Home Artifacts LA Holocaust Museum Exhibit Highlights Shanghai’s Jewish Refugees

LA Holocaust Museum Exhibit Highlights Shanghai’s Jewish Refugees

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When the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, George Kolber’s Viennese Jewish grandparents, Josef and Eva Kolber, knew they had to leave Europe. Where they were going, however, was a bit unusual.

Both left Austria for Shanghai. Kolber’s grandmother took an overland route using the Trans-Siberian Railway while her grandfather traveled by sea. Eva’s proneness to seasickness was likely the reason she chose to travel the long distance by land, Kolber said during an April 22 lecture at the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum.

Kolber spoke at the museum ahead of the opening of his new exhibit, “Hidden History: Telling Shanghai’s Jewish History.”

The Kolbers’ journey is one of five family stories highlighted in the exhibit, which opened April 24 and runs through mid-August. The exhibit highlights more than 20,000 stateless Jews who fled Europe to Shanghai, China between 1933 and 1941, while focusing on the stories of the Medavoy, Maimann, Kolber, Friedmann and Millett families.

On display are family artifacts, including concentration camp postcards, a ketubah written in Chinese and a tallit embroidered with both the Magen David and a wreath of plum blossoms, which symbolize resilience and perseverance in Chinese culture.

On display are family artifacts, including concentration camp postcards, a ketubah written in Chinese and a tallit embroidered with both the Magen David and a wreath of plum blossoms, which symbolize resilience and perseverance in Chinese culture.

Twin sisters Monika White (left) and Gitta Morris, born in Shanghai during the war. Photo by Tamara Leigh Photography

A blue yarmulke on loan from the Skirball Cultural Center – the Chinese believe blue represents advancement and immortality – as well as photographs of Shanghai’s Jewish community taken by renowned photojournalist Arthur Rothstein are also on display. In 1946, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration commissioned Rothstein to document the lives of displaced Holocaust survivors in Shanghai’s Hongkew Ghetto.

The exhibition was originally scheduled to open in 2020 but COVID-19 forced its postponement. Ultimately, the timing of the exhibit’s opening was fortuitous, as the story of European Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives was particularly relevant given current events in Ukraine, said Jordanna Gessler, vice president. education and exhibits at the Holocaust Museum LA.

In the 1930s, Shanghai became an unexpected refuge for German and Austrian Jews because, until 1939, no visa was required to enter Shanghai. When the Japanese occupied Shanghai in 1941, they forced the Jews into Hongkew, a district of Shanghai. The area became known as the “Shanghai Ghetto”.

Yet while life for Jews in Shanghai was difficult, Jews who fled to Shanghai fared better than those who remained in Europe, Kolber said. In fact, the majority of Shanghai’s Jews survived the Holocaust. While Shanghai’s Jewish population peaked at around 20,000, today there are around 2,000 Jews left in Shanghai.

Before the Holocaust, a small population of Jews already lived in Shanghai, including 1,000 Sephardic Jews who arrived from Iraq in the mid-1800s.

The Jewish refugees who fled Europe for China during the Holocaust were not the first Jews in Shanghai. Before the Holocaust, a small population of Jews already lived in Shanghai, including 1,000 Sephardic Jews who arrived from Iraq in the mid-1800s as well as a few thousand Ashkenazi Jews who had fled pogroms in Russia.

Michael Medavoy’s family was one of those in Shanghai before the war. Born in Shanghai in 1941, Medavoy became a successful Hollywood film producer. He participated in the April 24 panel marking the opening of the exhibit, along with Congressman Adam Schiff and Ted Lieu.

On April 22, the museum hosted a preview of the exhibit for members of the museum’s board of trustees and the family whose artifacts were there. In attendance were Monika White, 82, and her twin sister, Gitta Morris. Child survivors of the Holocaust, their parents fled Germany to China in 1938, traveling to Shanghai by boat from Berlin. The family lived in Hongkew, sharing a one-room apartment with four families.

“We remember being hungry,” White said. “We remember being scared.”

The twin sisters stayed in the Chinese city until they were eight years old, then came with their father to the United States with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The family settled in Minneapolis, where there was a school for the girls, a job for their father, and a home for the family.

For the twins, seeing the story of Shanghai’s Jewish refugees told in the exhibit was gratifying if not for another reason that people are generally unaware of Jews escaping to Shanghai during the war.

“Most of the Holocaust stories are about Europe and the concentration camps,” White said. “Ours is a little different.”