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New exhibition remembers Jewish refugees who found safety in Shanghai

8 August 20230 comments

A new exhibition which re-examines how Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai during WWII has lessons for the current global displacement crisis.

The ‘Shanghai, Homeland Once Upon a Time — Jewish Refugees and Shanghai’ exhibition, which opened in New York this week marks 80 years since the exodus to China of Jews at risk from the rise of Nazism.

The display remembers the period from 1938 to 1941 when more than 20,000 Jews travelled thousands of miles from Europe to escape Nazi persecution and establish a life in China.

The refugees were able to find safety in Shanghai during a time when other countries refused to aid them. Advocates say that their story is a chilling reflection of the necessity for others.

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, one descendent of a Shanghai émigré said hatred still existed in the world.

Elizabeth Grebenschikoff, whose mother Betty lived as a refugee in Shanghai for over a decade and is featured in the exhibit told US media: “My mom would say … ‘If you are not an up stander, if you are not standing up for justice and fairness, then you are doomed to be a bystander’,” she said.

The exhibit, hosted by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, includes more than 200 photographs and 30 pieces of memorabilia, in addition to videos and personal stories from Jewish refugees and their descendants.

Shanghai became a “last resort” for Jewish refugees in the late 1930s as the city did not require an entry visa due to its unique legal status.

In the 19th century, the port city was forcibly opened by Western powers for trade. It was divided into several sections, governed by these powers with their own set of legal norms and police forces.

The bureaucratic loophole led to an unexpected safe haven for the refugee population when, in 1938, most countries refused to change their immigration policies to accommodate Jewish people fleeing violence under Nazi rule.

Although they found safety in the city, life was not easy for Jewish refugees.

A few years after the Jews arrived, Japanese forces took over the city and established a ghetto in Hongkew, where they crowded tens of thousands of Jewish refugees into a single square mile.

Under Japanese rule, refugees were not permitted to enter or leave the ghetto without a pass. Then Japanese soldiers also became known for mistreatment of refugees.

But for many of the children growing up in Shanghai, school served as a reprieve from their difficult living conditions. For a few hours, they could learn English, play sports or sing in the choir.

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