Illinois Holocaust Museum presents – Shanghai: Safe Haven During the Holocaust

Chaofoong Road Heim, Arthur Rothstein in "Shanghai: Safe Haven During the Holocaust" at the Illinois Holocaust Museum
Spread the love

The Illinois Holocaust Museum is currently presenting Shanghai: Safe Haven During the Holocaust, an exhibition about Jews that found their way from Europe to China during WWII and survived the war. While people usually know about the millions killed in Europe during that war, fewer people know about the story of Shanghai.  Many years ago, during a visit to Shanghai with my husband, I had the opportunity to tour the Shanghai Ghetto, and consequently I was very interested in viewing this exhibition of photographs by renowned American Jewish photojournalist Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) depicting daily life in the ghetto. This exhibition shows parallels to today’s refugees.

Children of stateless refugees

That tour was led by Dvir Bar-Gal who is the leading authority on Shanghai Jewish history and I shared my story about Jewish Shanghai.

European Jews who were shut out of country after country while trying to escape Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s found a beacon of hope in Shanghai, China. In 1938, hundreds of Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai, with thousands more following in the coming years. By 1941, around 20,000 Jews found refuge there.

Family photo

In early 1943, Shanghai was under Japanese occupation, and Japanese authorities relocated all stateless refugees — Jews who had arrived after 1937 — into the Shanghai ghetto. The ghetto was cramped, disease-ridden, and dirty, but ultimately safe for its Jewish inhabitants who were treated humanely by their Chinese neighbors. For the remaining years of the war, they were confined to the ghetto and could leave only with passes issued by Japanese authorities. 

Shanghai: Safe Haven During the Holocaust will be in place until September 5, 2022. The  22 large-scale photographs by renowned American Jewish photojournalist Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985). The photos draw the viewer into the everyday life in Shanghai’s 1-square-mile Hongkew District tell a powerful and moving story. This was a crowded space where immigrants fleeing Nazi persecution in the 30’s and 40’s found safety and community.  The photos depict faces of courage, creative solutions, normal daily life and dramatic moments.  The Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project depicts the difficult plight of other refugees and documents powerful moments in history

View of Heim with refugees

His images depict families struggling to survive in overcrowded communal housing, washing laundry in cluttered courtyards framed b grimy buildings, searching lists of concentration camp Survivors, and cooking with U.S. Army field rations over make shift stoves. “These photos provide a window into the lives of refugees who found temporary sanctuary during the turbulent years of World War II,” says Chief Curator Arielle Weininger. 

“Sharing one room with four other people for five years, going without tap water for nearly a decade, using a bucket as a lavatory. It was the poorest, poorest part of Shanghai…,” says local Shanghai ghetto Survivor Doris Fogel. “It made me tough, made me street smart. It made me learn how to take care of myself.”

Enhancing the exhibition are objects that include immigration documents, professional papers, and personal keepsakes of local residents.  Visitors will learn the stories of these moving items, accompanied by photographs and brief biographies of their original owners — all Holocaust Survivors who immigrated to the Chicago area. The striking combination of photographs and artifacts tell the unique story of Jewish refugees in Shanghai while drawing parallels with contemporary refugee experiences.

Refugees read lists of concentration camp survivors

A story even less known is that of the foreign residents of Shanghai who had lived there for generations.  Ester Benjamin Shifren, author and lecturer, is one of these individuals. Her family lived in Shanghai for five generations, a story she relates in her book, “Hiding in a Cave of Trunks”

A young Ester Benjamin Shifren, photo: Courtesy of Ester Benjamin Shifren

Ester shared that, “We were never in the ghetto. We were POWs behind walls and barbed wire, as were all Allies—British, US, Canadian, Belgian.”

“As a child I lived in China though we were not Chinese.
For five generations in Shanghai we lived a life of ease.
We mingled very freely with people of all races,
From many different countries with many colored faces.
My mom was just a toddler when  arriving in Shanghai.
Her father took a post there as the congregation’s Rabbi.
The family was from Persia, and siblings there were eight.
With backgrounds very different, it was difficult to relate
To that new life in China, but very soon they did…
It was harder for the parents, and much easier for a kid.
They didn’t speak any English, but children went to school
And helped their parents wend their way, with language as a tool.
My father, on the other hand, had extensive family
That spent long years in Shanghai—more than one century!
They loved their life in China, that had given them the chance
To lead a life of comfort, enjoy music, sports, and dance.
No one knew that World War Two would halt our life of ease—
When the Japanese Interned us, and all our assets seize!

The Japanese had made the Chinese suffer, many years,
By causing fights called “incidents”–but now were changing gears.
When war began in Europe and reached our distant shore.
Our life was changed immediately, our comfort was no more!
The alliance that was struck by Germany and Japan


Resulted in the Japanese implementing a really awful plan!
Forming a new ghetto, in the area called Hongkou,
Where Chinese people shared with families, more than two!
They issued a proclamation that, “All Jewish refugees
Must move into the ghetto!” and were deafened to all pleas!

When they bombed Pearl Harbor in 1942,
They imprisoned Allied residents in camps they built, all new.
Our life was changed forever—they stripped us of our wealth.
They had a long agenda and followed it with stealth.
Our Shanghai life was blissful, abandoned, and enjoyed,
Until Japan took over, and evil deeds employed!
We, and other Allies, as prisoners of war, 
Suffered deprivations we’d never had before! 
Restarting life was not an easy task for most who were interned.
The Japanese took all we’d bought with money so hard-earned.
We’d suffered malnutrition, and illnesses as well,
And some would not recover from incarceration hell.
All Allies were imprisoned–we were the enemy–
Thank God we all were still alive, when free at end year three.”

Tea time in Hongkew

Enhancing the exhibition are the very vibrant artifacts contributed by Judy Fleischer Kolb who was born in the Shanghai ghetto. She shares items that bring to life the story of her parents, Carla and Cantor Leopold Fleischer, her maternal grandparents, Julius and Martha Frankenstein, and her uncle, Heinz Frankenstein and their move to Shanghai. This area, the was partially destroyed by the Japanese invasion in 1937. It had affordable rooms available for refugees arriving between 1937-40 but, in 1943, all refugees who had arrived after 1937 had to move to Hongkew, which than became known as the “Shanghai Ghetto.”

Doris Fogel who was born in 1934 in Berlin, Germany also contributed artifacts. Her father died when Doris was a toddler. When she was 4 years old, Doris and her mother, along with close friends whom Doris considered to be her “aunt” and “uncle,” obtained permits and travelled to Shanghai. Once there, the two families lived together in a one room apartment in the Shanghai ghetto, and Doris’ mother found work in a soup kitchen. After the war, they were sponsored by an American couple and boarded a ship for California on Doris’ 13th birthday. They settled in Peoria, Illinois.

Doris Fogel is a wonderful speaker.  Tune in to the “Coffee with a Survivor” talk.

Matzoh balls made on Chinese fire pot

Shanghai: Safe Haven During the Holocaust does not shout out.  It is quiet but very impactful as it draws the viewer into the compelling photographs.

Photos are courtesy of the Illinois Holocaust Museum unless otherwise noted.