This post was written by Dina Posner, an intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Dina is a candidate for a Masters degree in Historic Preservation at Pratt Institute.
An exhibition detailing a little-known Jewish immigration story debuted at the Museum on the evening of April 30th. Come see our latest exhibition, through October 4th, entitled Harbin, China | Past/Present. The exhibition chronicles the unlikely Jewish community that flourished in a remote Chinese fishing village at the turn of the 20th century. Many Jews were attracted to this small village in the 1890s when the development of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the region promised job opportunities; Immigration to Asia was also attractive and manageable for many Jews hoping to escape persecution in the nearby Russian Empire. The Jewish community in Harbin thrived until conflict in Europe and Asia caused many to flee, and “by the early 1960s, the last Jewish families had relocated, and their synagogues, schools, and other landmarks languished in disuse.” More recently, there has been a renewed appreciation and interest in Harbin’s historic Jewish community. Grand Synagogues have been restored, while plaques and memorials now offer interpretation of this obscure yet significant part of Jewish history.
This unique and compelling story about Harbin got us thinking about other unexpected Jewish communities around the world that either existed historically, or still exist today! And it turns out, to find another unexpected community, we didn’t have to look far. To the south of Harbin, in the larger metropolitan city of Shanghai, China, a large Jewish community flourished for decades during the mid-20th century.
A Jewish community had existed in Shanghai since the late 1800s, but that population exponentially grew as Russian Jews fled the Bolshevik Revolution and tens of thousands more fled Europe as Hitler rose to power in the mid-20th century. As one of the only places in the world that was continuously open to Jewish refugees, Shanghai was a popular destination. In the 1930s, “20,000 or so European Jews found their way to the city.”
Shanghai remained a safe haven for Jews until the beginning years of World War II and the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Until then, Imperial Japan had maintained just partial control of Shanghai; After Pearl Harbor they used force to assume complete control of the city from the Republic of China. Soon after, “the majority of Jews in the city were forced into the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees in Hongkou district, an area which would become known as the ‘Shanghai Ghetto.’”
The Japanese occupation provided a common enemy for the Jewish and Chinese populations of the city, and they lived side by side for much of the war. The city of Shanghai, along with the Ghetto, were liberated on September 3, 1945 in a combined American-Chinese effort. However, peace did not last long in China – the Chinese Civil War soon led to the Communist Revolution of 1949. As the situation worsened in China but improved elsewhere around the world, many moved away and the Jewish community in Shanghai quickly dwindled. However today there are still approximately 2,000 Jews living in Shanghai.
Like Harbin, Shanghai was welcoming Jewish refugees when much of the world was turning them away. Both cities saw the same exponential increase in their Jewish population from the turn of the century to the mid-20th century, and saw the same rapid decrease in population following WWII. Harbin, however, lost its entire Jewish population and is only now seeing a renewed interest in preserving and celebrating that history. Their historic Jewish buildings are being recognized on plaques and identified for preservation and adaptive reuse projects. Harbin’s Jewish history is becoming a part of its contemporary identity.
Shanghai’s challenges are much different. The Jewish population there never completely disappeared, but rapid city development threatens the remnants of history. Today the old “Shanghai Ghetto” is still in use, as an inexpensive neighborhood home to many elderly Chinese residents. As development interests continue to put pressure on the aging parts of the city, it is unclear if these surviving buildings will remain intact.
Beyond saving the physical built fabric, many are finding ways to remember Jewish history in alternative ways. Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, who lives and works in Shanghai, works closely with the residents of the old Ghetto. He feels grateful to the aging Shanghai residents who welcomed the Jews to their city, and he works to ensure that the local Jewish community is now taking care of them. He sees this as a way to say thank you for the support and friendship of the Chinese during the tumultuous years of WWII.
In our Harbin exhibition, we have included the work of Steven Lane, a contemporary artist with family connections to Harbin. Lane has used the old synagogues in Harbin as studio space, and his art in the show focuses on his painting over and reusing of originals and copies of Chinese newspapers, posters and books from the 1960s, which he purchases from markets in Beijing and Harbin. Lane’s art is a way to celebrate the history of diverse communities in China, including the Jews, by highlighting the contemporary work that has emerged from the foundation of these historic communities.
If you are interested in learning more about the Jewish community in Shanghai, The Brooklyn Public Library has recently opened an exhibition detailing this history, including images and ephemera of European Jews who were displaced during the war, films and lectures about their time in China, and a discussion about their eventual emigration to the United States. You can find this exhibit at the Central Library at 10 Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn until May 10th, and at the Kensington Library at 4207 18th Avenue in Brooklyn until May 31st.
To learn more about the historic Jewish community in Harbin, come see the exhibition! Or join us on Thursday, May 15th at 6PM for Harbin, China and its Jewish Community, when historian Marlene Kassel will dive deep into Harbin’s history in an illustrated talk.
Admission to Harbin, China | Past/Present is included in the price of building admission – $14 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for children ages 5-17, and free for children under age 5. We hope to see you soon!