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The Shanghai Ghetto: a Unique 70th Anniversary

‘Rising Sun, Falling Shadow’, author, Daniel Kalla, discusses the often-neglected, yet essential, role that Shanghai played in the Second World War

By: Daniel Kalla
Published: May 15th, 2013 in Culture » Society » News
Daniel Kalla

Seventy years ago this Saturday, while the Nazis were busy dismantling the ghettos of Eastern Europe and mass murdering their Jewish denizens, on the other side of the planet another Jewish ghetto was being created… in China, of all places.

At the time, Shanghai was arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the world. No place better epitomized a microcosm of a world at war. Governed for over a hundred years by multiple sovereignties, in the 1930s, Shanghai had become the world’s fifth most populous city, the third most powerful financial center and home to the most diverse collection of expatriates, refugees, gamblers, gangsters, prostitutes, political exiles and other colorful figures to be found anywhere. By the outbreak of the Second World War, Shanghai also sheltered more German Jewish refugees than any other place in the world.

By the late 1930s, the Nazis had stripped German and Austrian Jews of their careers, possessions and citizenship, but it would be another few years before they launched into systemic genocide. The Nazis allowed, in fact encouraged, Jews to emigrate, providing they had legitimate visas. But after the Evian Conference of 1937, most refugee quotas were exhausted and the rest of the world effectively shut their borders to them. However, Shanghai—a city militarily divided between the Japanese and the Western powers—had almost nonexistent passport control. In the two years leading up to the launch of the world war, almost twenty thousand German-speaking Jews fled to this unique city.

Escaping Europe was no guarantee of survival for the subset of Jewish Diaspora who ended up in China. Exotic and alien, Shanghai could also be uncaring, hostile and lethal to the refugees. However, the German Jewish culture flourished there; from shops, restaurants, theaters and synagogues to sports club and competing newspapers; even a hospital run by and for refugees.

But in 1942, the Nazis—who were fighting and beginning to lose a war on two fronts—turned their homicidal obsession to those thousands of German Jews who had escaped their clutches. Heinrich Himmler dispatched the highest-ranking Gestapo officer in Asia, Colonel Josef Meisinger (who had already distinguished himself amongst his own SS peers as the “Butcher of Warsaw”) to Shanghai. He reputedly arrived in the city carrying a canister of Zyklon B gas (which was being deployed at Auschwitz) and several other genocidal options for the Jewish population. Eventually, the local Japanese authorities refused to exterminate the locals Jews but, as a concession to their German allies, they did agree to relocate them into a one-square mile ghetto within the poorest part of the city. An area that was already home to a hundred thousand native Chinese.

The military governor announced the creation of the ghetto in the form of a proclamation that was post all over the city on February 18th, 1943. The Japanese gave the refugees three months to find somewhere to reside within its borders. The Shanghai Ghetto—known officially as the “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees”—came into being on May 18th, 1943.

Many refugee families had already established successful homes and businesses in Shanghai’s varied neighborhoods such as the French Concession and the International Settlement. They were forced to exchange their residences, at a huge disadvantage, with Japanese families living inside the ghetto’s borders. Some refugees couldn’t find accommodation and were forced to move into the heime: large hostels run by other Jews to provide food and shelter for those with nowhere else to turn. A few brave souls attempted to defy the proclamation altogether. But it didn’t end well for the men of those families. They were dragged to the infamous Bridge House, the military police’s headquarters, and most died during or shortly after their internment.

And yet somehow, for three long years, life, commerce and even culture endured inside the Shanghai ghetto. Despite constant threats from disease, starvation, the elements and two hostile military powers, Jewish newspapers continue to print, the local soccer teams competed and the Yiddish theaters still put on nightly reviews. Moreover, two oppressed peoples—the Chinese and the Jews—lived side by side with amazing respect and tolerance, in an age of neither.

The story of the Shanghai ghetto stands as a testament to human perseverance and dignity. In my upcoming novel, Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, I have tried to capture a glimmer of that spirit through the story of an Austrian surgeon and his Eurasian wife who run the local refugee hospital and face challenges that span from mere survival to high-stakes espionage.

Before I researched my novel, I was oblivious to the essential role Shanghai played in the Second World Ward. I believe it’s an often-neglected piece of history, and a rare uplifting story of Jewish survival during the Holocaust, that is well worth knowing. And I have tried to bring to life a sense of those refugees’ very real, and yet entirely surreal, circumstances.

Daniel Kalla is a best-selling author and Emergency Room Physician practicing at a downtown teaching hospital in Vancouver. He has written seven novels that have been translated into twelve languages; two have been optioned for film. His latest novel, Rising Sun, Falling Shadow (Tor-Forge/MacMillian USA and Harper Collins Canada, to be released September 10th, 2013), is a follow-up to the critically acclaimed, The Far Side of the Sky. Both are set in Second World War Shanghai against the dramatic backdrop of converging cultures and ideologies. You can learn more about him at: danielkalla.com

Related articles: Shanghai Ghetto, 70th Anniversary, Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, Holocaust, Jewish, World War II, Nazi
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