Posted by: sharemore1 | November 11, 2012

Discovering Shanghai’s Jewish History

Tribute to Ho Feng Shan

Thanks to the Steven Spielberg movie, most people know how Oskar Schindler rescued more than 1,000 Polish Jews during the Holocaust.   Very few have heard of Ho Feng Shan, who saved more than 2,000 Austrian Jews.  As the Chinese Consul General in Vienna between 1938 and 1940, he approved visas permitting Jews to travel to Shanghai, one of the few ports in the world that allowed immigrants to enter freely.

My husband Moshe and I learned about Ho Feng Shan on a tour of Jewish Shanghai led by Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli who’s lived in Shanghai for 11 years <;.   Bar-Gal, a photojournalist, originally came to Shanghai to cover the new China.   He soon found that what captivated him was not current events, but the often-overlooked history of Jews in the city.

Dvir Bar-Gal in Shanghai

Bar-Gal told us about three waves of Jewish immigrants who helped build Shanghai into an international city of commerce.  First came wealthy Baghdadi Jews, like the Sassoon family, who prospered in opium, textiles, real estate and finance starting in the 1840s.  They left many landmarks in Shanghai, including the beautifully restored art deco Peace Hotel and other buildings on the Bund, the business district along the waterfront.

The Bund in Shanghai

Then came a wave of poor Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century, fleeing pogroms and revolution in Russia.  They opened many retail businesses, providing the shops, delis, cafes and theaters, as well as schools and newspapers for the growing Jewish population.

Finally came the Jews fleeing the Holocaust.   By 1938, when the plight of Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe was becoming clear, few countries would take them in.  Of the 32 countries attending the Evian conference on Jewish refugees, only one would accept substantial numbers of Jews:  the Dominican Republic.

The U.S. and Great Britain refused to increase their immigration quotas, which already had long waiting lists.   Britain also restricted the number of Jews who could enter Palestine.  Australia agreed to accept only 15,000 refugees over three years.  Their representative T. W. White was blunt:  “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”  Canada refused to make any commitment; one immigration official said, “None is too many.”

Meanwhile in Vienna, Ho Feng Shan was quietly issuing more than 2,000 Chinese visas to Austrian Jews, documents that would allow them to leave the country.  He acted quite alone between 1938 and 1940, at times against the orders of his superiors.  While other countries were turning Jews away, Shanghai admitted anyone who could make it to the city, even if they had no passport or visa.   Some 20,000 Jews found asylum in Shanghai.

Hangkou District

Life was not easy in China for European Jews, who arrived with little money and few personal belongings.  It became especially difficult after the Japanese took control of the city in 1937.  By early 1943, Jewish immigrants were forced to live in the poorest part of the city, the Hangkou District, an area of less than one square mile and already crowded with Chinese and some Jewish residents.    In Ten Green Bottles:  The True Story of One Family’s Journey from War-torn Austria to the Ghettos of Shanghai, Vivian Jeanette Kaplan tells of her family’s experience.

Our Israeli guide took us on a tour of that area, where many alleys and apartments seem to have changed little.   During the war, families lived in refugee shelters or squeezed into small apartments with several other families.  We visited one apartment still set up to accommodate three families.  The small kitchen had three two-burner stoves, each connected to a separate gas meter.  The sink had three faucets with separate water meters.  There was no refrigerator, so families could buy just enough perishable food  for one day.

One Small Kitchen for Three Families

Most Jews had left China by 1950, after the Communist government confiscated foreign owned properties and businesses.   Today little remains of their presence, except the buildings on the Bund, sections of the Hangkou District and two former synagogues.  Even Jewish cemeteries were destroyed during extensive redevelopment of the city.

Dvir Bar-Gal has made it his mission to learn about the Jews of Shanghai and tell their stories to the many visitors who take his tours every day.  Through extensive research he has located about 100 Jewish gravestones, many dumped into lakes or buried under mounds of dirt.  He is collecting the gravestones in hopes of establishing a memorial to the Jews who played a significant role in Shanghai’s history for over 100 years.

An American Jewish Couple Reflected in the Monument to Stateless Refugees as a Chinese Girl Looks On

What became of Ho Feng Shan, the Chinese Schindler who rescued so many Austrian Jews from the Nazis?   He did not call attention to his acts of disobedience and served as an ambassador for the Republic of China in Taiwan until he retired in 1973.   The government denied him his pension because $300 of embassy expenses was somehow not accounted for, a charge that may have been politically motivated.  This quiet hero moved to San Francisco, where he died in 1997 at the age of 96.  After his death he was honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s World Holocaust Center.  No one has made a movie of his life.


  1. What happened to Ho Feng Shan? Was he punished for going against his superiors orders? I like to think a hero had a good life, but reality is often different.

  2. Great post, Sharon. Fascinating. Did you know about this before you went to Shanghai ?

    Very touching that he ended up living for so many years in SF.


    • I first learned how so many Jews were saved in Shanghai when we were in China last year, which is why I wanted to take the special tour this time.

  3. Fascinating stories – so important to honor this history, and I visited Shanghai several times when I was in Hangzhou, never took a tour. This is a great opportunity to learn a very deep part of people’s experience, I will look for more specialized tours whenever I can travel. Thank you again, Diane

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