While I was researching the property law of the treaty ports, I learned much about the unique political situation of the international settlement in Shanghai.
The international settlement essentially has an extra-territorial, independent government. The city was a harbor for culture, literature, and the arts. When the Qing dynasty, and later the Nationalist government, cracked down on liberal writers, they fled to Shanghai to publish their political criticisms. During the various rebellions of the 19th century, the settlement remained neutral. When the Japanese invaded northern China, the city remain isolated from the effects of the first Japanese war and creation of the Manchuguo.
After the Nazi party was elected in 1933, many German Jews fled to Britain, Canada, and the US, but eventually, those countries limited their visa allowance and shut their doors. Shanghai was the only city in the world that allowed free entry without a visa and it soon attracted thousands of Jewish refugees from across Europe. Even after the Japanese invaded Shanghai in 1937, Jews continued to flee to China.
As WWII raged on the the Nazi’s pressured the Japanese to hand over the Jewish refugees. Folklore (Wikipedia) has it that the after receiving this message a Japanese governor was curious: “Why do the Germans hate you so much?” “Without hesitation and knowing the fate of his community hung on his answer, Reb Kalish told the translator (in Yiddish): “Zugim weil mir senen orientalim — Tell him [the Germans hate us] because we are Orientals.” The governor, whose face had been stern throughout the confrontation, broke into a slight smile. In spite of the military alliance, he did not accede to the German demand and the Shanghai Jews were never handed over.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Ghetto
Instead, the Japanese Government moved the refugees into the Hongkou Ghetto known as the “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees.” This area housed the refugees for the remainder of the war. The area was immediately overcrowded with over 20,000 refugees crammed into a square mile area. They faced problems of starvation and poor sanitation. However, aid soon arrived from international humanitarian organizations the ghetto flourished as a center for Jewish culture and society.
Today, a portion of the Ghetto area has been restored as a museum of the refugees.
What amazed me about my visit to the museum is the dichotomy that is existed between the past and the present situation of the Jews in China. Like so many other museums in China, there is a gap in the history from 1949 to the 1990s. The reality is that just as the Jews fled Nazi Europe during WWII, the Jews fled Shanghai immediately after the war as the Chinese civil war expanded. Almost the entire community vanished within the space of a couple of years.
Altar in the rebuild synagogue
Today, Judaism is not an officially recognized religion in China, which means that followers may only have a limited presence in China. The construction of houses of worship and the holding of meetings are limited. This is situation that is shared with many other faiths including many protestant denominations including – Mormons, Baha’i, and Christian Orthodox. (The officially recognized religions of China are Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism, Taoism, and Catholicism.) While there are some Jews in China, their population is sparse. I asked my guide if she (a Chinese) could join a Jewish church, and she said that she probably could not.