Preserving memories of Shanghai's Jewish occupants

Updated: 2015-05-09 18:48


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SHANGHAI -- One evening in 1945, an alley in Shanghai burst into uproar. Six-year-old Li Huirong looked out of the window and saw her Jewish neighbors running out of their houses, singing, dancing and crying in joy.

It was August 15, 1945, when Japan surrendered, ending World War II. For locals like Li and the over 20,000 Jewish refugees in the city, it marked the end of their ordeals.

During WWII, Shanghai was one of the few cities in the world to receive large numbers of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution. Seventy years on, Li can still recall the days when most of her neighbors were Jews and when the fragrance from Jewish cafes soothed the pain brought by Japanese occupation.

Li's childhood residence was in Hongkou District, where most of the Jewish refugees settled. Li describes the Jews as polite and friendly neighbors who always kept the community clean and tidy.

"A Jewish couple often invited us kids to their home, and they gave me candies and desserts every time we met. When they left after the war ended, they took a picture for us. I still have this picture," Li said.

These fragmented memories are what Shanghai has been trying to preserve in an effort to cherish the Chinese-Jewish friendship and celebrate the coming 70th anniversary of victory in the World Anti-Fascist War.

In February, Shanghai applied for the old Jewish ghetto to be inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register after years of collecting refugee lists, literary, video and audio materials.

The city is also restoring the White Horse Cafe, a popular social spot for Jewish refugees during their sojourn in the city. The site is scheduled to open in September, according to the Hongkou district government.

Wang Jian, researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the cafe was a typical building in "Little Vienna", referring to Hongkou in the 1930s and 1940s when many cafes were opened by home-sick Jews.

The restoration of the cafe has been praised by the overseas Jewish community, especially the family of its founder Rudolf Mossberg, who have donated 20 old photos to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

Chen Jian, curator of the museum, said the cafe was a popular venue for Jewish refugees to hold weddings, including of Kurt Mossberg, son of Rudolf, and many of its Jewish customers.

"To them, Shanghai was like a blessed land in the war," Chen said.

And for Shanghai residents, the cafe is not the only legacy left by the sojourning Jews. Many Shanghai families still treasure gifts given by their Jewish neighbors upon their departure.

Ge Zhengrong remembers his parents sheltered a Jewish couple in their house. When they left after the war ended, they gave an oil painting to the family as a token of gratitude.

"On his death bed, my dad specifically told us to preserve this painting," he said. "For 70 years, it has been kept like our family heirloom."