated brutally, but only because they were British!
The real change didn't come until Mar 1943. Under pressure from senior Nazis, the Japanese agreed to move all the stateless refugees into a Designated Area i.e Shanghai Ghetto in Hongkew, patrolled at night. The one villain was the brutal Japanese commander of the Designated Area, Kanoh Ghoya.
At its peak, Shanghai had a Jewish community of c35,000 people with a school, synagogue, hospital, refugee hostels and bakeries. Both Nash and Witting attended the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, established by the famous Kadoori family, Middle Eastern Jews who’d had a commercial base in Shanghai.
Shanghai was liberated by US troops in Aug 1945. Peace freed 3.5 million Chinese residents in this city, 6,000+ foreign citizens interned in the Civil Assembly Centre and 23,000 Jewish refugees in the Shanghai Ghetto. Most of the Shanghai Ghetto residents re-applied to the countries where they had originally wanted to go, back in 1939.
Shanghai had been the Nash family’s sanctuary, albeit a chaotic one. They left Shanghai for Australia in Feb 1949, as soon as their application for entry was finally accepted. For 60 years, the Shanghai survivors in Australia shared regular Hongkew newsletters and reunions.
In 2015 the People’s Republic of China and the World Jewish Congress commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Shanghai Ghetto and the end of WW2. The photo credits belong to WJC. Jewish Refugees in Shanghai was displayed at Sabes Jewish Community Centre in Minnesota in 2015. The Prague Jewish Museum opened an exhibit on the Jewish Refugees living in Shanghai ghetto in 2016. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is always worth visiting.
Peter Nash, now 82, retired after a successful career in the textile industry. He launched his book Escape From Berlin at the 2017 Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. Thanks Australian Financial Review for some of the details in this post.
The Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne had a fine exhibition in the 1990s called The Story of a Haven: The Jews in Shanghai. To read of the earlier waves of émigrés, see a] Jews fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia who arrived just before WW1, settling in Shanghai's French Concession and b] German speakers who arrived after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.