Curated by Holocaust Museum LA, this never-before-seen exhibition entitled “Hidden History: Recounting the Shanghai Jewish Story” tells the little-known history of the diverse, resettled Jewish community in Shanghai, including Iraqi Jews who arrived in the mid-1800s, Russian Jews who fled pogroms at the turn of the century, and German and Austrian Jews who desperately escaped the Nazis. With most countries limiting or denying entry to Jews during the 1930s, the free port of Shanghai became an unexpected safe haven for Jews attempting to flee the antisemitic policies and identity-based violence in Nazi-controlled Europe.
“Hidden History” explores this multifaceted history of desperation, loss, and asylum through survivor stories and the photographic lens of prominent American photojournalist Arthur Rothstein, who documented the Shanghai Jewish community in 1946 for the United Nations. The exhibition highlights their stories of survival and features vibrant artifacts from the Holocaust Museum LA's collection, as well as those on loan from the Skirball Cultural Center, Yad Vashem, and the Arolsen Archives in Germany.
JEWISH LIFE IN CHINA
From the second century BCE until the perfection of maritime trade, the Silk Road served as the major conduit across Europe, Africa, and Asia. Jewish merchants had the unique ability to communicate with regional Jews across the Silk Road who would then translate between their lingua franca, Hebrew, and local languages; thus, they easily traveled, traded, and communicated across the continents. The first established Chinese Jewish community settled in Kaifeng, a bustling center for trade, communication, and transportation, and at the time, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).
Courtesy of the Skirball Museum, Skirball Cultural Center, Gift of Nancy and Alan Block
THE FIRST JEWISH COMMUNITY IN SHANGHAI
In 1842, the Treaty of Nanjing ended the Opium War between Great Britain and China and opened five Chinese cities to international trade, establishing Shanghai as an open port for foreign business and settlement. Seeking both an escape from antisemitic persecution as well as the expansive work opportunities a new port city like Shanghai offered, Baghdadi Jewish immigrants migrated and settled in the city. They maintained Jewish customs, founded schools and synagogues, established youth groups, and created a rich, unique way of life. Prominent Baghdadi Jewish families, such as the Sassoons, Kadoories, Hayims, and Hardoons achieved economic success, establishing vast business empires and expanding trade.
David Sassoon & Sons
HARBIN JEWISH COMMUNITY
The Russo-Manchurian Treaty of 1897 allowed Russia to expand the Trans-Siberian Railroad with the Chinese Eastern Railway. Harbin, a village in Manchuria, grew as the administrative center for the railway construction and, along with Tianjin and Shanghai, became a desirable place for Jews seeking work opportunities as well as an escape from oppression. By 1903, the year the rail line opened, a self-administered Jewish community of about 500 was already established in Harbin. The Harbin Jewish population continued to grow with waves of refugees fleeing pogroms and brutality during World War I, the Russian Revolution, and Russian Civil War. Jewish life in Harbin peaked in 1930 with tens of thousands of Jews calling the city home. The Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 drastically impacted the community, resulting in many Jews leaving to other parts of China, including Shanghai.
Dora Ozer, born in Harbin, with friends on a beach
ESCAPING NAZI DESTRUCTION
Europe was home to a set of dynamic, diverse Jewish cultures for over 2,600 years, most of which was decimated during the Holocaust (1933-1945). Within weeks of coming to power, Hitler dismantled democracy and paved the way for a totalitarian, antisemitic government, enacting the first discriminatory anti-Jewish laws in April 1933. The Nazi government enacted thousands of prejudicial laws to restrict the civil and human rights of Jews living under their control. These dehumanizing laws segregated and isolated Jews from society and deteriorated their everyday lives. Following Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, these antisemitic policies were quickly extended to Austrian Jews, sparking a refugee crisis as Jews living under Nazi control desperately tried to emigrate. Though seemingly an unlikely refuge, Shanghai, as an international port city, required no entry visa, becoming one of the only options for German and Austrian Jews trying to escape the brutal violence.
Destroyed shop owned by a German Jew following Kristallnacht
SANCTUARY IN SHANGHAI
By the 1930s, Shanghai, the hub of China’s international trade, was the fourth largest city in the world. What began as a trickle of approximately 1,500 Jewish refugees from Europe, soon developed into a flood, with numbers jumping to 17,000 by the end of 1938.
Prior to the waves of refugees arriving in 1938, the Mizrahi and Ashkenazi communities had created their own institutions and organizational structures. However, these two established communities cooperated to provide a massive aid effort for the anguished Jewish refugees who managed to reach Shanghai. The Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees was established in October 1938 by community leaders who established accommodations, soup kitchens, and financial aid.
Dora Medavoy (née Ozer), born on May 24, 1921, in Harbin, was the youngest of 15 children born to parents Moses and Bertha, originally from Odessa. After Moses passed away in 1926, Bertha, Dora, and two of her siblings went by train, first to Tianjin to stay with Dora’s older sister, and then to Shanghai. Dora worked in fashion, taking measurements in a corset store, and in 1939, she met Michael Medavoy at the Shanghai branch of Betar, a youth Zionist movement. Michael, born in Ukraine in 1918, had immigrated with his family to Shanghai as the city was found to be free of antisemitism.
As a young couple, Michael and Dora enjoyed the cosmopolitan city, attending parties and dances, and socializing with friends. The pair were married in 1940 at the Ohel Rachel Synagogue (built by the Sassoons, it still stands today) and settled among the Russian Jewish community. Dora opened a clothing store and Michael worked as a mechanic, becoming a manager at the Shanghai Telephone Company. The couple had two children, Mike, in 1941, and Veronica, in 1947.
As the Shanghai Jewish community quickly mobilized to provide aid to the influx of refugees, Betar, of which Michael and Dora were members, helped receive the refugees and transported vital supplies. Michael was a member of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, a group that volunteered to protect Jewish refugees while supporting the Shanghai Municipal Police.
Following the end of the war, the Medavoys secured passage to Chile in 1947, as strict immigration quotas in the U.S. made it difficult to obtain a visa. They eventually immigrated to the U.S. in 1957.