Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Yiddish in Shanghai

During World War II, Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China, became a haven for Jewish refugees, most notably the students from the Mirrer Yeshiva. After the “Battle of Shanghai” in 1937, the imperial Japanese occupied Shanghai. Since passports were not needed to enter, thousands of Austrian and German Jews arrived, joining the established Jewish community there, which consisted of about 4,000 Russian Jews from Czarist Russia and Iraqi Jews, who had arrived decades earlier.

Between 1938 and 1941, 19,451 Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai by land and by sea. The 400-strong delegation from the Mirrer yeshiva in Lithuania arrived in 1941. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, immigration into Shanghai was severely curbed, stricter security measures were imposed, and, most notably, the flow of funds from the Joint Distribution Committee ceased. Many of the Baghdadi Jews who were British subjects were interned after Pearl Harbor, since England had also joined the war against Japan.

Since the Japanese allied themselves with Nazi Germany, they accepted the “Third Reich’s” claim that the Jewish refugees were stateless. The Japanese therefore stripped the Eastern European immigrants of their citizenship, and on February 18, 1943, they were forcibly moved to a designated area, to be known as the Shanghai Ghetto, a ¾ square square mile area within Shanghai’s Hongkou district. The Yiddish speaking refugees called the city “shond chai,” shame of a life in Yiddish. Ghetto residents bore passports with a yellow line, and lived under curfew and food rations, but were not restricted in travel or dress.

Jewish life continued in the ghetto. The Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which had been built in 1907, served as the center of the Russian immigrant community. In April, 1941, another Ashkenazic synagogue was built, dubbed “The New Synagogue.” The Mirrer Yeshiva students pursued their studies in the Beth Aharon Synagogue which had been built years earlier by a wealthy member of the Shanghai Sephardic community.

The U.S. 7th Air Force began bombing Shanghai in 1944, ending with Japan’s surrender in August, 1945. The most devastating air raid over Shanghai took place on July 17, 1945, which killed 38 Jewish refugees and hundreds of Chinese. The Hongkou district did not have any bomb shelters.

Evelyn Pike Rubin, grandmother of NJOP program coordinator Gavi Lerner, chronicled her stay in the Shanghai Ghetto in her book, “Ghetto Shanghai.” Ms. Rubin wrote that after hearing that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed with “a new kind of bomb,” those in Shanghai worried that Shanghai would be targeted next.

Only after the war did they learn of the heartbreaking fate of their kinsmen back in Eastern Europe.

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