Part #11: Family History in Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review

Our Sunday morning in Shanghai was a special day – and one of the reasons we traveled across the globe. For years, my mom has been telling us about how my grandparents escaped Nazi-occupied Poland by securing illegal visas to Japan and ended up living in the Shanghai Ghetto until they were liberated in 1945. When I was kid growing up in Chicago, I never imagined that one day I would travel to China and walk those same streets as my grandparents.

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Many people have never heard the name Chiune Sugihara, but for thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe, Sugihara was a hero. Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who became the vice-consul for Japan in Lithuania in 1929. During World War II, he handed out thousands of transit visas to Polish and Lithuanian Jews seeking travel to Japan. This was no small thing. According to official Japanese rules, visas were only supposed to be granted to people who had the appropriate funds and a visa for a third destination to leave Japan. Most of the Jews receiving Sugihara’s visas did not fill the bill.

Years later, Sugihara was asked why he worked so hard to save so many lives. He said:

“People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”

My grandparents were lucky enough to secure two of Sugihara’s illicit visas and rode the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia before taking a boat to Kobe, Japan. The Japanese were not all that interested in taking in thousands of European Jews so the government shipped them, including my grandparents, off to Shanghai, which was under Japanese occupation at the time.

So that Sunday morning, my sister and I rode the subway to Shanghai’s northern Hongkou district. Today, there is nothing particularly spectacular about the area. It is a crowded and poor residential area filled with old apartment buildings and corner stores.

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The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum is housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the old ghetto neighborhood.

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All visitors are required to put plastic covers on their shoes to protect the synagogue. For some reason, we found this hysterical.

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The restored bottom floor of the synagoguge

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The back entrance to the synagogue

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A wall of names of many of the Jewish refugees who lived in Shanghai

The second and third floor contain photos of  and letters from the ghetto’s residents and other important people and places from the time period.

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The yellow portion represents the old Shanghai Ghetto

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Pictures of children born in the Shanghai Ghetto

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A photo of a former resident of the Shanghai Ghetto video chatting with a childhood friend in 2011

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When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited the Shanghai Ghetto in 1993, he inscribed these words: “To the People of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.

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A photo of Chiune Sugihara

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A photo of Jewish refugees waiting in line for a pass to leave the ghetto

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Then-U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal visited the home of his youth in 1979

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The former home of U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal in the Shanghai Ghetto

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This building housed the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

A Jewish monument was built in Houshan Park in memorial to the Jews who lived there.

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The museum is small, but it was an incredible — not to mention personal — experience. I left the following inscription in the guest notebook at the Ohel Moshe Synagogue.

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7 thoughts on “Part #11: Family History in Shanghai

  1. […] Part #1: Off to China Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs Part #5: A Walk in the Park Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great Part #8: Beijing’s Art District Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review Part #11: Family History in Shanghai […]

  2. […] Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review Part #11: Family History in Shanghai Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in […]

  3. […] Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review Part #11: Family History in Shanghai Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to […]

  4. […] Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review Part #11: Family History in Shanghai Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to […]

  5. […] Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review Part #11: Family History in Shanghai Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to […]

  6. […] Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review Part #11: Family History in Shanghai Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to […]

  7. […] Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review Part #11: Family History in Shanghai Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to […]

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