Thoughts on the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

by Lewis Tatt and Austin Smith

Ohel Moshe Synagogue, now home to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

The Holocaust requires little introduction to the average Westerner, and so, it might seem shocking that this event, which so often dominates narratives of World War II, is unheard of amongst many Chinese people. The fact is, in China, the ‘European War’ is not seen as the defining event of twentieth century, to the extent that, the term ‘World War II’ (世界二战) is not commonly used – reference to the ‘War of Resistance against Japan’ (抗日战争) is far more common. This is symptomatic of China’s experience of the conflict, and its national history of the twentieth century, which is somewhat separated from ‘World History’.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is therefore a particularly interesting site as it brings together narratives of the Holocaust under the framework of Chinese war memory. In the recent years, a number of public spaces have been established to rehabilitate Chinese history and to bring the presentation of history back in line with wider historical narratives. As part of this trend, in 2007, funding was made available by the People’s Government of Hongkou District to found the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. The museum is housed in a refurbished synagogue located in the former Jewish district, often referred to as a ‘Shanghai haven’, an area which retains original features of the Jewish settlement.

The initial impression given by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is that it represents a shift away from a Sino-centric perspective of history, enough to pique the interest of curious international tourists. The museum’s volunteer guides all spoke a good level of English considering that the museum was somewhat off the standard tourist trail.

Unlike many small museums in the region, information and leaflets were available in both Chinese and accurate English. This could be due to the fact that the majority of visitors to the museum are Western tourists. This area is particularly popular amongst Jewish visitors or those otherwise touched by the horrors of the Holocaust. Because of this fact, this site provides a very interesting contrast with other memorial sites in China – most of which memorialise the revolution and are aimed exclusively at a native audience.

Upon entering the museum visitors are given a brief history of the origins of Jewish Shanghai, a community founded by Russian émigrés, in the main hall of the synagogue. One of the room’s few adornments is a tribute from the Consulate General of Israel in Shanghai.

A tribute from the Consulate General of Israel in Shanghai on display at Ohel Moshe Synagogue
A tribute from the Consulate General of Israel in Shanghai on display at Ohel Moshe Synagogue

The next stage of the tour is held upstairs, where a number of boards providing wider context of the Holocaust have been installed. For the international visitor, this context is perhaps pre-acquired, but, for the Chinese visitor it is eye-opening and potentially opinion forming. However, rather than providing an international context to the Chinese perspective of this history this section of the museum subtly fuses the inevitable victim narrative of the Jews and the Holocaust with an anti-Japanese, Chinese victim narrative.

The first information board the visitor meets describes how Germany, when ‘facing the darkest page of human history’ has ‘shown deep repentance…’ The reader is then informed that ‘there are other countries that refuse to face up to the atrocities of history.’ In the Chinese language version the sentence reads ‘至于那些至今仍不能正确对待历史的国家…’ Literally, ‘as for those countries that still can’t correctly treat history…’ The use of “as for” (至于) implies that a native Chinese reader would have already had a certain country in mind, Japan.

The reader is then informed that the exhibition aims to ‘represent the common effort of Chinese and Jews […] to save lives and dignity from Nazi and fascist atrocities.’ Here ‘Nazi’ refers to German atrocities and ‘fascist’ refers to Japanese atrocities, explicitly linking the exhibition on the Jewish Holocaust in Europe with Japanese atrocities in East Asia.

In this way, the museum brings an external historical perspective in line with the Chinese narrative of victimisation at the hands of Japanese imperialism. By linking these atrocities, Japan’s war conduct is presented as being as abhorrent as the Holocaust. This is perhaps why, when linking the War of Resistance Against Japan to the ‘European War’, Chinese museums and memorial sites still do not refer to the World War II, but instead use the term “International War Against Fascism” (世界反法西斯战争). This Chinese victim narrative is offered as being as undisputable as that of the Jews and the Holocaust. Both narratives are equally as important to the agenda of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and its Chinese and Israeli benefactors.

The fundamental problem faced by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is that the history of the Shanghai Refugees proves Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan did not collaborate as much as this context would lead us to believe. This results in a struggle of memory, between the history that the Chinese and Israeli influences wish to offer to the visitor and the actual experience of the Shanghai Jews.

'To the People of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.' Yitzhak Rabin, Premier of Israel (1993).
‘To the People of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.’ Yitzhak Rabin, Premier of Israel (1993).

During the tour it is easy to forget that, by the time the Jews fleeing the Holocaust arrived in Shanghai, the city was firmly under Japanese control. These refugees were fleeing the Holocaust to find sanctuary in Japanese occupied China. As accommodating as the people of Shanghai were to the Jewish community, they remained at the mercy of the Japanese. As the Asia-Pacific War escalated, the Shanghai refugees were confined to the Hongkou ghetto where they lived alongside the Chinese inhabitants of the area.

This raises some obvious questions, if Germany’s European allies had been complicit in sending Jews to their deaths in concentration camps – how had the Jews of Shanghai survived? And why had the Japanese in Shanghai not succumbed to the same pressures?

When pressed on the issue, a member of staff at the museum admitted that – the Japanese had few issues with the Jews and very little desire to exterminate the Jewish population of Shanghai. This admission reveals the difficulty in associating Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany with regards to the Jewish population of Shanghai. One could even go as far as to suggest that the Japanese protected the community. However, this explicit distinction in absent from the museums display material.

The story of the Jewish experience of life under Japanese rule is told in a separate part of the museum, this section is to be viewed once the broader context of the Holocaust has been (re)enforced. However, attempts to unearth evidence of collaboration between Germany and Japan proved to be unconvincing. The strongest link between Japanese controlled Shanghai and Nazi Germany in this section of the museum is purely visual. A section titled ‘Hard Times in the Hongkou Ghetto’ places two picture of Japanese officials alongside two pictures of German officials. Despite being four separate photographs an association is created between the Japanese and German officials through the photographs’ physical locations.

A caption under a picture of Colonel Josef Meisinger, known as the “Butcher of Warsaw”, explains that he ‘proposed a plan (‘final solution’ in Shanghai) to Japanese occupation authorities in 1942 to murder Jews in Shanghai.’ The use of the term ‘proposed’ suggests that there was no diplomatic pressure from Germany. The fact that the proposal to exterminate approximately 20,000 Jews was rejected by the Japanese is also neglected throughout the exhibit. The museum obscures the fact that Japanese authorities rejected a ‘final solution’ for Shanghai by simply not mentioning this fact – perhaps unsurprising, given the museums victim narrative and a sympathetic prospective audience.

Attempts to compare conditions in the Shanghai ghetto with the concentration camps of Europe are wide of the mark. While it would be wrong to suggest the Jews did not suffer, this was a time of global suffering, there does not appear to have been active maltreatment by the Japanese beyond the formation of the ghetto itself.

Evidence of Jewish settlement in the Hongkou District, Shanghai.
Evidence of Jewish settlement in the Hongkou District, Shanghai.

Attempts to place Japanese atrocities on a par with the Holocaust are common in Chinese memorials, which often seek to emulate or borrow from Holocaust memorials. Qi Kang, designer of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, even compares his design to Western Holocaust museums. This is perhaps partly an attempt to place the Chinese victim narrative into a recognisable international framework, alongside other victim narratives of the conflict. Modern Chinese history has been brought back into the focus of wider historiography as a result.

It is an oversimplification to speak of just ‘World War II’ or of an ‘International War on Fascism’. Perhaps we do need to be more specific and speak of the ‘War of Resistance Against Japan’, ‘Pacific War’, ‘War in Western Europe’ and the ‘War in Eastern Europe’. Nevertheless, the nature of the problem for Chinese historians remains the same, how to re-internationalise Chinese history whilst maintaining the nationalistic narrative required for by China’s modern patriotic education.

The atrocities committed by Imperial Japan against the rest of Asia are inexcusable but the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum clearly shows that these atrocities were distanced from, and not directly related to, those carried out against the Jews in Europe. From a Japanese perspective, it would be wrong to be overly critical of the implementation of a Chinese victim narrative, after all, this is something post-war Japan has also been guilty of, in light of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, the history presented by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, sponsored by Chinese and Israeli benefactors, is something that should be questioned – sites of war memory should not place emphasis upon particular narratives whilst neglecting other perspectives in order to gain sympathy for a given cause, to appease their target audience or to build ties between nations.

Opening Ceremony of Israel-China Relations Exhibition & Launch of the Shanghai Jews Database Held at the Museum
Opening Ceremony of Israel-China Relations Exhibition & Launch of the Shanghai Jews Database Held at the Museum

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