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New exhibit spotlights the experience of ‘Shanghai Jews’

Explore a new Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center exhibit

shanghaijews image
Gift of Doris Fogel, in memory of her mother Edith Warschawski.

A new Illinois Holocaust Museum exhibition offers a glimpse into the daily lives of the approximately 20,000 Jewish "stateless refugees" seeking sanctuary in China in the 1930s and 1940s who found refuge from the Nazis in Shanghai's Hongkew ghetto.

Shanghai: Safe Haven During the Holocaust features large-scale photographs by renowned American Jewish photojournalist Arthur Rothstein, along with local survivors' artifacts from the Museum's permanent collection. 

Running July 15, 2021 to Sept. 5, 2022, the exhibition showcases everyday life in Shanghai's 1-square-mile Hongkew District, where immigrants fleeing the Holocaust found sanctuary and community in the most trying of times. Rothstein's images depict refugee families struggling to survive in overcrowded communal housing, washing laundry in cluttered courtyards framed by grimy buildings, searching lists of concentration camp survivors, and cooking over improvised stoves with U.S. Army field rations.

"These photos provide a window into the lives of refugees who found temporary sanctuary during the turbulent years of World War II," said Chief Curator Arielle Weininger. "The exhibition is a tribute to human endurance, capturing both the enormous hardship and fierce perseverance of these refugees and their families, as they managed to survive." 

The objects on display will include immigration documents, professional papers, and personal keepsakes. Visitors will learn the stories of these moving items, accompanied by photographs and brief biographies of their original owners, all Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the Chicago area. 

While the story of the Shanghai ghetto as a haven during the Holocaust is little-known, there are survivors in Chicagoland who lived in the ghetto and tell their story.

Judy Kolb and Doris Fogel both eventually settled in the Chicago area. Kolb was born in the ghetto after her parents emigrated to China following the events of Kristallnacht, "The Night of Broken Glass." Fogel, who entered the ghetto at four years old with her mother, aunt, uncle, and cousin, remained there until they left for California when she was 13. 

The striking combination of photographs and artifacts will tell the unique story of Jewish refugees in Shanghai while drawing parallels with contemporary refugee experiences.

"Sharing one room with four other people for five years, going without tap water for nearly a decade, using a bucket as a lavatory [in] the poorest, poorest part of Shanghai made me tough," said local Shanghai ghetto survivor Doris Fogel. "It made me street smart. It made me learn how to take care of myself."

European Jews, who were shut out of country after country while trying to escape Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s, found a beacon of hope in Shanghai. In 1938, hundreds of Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai, with thousands more following in the coming years. By 1941, around 20,000 Jews found refuge there. 

Even so, living in Shanghai wasn't easy for the refugees. "Life in Shanghai was primitive. Staying healthy was a constant problem. Food was rationed and obtained mostly from a soup kitchen," Fogel said. "I remember fighting with my cousin about a piece of bread. I was so undernourished that at the age of 13 when I came to the U.S., I weighed 65 pounds."

In early 1943, Shanghai was under Japanese occupation, and Japanese authorities relocated all stateless refugees--Jews who had arrived after 1937--into the Shanghai ghetto. The ghetto was cramped, disease-ridden, and dirty, but ultimately safe for its Jewish inhabitants, who were treated humanely by their Chinese neighbors. For the remaining years of the war, they were confined to the ghetto and could leave only with passes issued by Japanese authorities. 

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