Shanghai in Context

Posted on February 21st, 2019 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

Question from a member on opening night: “How did you manage to translate the exhibit into Chinese?”

The self-evident confusion in this question inspired today’s blogpost. I realized that this visitor was under the impression that the JMM had created the Jewish Refugees and Shanghai exhibit when, in fact, most of it was designed and developed in China by the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum and “shipped” to us electronically. The translation was from Chinese into English, not the other way around and even this translation was done in Shanghai (with some editing for grammar and style by JMM).

Only the three cases (and a small wall to the left, not pictured) that connect the story to Maryland were actually curated by our exhibits team.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been really pleased with the response to the exhibit. We had wonderful feedback from our Members’ Preview event on Feb. 2. Two Sundays ago, demand for the program with Dr. Oyen was so high that we had to take down the partition wall in the Orientation Plaza to accommodate the 140+ guests who wanted to hear the lecture. But the story above got me thinking about supplying some of the context that might not be self-evident in the exhibit.

1. This exhibit tells the story of the survival of the Jewish community in WWII, not the broader story of Jews in China.

Though the exhibit begins in the 1930s, there has been a Jewish presence in China since at least the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD). The earliest documentary evidence of that presence consists of letters from merchants following the Silk Road (Baghdad to the Chinese capital at Xi’an). By 1163 the first synagogue was built in Kaifeng (and at least two other Chinese cities have synagogues in the 12th century) (image via).

These early communities were made up of Jews from Iraq and Persia – but over time, through intermarriage and conversions they became undistinguishable from their Chinese neighbors, except in their religious custom. In 1605, the first papal ambassador assigned to China, Matteo Ricci, was shocked to “discover” a Chinese community with a rabbi, a synagogue and religious rituals very similar to those he had seen in Italy. Over time religious life declined. The last rabbi in Kaifeng died in 1810 and the synagogue was abandoned following the Taiping Rebellion (the most devastating civil war in human history – 20 to 30 million casualties).

2. The exhibit tells the story from a Chinese perspective.

Several people have noticed the absence of a panel dedicated to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania (image via).

Sugihara courageously saves the lives of more than 2000 Jews by issuing transit visas to Japan. Those who escaped from Lithuania in 1940 ended up in Shanghai before the war’s end.

By contrast, the Chinese consul in Vienna, Dr. Ho Feng-Shan, who also saves thousands of lives with exit visas following the Anschluss is honored with his own panel.

Both men are recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Why this discrepancy in coverage in the exhibit? This is, after all, a traveling exhibit from China and given the Chinese experience under Japanese occupation, I think some reticence to acknowledge Japanese heroes is understandable.

I suggest that those wishing to explore Sugihara’s life further might read Rabbi Marvin Tokayer’s account in the book The Fugu Plan, a copy of which we’ve made available in the mini-library in the center of the exhibit.

3. So who is responsible for Jewish survival in Shanghai in WWII– the Chinese? or the Japanese?

David Sassoon (pictured in tuxedo) is among the first merchants in the opium trade and an early member of the International Settlement in Shanghai.

I believe the answer to this question is very complicated – it’s both and it’s neither. Multiple factors contributed to the positive result. It begins with the circumstances that allowed for the creation of the “International Settlement” – a rare geographic zone that did not require entry visas. The pre-existing Iraqi and Mizrahi Jewish communities in Shanghai (including the great merchant families like the Kadoories and Sassoons) also played a key role in keeping the community afloat in the early years. The Japanese and Chinese consuls mentioned above both facilitated the escape from Europe. The Chinese provided some aid to their new Jewish neighbors after Japan established the Hongkou ghetto. And finally, Japan’s resistance to the German Meisinger Plan for the extermination of Shanghai’s Jews was critical to the survival of the Jewish community (and is credited in the exhibit).

4. Can something awful lead to something good?

I can’t let the mention of “International Settlement” pass without pointing out that this key element in Jewish survival had its origins in a very unfortunate set of circumstances (image via). Here’s the story:

To be profitable cargo trade needs to have full ships in both directions. But in the late 18th century, Europeans and Americans hungered for much of what China had to offer – porcelain, tea and spices. But China had little need of exports from the West. The British merchants had a solution to this problem. Ship a product to China that could be guaranteed to create its own sustaining market: opium. I regret to say that the Sassoons were among the British citizens profiting from the trade of opium from India to China. When the Chinese – to protect their population – seized the opium and jailed the merchants, it led to the First Opium War. China lost. And this led to the first of the so-called Unequal Treaties (the Treaty of Nanjing), treaties which effectively ceded pieces of Chinese territory to European control. America followed the British lead and also got a concession in Shanghai.

For the sake of improved commerce the American and British lands were combined to create the beginning of Shanghai’s International Settlement. Japan was able – through concentrated effort – to rescind the Unequal Treaties imposed on that nation … and eventually even eked out its own concessions from China. But the Japanese army wanted more. In 1931 taking Manchuria and by 1937 controlling large swaths of coastal China as part of its “Co-prosperity Sphere”– including Shanghai. Japan, however, carefully respected the rights of other European powers, avoiding conflict with the International Settlement prior to December 7, 1941. In this way, the greed of the colonial powers indirectly creates a haven for Jewish escape from the Holocaust.

I hope you find these additional contexts intriguing and that you will take advantage of the opportunity this exhibit, and its associated programs provide for deeper exploration.

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With a Single Step

Posted on December 24th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.


A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single stepLao Tzu*, c. 550 BCE

Every exhibit at JMM is a journey. Many, like last year’s Just Married!,v are journeys through time set in our own backyard here in Maryland. A few, our current exhibit Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini, is an example, travel across the globe as well. But no matter how deep or how far the journey they all, following the Taoist proverb begin with a single step.

Sometimes that step occurs within the walls of our museum – like finding an unusual object in our collection. Sometimes it seems to be serendipity (besheret) – for example, my encounter with magician David London while escaping the heat at Artscape.

The single step that initiated our next project happened halfway around the world.

Two JMM Board members (Duke Zimmerman and Abe Kronsberg) on a tour of China stepped into the former Ohel Moshe synagogue in Shanghai which has been converted into the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and started a conversation with the Museum’s director James Yang. Their meeting let to an e-mail and that e-mail led to an agreement and just fourteen months later JMM will host the Maryland premiere of Jewish Refugees and Shanghai, a panel exhibition of photos and facsimiles with bilingual text in English and Mandarin.

My personal interest in the Shanghai story began years ago when I read Rabbi Marvin Tokayer’s Fugu Plan, the story of the Lithuanian refugees saved by Consul Sugihara and their difficult passage across Russia to Kobe, Japan and eventually to Shanghai. I knew that they were a small part of a much larger refugee community in Shanghai during the Holocaust, but I frankly lacked an appreciation for just how much larger (more than 20,000 Jewish residents) and how much longer (1937 to 1948) this refugee community survived.

Shanghai, today by far the largest city in the world, was a relatively small town into the early 1800s. The Treaty of Nanking (1842) imposed by the British at the end of the First Opium War had the effect of making Shanghai an open port – a place where East met West. It also encouraged the first Jewish settlers here, Baghdadi merchant families, like the Sassoons and the Kadoories, who made the city a base for their East Asian operations. A second wave of Jewish settlement came between 1903 and the mid-1920s and Jews fled the pogroms of Russia and later political uncertainty of the Soviet Union for new lives in Harbin and Shanghai.

The third, and most desperate wave of immigrants began to arrive from Germany in 1937 and, after the Anschluss, from Austria in 1938, many saved by exit visas from Chinese diplomat, Dr. Ho Feng Shan.The neighborhood where they settled, Hongkou, soon acquired the nickname “Little Vienna.” By the time they arrived, Japan had already occupied much of the city outside of the International Settlement and their fate during the war would be entwined with the shifting positions of the Japanese government, consistently under pressure from its German allies to adopt harsher policies towards the Jewish community.

The exhibit not only explains the history of the community as a whole, but also devotes considerable attention to individual stories, of both the famous and unheralded residents. There is a panel on the life of future US Treasury Secretary, W. Michael Blumenthal and one on artist Peter Max and his first Chinese art tutor. There are also stories of work life, weddings, and beauty contests – of help from Chinese neighbors and struggles to survive.

When we agreed to present this exhibit we also started looking through our own collections for Maryland connections to the Shanghai Jewish experience. We knew we had the marriage certificate in Chinese for Wilhelm and Selma Hirschfeld Kurz who were married in Shanghai and moved to Baltimore after the war. (JMM 2004.43.1)

We began conversations with our docent, Rena Rotenberg (whose husband was in Shanghai) and Yvonne Daniels who was born in that community (and has since agreed to be a speaker in an upcoming program). We also discovered a number of fundraising scripts and posters used locally in the effort to support the community both before and after the war. These conversations and materials will form the basis of a small lobby exhibit on the Jews of Shanghai and Maryland that will be a companion piece to the main exhibit during its run from February 3 through March 10.

Though the exhibit is at JMM for only a short period of time, we are packing a lot of programming into these five weeks. Our members-only preview, taking place on the evening of February 2nd is themed “Vienna Meets Shanghai” and features musical performances and culinary treats derived from both cultures – including a first-ever Lion Dance in the Lloyd Street Synagogue.

In subsequent weeks we will feature a half dozen lectures and films related to the Jewish experience in China – including two documentaries – Above the Drowning Sea and Minyan in Kaifeng (narrated by Leonard Nimoy, this is the unusual story of a 1,000 year-old Jewish community in central China).

Our Education department is also using this exhibit as a platform to expand our offerings. In conjunction with the Baltimore Jewish Council and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum we are offering a “Winter Teacher’s Institute.” In this program, which parallels our annual summer institute, we will provide on-site and off-site workshops that will enable teachers across Maryland to incorporate the Shanghai story into their curricula. In another initiative, our educators have reached out to Chinese language programs at both the high school and college level, inviting them to take this rare opportunity to practice reading skills in Mandarin while learning about an important piece of history. Several schools and college programs have already scheduled field trips.

With these initiatives we will take thousands more of our visitors on a journey – that began with a single step.

 

*This is a loose translation of the quote which references a “1000 li”, a Chinese unit of measurement that in the sixth century BCE was actually closer to ¼ of a mile today – but it’s the same concept.

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The President and the Wall

Posted on February 6th, 2017 by

45 years ago this month the big news around the globe was about the President and the Wall.  President Richard Nixon was going to visit the Great Wall of China.  Sitting around the JMM lunchroom the other day I realized that many staff were too young to remember this historic event.  Moreover, given the way that Asian history is so often ignored in school, many were unfamiliar with the history of the Wall itself (Mulan doesn’t count as a documentary).

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China, February 24, 1972. Photo by Byron E. Schumaker. NARA 194421

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China, February 24, 1972. Photo by Byron E. Schumaker. NARA 194421

Brushing off my textbooks from my days as an East Asian Studies major, I thought I might share some basic facts.  The Great Wall of China was a project started in 220 BCE by China’s first unifier, Qin Shih Huang Ti to keep out Hsiung-nu tribesmen to the north.  The Great Wall was built at a great cost, many of the corvée laborers and convicts who built the wall lie buried inside it.  The Wall was improved by various dynasties over the next 2,000 years.  The majority of the existing wall is less than 600 years old.  Over the centuries the Great Wall was a tremendous symbol of Chinese pride – but perhaps not such a success in achieving its original purpose.  Time and again, northern invaders ended up controlling territory on both sides of the Wall – most famously the Mongols, but also the Liao, the Jin and eventually the Manchu.  The so-called “barbarians” often benefited from civil strife and corruption within China – the Wall offered absolutely no protection against these ailments.  When China is finally carved up by the “Western barbarians” and later Japan, the Great Wall was totally useless.  The Wall was a defensive barrier against a singular threat, when in reality China, like all nations, actually faced multiple, evolving threats across its long history.  It turns out that China was strongest during periods when it had adaptive strategies to a changing environment.

The Great Wall of China, 1907. Photo by Herbert Ponting.

The Great Wall of China, 1907. Photo by Herbert Ponting.

In researching the topic on the Internet, I also found this rather intriguing quote from Nixon’s conversation with reporters at the Great Wall on February 24, 1972.  Nixon said:

What is most important is that we have an open world. As we look at this Wall, we do not want walls of any kind between peoples. I think one of the results of our trip, we hope, may be that the walls that are erected, whether they are physical walls like this or whether they are other walls, ideology or philosophy, will not divide peoples in the world; that peoples, regardless of their differences and backgrounds and their philosophies, will have an opportunity to communicate with each other, to know each other, and to share with each other those particular endeavors that will mean peaceful progress in the years ahead.

If you had asked me in February 1972, sitting in my dorm room at Brandeis, whether I would ever write a blog post favorably quoting Richard Nixon, I would first have asked, “what’s a blog post?” and then I would have responded “are you crazy?”

From Jericho to Venice to Warsaw, Jewish history too has had its share of experience with walls – perhaps enough to join former President Nixon in questioning their efficacy.

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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