Owings Mills resident Yvonne Daniel says her parents, Hermann and Hetty Heuman, never forgot their time in Shanghai.

The Heumans were newlyweds when they fled Nazi Germany shortly after Kristallnacht, the infamous “night of broken glass” on Nov. 9-10, 1938, viewed by historians as a precursor to the Holocaust. They were among the more than 20,000 Jews who left their homeland and eventually took refuge in the Chinese city during World War II.

“My mom always said that her honeymoon was a trip to China,” recalls Daniel, a Baltimore resident for the past 44 years. “When my parents landed after the long trip by ship, everything was foreign to them. The people, the language, the food, the customs, everything. But Shanghai was an open city, so they didn’t need papers to enter.

“Several years later, when they and the other Jews learned about the horrors that had occurred in Nazi-occupied Europe, they all considered Shanghai paradise.”

The exhibition “Jewish Refugees and Shanghai” will be presented at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from Feb. 3 to March 10.  On loan from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, the exhibition’s 52 panels detail the community’s history and are printed in English and Chinese, featuring first-person stories of life in Shanghai and the creation of the Hongkou ghetto there.

In addition to the visiting exhibition, a lobby display will highlight the stories of Marylanders who escaped to Shanghai. “Jewish Refugees and Shanghai” will be accompanied by several community programs featuring such speakers as Daniel, scholars and others.

Marvin D. Pinkert, the JMM’s executive director, says Shanghai’s embrace of Jewish refugees during the war serves as an inspiration during these times when immigration is a flashpoint issue in American society.

“’Jewish Refugees and Shanghai’ represents a model of humanity during some of the darkest days of the 20th century,” he says. “The inspirational stories of how one city welcomed them when few others would demonstrates important lessons of cross-cultural acceptance.”

A Beth El congregant who was born in a Shanghai hospital in 1944, Daniel says that despite the city’s pervasive “filth and deprivation” during the war, “my parents never said anything negative about Shanghai.”

From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai opened its doors to European Jews fleeing persecution and war, creating an “open city for Jews” when much of the rest of the world was closed to refugees from Nazi Germany.

By 1944, Japanese forces, which controlled Shanghai throughout the war, moved all of the Jewish refugees to Hongkou, a ghetto in the northern section of the city. “The Nazis had pressured their Axis partners, the Japanese, to get rid of the Jews, but instead the Japanese moved them into Hongkou,” says Pinkert.

Known as “the Shanghai Ghetto,” Hongkou was home to unsanitary health conditions and diseases. But the Jews there slowly transformed their area into a community that came to be known as “Little Vienna.”

1940 wedding certificate

A 1940 wedding certificate of Jewish refugees Wilhelm (William) Kurz and Selma Hirschfeld, who relocated to the Jewish colony in Shanghai. They came to the U.S. in 1947 and resettled in Baltimore.
(Photo courtesy of Jewish Museum of Maryland)

“In Hongkou, the Jews opened restaurants, shops, newspapers, schools, cafes, bookstores and theaters,” Pinkert says. “They could get day passes out of the ghetto while their Chinese friends and neighbors could go into and out of Hongkou.”

Among the Jewish children who grew up in Shanghai during that period were the acclaimed counterculture artist Peter Max, violinists Ferdinand Adler and Alfred Wittenberg, and former Secretary of the Treasury W. Michael Blumenthal.

After the war, Jews began leaving Shanghai for the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and other countries. By the time of the Chinese Communist Revolution in the late 1940s, virtually all the Jews of Shanghai had emigrated.

Pinkert says the Chinese government wants to preserve the wartime legacy of the Shanghai Jewish community.

“They are proud of being welcoming to a community shunned by most of the world,” he says. 

For information, visit jewishmuseummd.org 

Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.