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Exile in Shanghai


Busy street with rickshaws and vendors

Nanking Road in Shanghai, photo by Berthold Metis, around 1940. Metis managed to flee with his family to Shanghai in 1938 following three weeks in a concentration camp.
© Jüdisches Museum Berlin, donated by Rita Opitz

men living in makeshift home, clothing hangs from the ceiling

Men in a home for refugees in Shanghai, photo by Arthur Rothstein, around 1939
© United Nations Archives, Arthur Rothstein Collection, New York

After the 1938 November Pogrom, Shanghai became one of the most important sanctuaries for Jewish emigrants. In the period up to 1941, some 20,000 refugees, most of them German Jews, made their way to the infamous city on the East China Sea.

Shanghai was literally at the end of the world for German-speaking Jews. Still it became a last resort for many, since unlike other countries, entry there required neither visa nor debt guarantee. This easy accessibility made the town the "exile of the little people."

After weeks of travelling by ship or with the Trans-Siberian railway, the refugees would arrive in Shanghai, often destitute and dependent on the support of Jewish aid organizations.

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The director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, W. Michael Blumenthal, fled with his family to Shanghai in 1939. He describes the refugees' living conditions here.

An unfamiliar environment with primitive, mass accommodations shaped daily life and only a few managed to establish secure livelihoods. The artists and writers among them saw the emergence of a diverse cultural life.

The city's occupation by the Japanese Army at the end of 1941 worsened the circumstances of the refugees, declared "stateless" by the German government.
In 1943, they had to move to a ghetto in the district of Hongkew, where they lived together in a confined space and suffered under the reprisals of the Japanese ruler.

Drawing of an old man bent over his walking-stick

Mr. Nobody, woodcut by David Ludwig Bloch, 1940s. Born in Upper Palatinate, the artist Bloch went to Shanghai in 1940.
© Jewish Museum Berlin, acquired by Lydia Abel / VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn

After the war ended, great uncertainty prevailed among the refugees. In addition to the question of how things might continue, came worries about the relatives and friends left behind in Europe. Most of them moved on to the U.S., Australia or Palestine. Only a few returned to their former homes.

Even though they were later scattered throughout the world, the experience of exile led to a lifelong connection of the "Shanghailanders," as this website documents: www.rickshaw.org.

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