School Stories Shared from Jewish Refugees and Shanghai

Posted on March 14th, 2019 by

This post was written by JMM School Program Coordinator Paige Woodhouse. To read more posts from Paige, click here!


From February 3rd to March 10th, the JMM hosted a special exhibit created by the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum titled Jewish Refugees and Shanghai. While only on display for a mere 26 days, we had 8 schools visit 13 times with over 240 students, teachers and chaperones. A special shout out to the Park School of Baltimore who visited 4 times with their 4 Chinese studies classes!

Jewish Refugees and Shanghai explored the often-untold stories of the Jewish people who sought sanctuary in Shanghai during World War II. This multi-lingual exhibit (printed in both English and Chinese) weaved together the first-person experiences sharing stories of resilience and cross-cultural expectance.

Washington Yu Ying School 5 grade students exploring the panels in Jewish Refugees and Shanghai.

The exhibit provided students an opportunity to not only learn more about the history of Jewish refugees during WWII, but also the ability to interact with, and conduct research using, primary sources. These primary sources included historical photographs, birth certificates, wedding certificates, and travel documentation.

Sidwell Friends School 8th grade class learning about the story of Sonja Muhlberger and investigating her birth certificate.

The JMM education team developed an archival exploration which looked at items once owned by Jewish Refugees living in the Hongkou Ghetto and Shanghai as a whole. Critical to the development of the archival exploration was our Museum Educator Alex. Alex said this of the program:

“The Shanghai Refugees exhibit was such a great opportunity to showcase this important little-known story to our visiting school groups as a way of talking about immigration and refugees in the past as well as in current events. For our education program, we were able to highlight artifacts from the JMM archive that told the story of Wilhelm and Selma Kurz, a local couple who came to Baltimore after spending a number of years as refugees in Shanghai. Using the exhibit panels as inspiration, I designed an original panel using photographs and documents belonging to Wilhelm and Selma as well as a map that showed their journey around the world.”

Students from Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School working together in a group.

At the end of the program, students summarized the stories they learned, such as that of Wilhelm and Selma Kurz, and shared them with the class. Here are some of their responses:

“Inge and Peter lived in Shanghai where they each met important people in their lives. Inge met her husband, Ernie, and Peter met his nanny, mentor and art teacher, Amah.”

“Shortly after fleeing Germany, Wilhelm and Selma got married and lived in Shanghai for 7-8 years before moving to Baltimore.”

“Sonya’s parents fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis, where she was born and later she went back to Germany as a teacher and activist.”

Students from Sidwell Friends School presenting their research to the group.

Students from Washington Yu Ying School sharing the stories they learned about.

Reflecting upon the program, Museum Educator Marisa shared that:

“Working with the students that came for our Jewish Refugees and Shanghai educational program was incredibly fulfilling. They analyzed the exhibit’s primary sources, asked insightful questions, and retold these survivors’ stories. Many of the students who visited us are studying Chinese in their schools, and these students also engaged with the original Chinese language text, working together to understand and interpret the meaning of the characters. Overall, I felt that the students left having gained a greater understanding not just of this often-untold story, but of the many challenges facing Jewish people seeking refuge in the 1930’s.”

Our education team is working hard to develop unique experiential programs for our upcoming exhibit Stitching History from the Holocaust, on loan to us from the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, and the next JMM original exhibit Fashion Statement. We look forward to sharing more stories that connect students to Maryland’s Jewish roots.

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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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Spring Exhibits and Holocaust Programming: Remembering the Holocaust at the JMM

Posted on January 18th, 2019 by

This month’s edition of JMM Insights is from Director of Learning and Visitor Experience  Ilene Dackman-Alon and Program Manager Trillion Attwood. Missed any previous editions of JMM Insights? You can catch up here!


Later this month, the JMM will offer a series of Holocaust-related exhibits and programs. This series will offer glimpses into the personal stories of both loss and survival, inviting our visitors to reflect on the deep and lasting impact of the events on the Holocaust on individual lives and the world in which we live today.

The series begins on January 27th, the day designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations. The date marks the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and is set aside as a day to remember and honor the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the millions of other victims of Nazism. It is a day to remind the world of the lessons of the Holocaust and a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice.

At 1pm join us for the first of two annual Sadie B. Feldman Family Lectures – Refugees and America: Past, Present and Future with speakers Mark Hetfield, President and CEO of HIAS and Anne Richard, former Assistant Secretary of State under the Obama Administration. This timely conversation will examine immigration in America, past, present and future through a historic lens.

On Wednesday night, January 30th at 6:30 pm we will present the second Sadie B. Feldman Family Lecture. Jack Sacco will be discussing his book, Where the Birds Never Sing: The True Story of the 92nd Signal Battalion and the Liberation of Dachau. Participants will hear the harrowing, at times horrifying, and ultimately triumphant tale of an American GI in World War II as seen through the eyes of the author’s father, Joe Sacco — a farm boy from Alabama who landed at Omaha Beach, fought his way through Europe, and liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.

Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini closes on January 21st. In February, we will kick-off our winter/spring exhibition calendar with the first of two upcoming Exhibits that tell the stories of people seeking escape from the atrocities that followed Hitler and the Nazi regime’s rise to power.

Opening on February 3rd the JMM welcomes Jewish Refugees and Shanghai created by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. The exhibit weaves together the stories of more than two dozen individuals who lived in the Shanghai Jewish ghetto. Shanghai became the temporary home to more than 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Poland during World War II. The exhibit is on display through March 10th.

As a complement to the Shanghai exhibit, we are launching the First Winter Teachers Institute in partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools. The two-day professional development opportunity will be held February 10th & 17th. The first day includes a visit to the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C., and a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to see the exhibition, Americans and the Holocaust. The second day will be held at the JMM, where participants will learn best practices and educational resources from dedicated scholars and educators. Baltimore City teachers will receive AU credit for participation upon completion of an implementation plan.

For more information about the Winter Teachers Institute, please do not hesitate to contact Ilene Dackman-Alon via email idackmanalon@jewishmuseummd.org.

We are celebrating the exhibit with a Special Members-Only Preview on Saturday, February 2nd with an evening celebrating the cultural exchange of the Shanghai Jewish ghetto. Enjoy Chinese Lion dancers and a String Trio playing Viennese music from a selection of Jewish composers. This is certain to be a special evening, if you haven’t yet reserved your seats, we recommend you do today, places are limited.

On Opening Day of Jewish Refugees in Shanghai from 11am until 3pm, visitors can try their hand creating a selection of crafts inspired for the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Pig! This is a perfect activity for the whole family right before Super Bowl kickoff.

Throughout the exhibit run, we have a series of fascinating lectures. On Sunday, February 10th we welcome Dr. Meredith Oyen for her presentation A Little Vienna in Shanghai. The following week we are joined by Dr. Kathryn Hellerstein, University of Pennsylvania for her presentation China Through Yiddish Eyes, an exciting exploration of Jewish life in China during the interwar period.

The following Sunday, February 24th we welcome local survivor Yvonne Daniel, the child of Jewish German parents who fled to Shanghai following Nazi persecution. On March 3rd, Sara Halpern will explore the experiences of Jewish families, with a focus on the youngest members, as she presents, In Their Own Words as Jewish Refugees.

We are pleased to present two films in connection with the exhibit. The Maryland premiere of Above the Drowning Seas, on February 21st recounts the story of Ho Feng Shan, the Chinese Consul in Vienna who defied his own government and braved the Gestapo to issue visas to Jewish refugees. On March 7th, Minyan in Kaifeng celebrates the ancient Jewish Chinese community. Finally, on March 10th we close the exhibit with Cantor Robyn Helzner and her unforgettable presentation Kreplach & Dim Sum. Audience members will be treated to lively stories, vibrant photos, video, and enchanting music as we celebrate the extraordinary presence of Jews in China.

On April 7th, the JMM welcomes Stitching History Through the Holocaust, on loan to us from the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee (the other JMM!). The exhibit invites visitors into the story of Paul and Hedy Strnad, trapped in Prague as the Nazis close in. Desperate to get out of Prague and in fear of their own lives, the couple send Hedy’s fashion-forward designs to their cousins in Milwaukee. Paul and Hedy perished during the Holocaust, but their memory lives on in this exhibit that includes the letters, sketches and the dresses that were recreated from Hedy’s drawings.

Concurrent with Stitching History Through the Holocaust, our staff has been busy putting together an original exhibit, Fashion Statement – that explores the messages embedded and sometime embroidered into the clothing that we wear.

Our education department has been developing activities and interactives that will encourage our audiences to connect with the people and the stories of the clothing displayed in the two Exhibits. Our goals are two-fold: we hope these activities will help our visitors to be empowered to remember the Holocaust but also investigate ways clothing can convey social status, political messages and religious expression.

We are developing an exciting schedule of programs to include lectures, movie screenings, and testimonies from 1st and 2nd generation survivors to help us better understand the experiences of those who lived through the Holocaust.

The challenging stories you will hear in the coming months through our exhibits and programs are not easy, but they are compelling, fascinating, and necessary.

We hope we see you soon. Together we can learn from our shared past to ensure the health, safety, and wholeness of the world of today and tomorrow.

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