In the early stages of Nazi occupation, the Nazis encouraged Jewish emigration. However, almost every country in the world was limiting or denying entry to Jews. China was an exception. Until 1939, no visa was required to enter China. The Japanese had taken over Shanghai and it was unclear which country, China or Japan, would monitor immigrants.
Despite the fact that a visa was unnecessary to enter China, obtaining an exit visa to leave Europe became increasingly difficult. The Nazis put Jews into labor camps. There was mass extermination in gas chambers. The Nazis did not want to expel Jews, they wanted to end them. Despite orders not to issue visas to Jews, two diplomats were brave enough to defy orders. They saved thousands of lives.
Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat serving in Lithuania in 1940 when hundreds of Jews arrived at his office, desperate to save their families' lives. Sugihara wrote thousands of visas over a short period of time. It is said that over 100,000 Jews are alive today because of the visas he issued to their ancestors.
Like Sugihara, Chinese diplomat Ho Feng Shan is credited with saving thousands of Jews. Until his death in 1997, no one knew about Ho Feng Shan's heroic deeds. Ho was the counsel general of China's consulate in Vienna. From 1938 to 1940, Ho wrote thousands of visas, in defiance of orders to the contrary. Other diplomats worried that they would anger the Nazi government if they issued visas, yet Ho and Sugihara continued to do so. When the Nazis confiscated Ho's office because the building was owned by a Jew, Ho used his own money to open a new office in order to continue issuing visas. In the year 2000, Israel posthumously bestowed Ho with the honor of "Righteous Among the Nations".
The Jews were penniless when they arrived in Shanghai and settled in Hongkew District. They lived amongst the Chinese. They traded services and managed to thrive in this strange new land. They opened theaters, libraries and schools. They ran newspapers and tailor shops. The Ohel Moshe Synagogue, where these Shanghai residents went to pray, now houses the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum which chronicles the lives of the Jews who once called Shanghai "home".
Michael Blumenthal, former U.S. Treasury Secretary, lived in the Shanghai Jewish Ghetto when he was a child. There is a sign in Hongkew that marks the building where Blumenthal lived. I once asked the locals if they knew the apartment in which he lived. They pointed to a door at the top of a narrow staircase. I ascended the stairs and knocked on the door. An elderly gentleman answered the door and invited us inside. The apartment was about 10' x 15', sparsely decorated, with a large screen television. They were more than happy to let us see their home, but did not know much of its history, other than the fact that Jews from around the world come to see their building.
There is a short video from Israel titled "Xiexie Shanghai" or "Thank You Shanghai", created to thank the Chinese people for saving so many lives. Here is the YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2j0yTlfSGk. In 1993, Yitzhak Rabin, former Israeli Prime Minister, wrote: "To the people of Shanghai for the unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War. Thanks in the name of the government of Israel."
Join us on a visit to the museum and a tour of the Hongkew District where the Shanghai Ghetto once thrived.