The Miracle of Shanghai: How the city saved thousands of Jews during World War II

Andy Boreham
Nestled to the north of Shanghai's famous Pudong skyline is an area covering roughly two square kilometers, that is remembered by thousands of Jewish refugees as home. 
Andy Boreham

Video by Andy Boreham. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou and Andy Boreham. Drone footage by Zhou Shengjie.

In a small area of Hongkou District, to the north and across the Huangpu River from the glittering lights of Pudong’s famous skyline, lies a 2-square-kilometer area that many refer to as the Miracle of Shanghai.

From 1943, it was also known as the Shanghai Ghetto, because that small area — located in one of the poorest and most squalid areas of the time — became home to around 18,000 European Jewish refugees fleeing persecution during World War II.

Shanghai was one of the only places on the planet welcoming Jewish refugees, the other being the Dominican Republic. Altogether nearly 20,000 of them escaped on ships and set up new businesses, lives and homes here.

Eventually the Japanese, who were at the time in control of Shanghai, forced the European Jewish refugees located all around the city to pack up and resettle in a small area in Hongkou District, already home to some 100,000 Chinese.

At the end of World War II, the Shanghai Ghetto was finally liberated, and the Jewish refugees there began to slowly leave, setting up new homes in Australia, the United States and Israel.

Visiting the area and seeing what’s left was important for me to understand the history a bit more.

Of course, the first place I recommend visiting is the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which is open every day.

The museum is located at the site of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, created in 1927 and one of only two remaining in the entire city.

The synagogue, repurposed using an existing building, was the major venue where European Jewish refugees performed religious rites during World War II.

In 2007, Shanghai’s city government gave the building protected status, which allowed for funds that helped restore it to its former glory.

The museum also features a number of other small buildings with exhibitions, stories and artifacts.

Right across the road is another building of cultural significance, which was, and still is, the home of the White Horse Cafe. When it opened in 1939, it was a buzzing cafe, bar and nightclub — the place to be seen during the time of the Shanghai Ghetto for not only Jewish refugees, but also anyone else who wanted to come and hang out.

Unfortunately, the original building was demolished in 2009 so that the road could be widened. The new building standing in its place is an exact replica, rebuilt from blueprints in 2015.

Guests can have a cup of tea and a cake after they’ve taken in the sites and stories of the museum across the street, although the service is quite lacking. Don’t order an Oreo milkshake, because they’ve been out of Oreos and cream for at least the past few weeks, but they won’t tell you that.

After that I ventured down Zhoushan Road, where many of the apartments Jewish refugees lived in still stand to this day. The area used to be known as Little Vienna because it was packed with European-style bakeries, delis and more. Seven shelters were eventually set up in the area, some squeezing up to 30 people to a room.

Once you reach Huoshan Road and cross over, you’ll arrive at Huoshan Park which was, back in the day, known by the name Wayside Park. It’s a small but beautiful green sanctuary which served as a place of relaxation and solace for refugees back in the time of the ghetto. Today it’s much the same, with retired locals gathered around playing Chinese chess and poker.

If you’re wanting to take in a bit of Shanghai history, be sure to visit the former ghetto.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is located at 62 Changyang Road in Hongkou District, and is open daily from 9am until 5pm. You can get there by taking Metro Line 12 to Tilanqiao Station.

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