Shanghai, the city that saved Jews fleeing Nazis

China's premier trading city is burying most of its past beneath fast-rising mountains of steel and glass. But Hongkou, once the home of families escaping the Holocaust, may yet be saved. Jasper Becker reports
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Wangfa Liang remembers clearly the whipped cream, the roof top orchestras, the prayers in the synagogue when this slummy stretch of Shanghai dockland was called "Little Vienna".

"There were tables outside on the street, and I remember the wedding parties in Café Vienna. My boss was a Russian Jew, Mr Stein, and the other waiters came from Berlin. We were all friends and lived in the ghetto," he said in careful English.

Now 85, Mr Liang has finally been forced to move out of the house he bought from his Jewish colleagues when they left before the Communist takeover in 1949.

Along the northern bank of the Huangpu river, just beyond the Bund and across an iron girder bridge, is the district of Hongkou, an area of docklands which became famous when it was home to nearly 30,000 Jews during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. It looks much as it did when Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, based on J G Ballard's autobiographical book, was filmed in 1987. The area is now back in the news because of a daring plan to preserve it from the wrecker's ball and transform it into a conservation zone and a symbol of Chinese and Jewish friendship. It is also a last-gasp effort to save what remains of Shanghai's architectural heritage and prevent it being turned into a cold megalopolis of glass-and-steel towers.

Already, the area, better known in the past as Hongkew, is full of cranes and building sites. Over the former Vienna café looms a 40-story concrete hotel and Mr Liang and his neighbours are quickly being moved out of the last of the pink-and-grey brick houses, where the refugees had lived, to new residential blocks. Mr Liang is now the guide at the Ohel Moshe synagogue which was once at the centre of the ghetto and is now a museum.

Visitors, including Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, Gerhard Shröder and all Israeli leaders, are shown a video inside the offices of what was once the headquarters of the Zionist Youth League.

The area was destined to be demolished under a government plan to turn the whole of the North Bund into "a masterpiece of the 21st century", that is to say, another ultra-ambitious scheme to remake Shanghai from scratch. The city invited big developers to put forward ideas which included the inevitable skyscrapers as well as a Ferris Wheel, fun fairs and a dock for luxury cruise passengers to disembark.

Worried that nothing there would be left for the visitors to see, Shanghai is now studying several plans to try to preserve the ghetto. One plan has been put forward by Canadian-Jewish businessman Lan Leventhal, and designed by Christopher Choa of one of New York's oldest architectural firms, HLW International.

They want to make the synagogue the centre of a memorial park that would include gravestones of former inhabitants and link it to the waterfront and an ornate Buddhist temple. Already, a small monument in a park near the synagogue is dedicated to the "stateless refugees" of 1937-1941.

The Jewish gravestones were moved in 1958, and destroyed and scattered during the Cultural Revolution. A few have been discovered in outlying villages where they were being used as flagstones and washboards.

The idea seems to be to copy the success of Xin Tiandi, a two-square block of tenements in the old French concession which was saved and turned into a lively centre for shopping and dining. This is the work of Benjamin Wood, an American architect who persuaded a Hong Kong property developer, Vincent Lo, the chairman of the Shui On Group, to preserve the area around the girl's school where the Chinese Communist Party held its first meeting.

"Xin Tiandi is successful, but you can't call that preservation," says Professor Ruan Yisan of Tongji University. The old buildings were torn down, the residents evicted, and new buildings erected housing ultra-stylish bars and nightclubs. Yet as one of the parts of Shanghai built on a human scale, it has become immensely popular with visitors and residents.

Ilan Maor, the Israeli consul general in Shanghai, is convinced the new plan for the ghetto area in Hangkou will be as successful. "I am sure it will be an important tourist attraction," he said.

Professor Ruan said: "It is also important to preserve it to show the strong bonds between the two peoples."

The first wave of refugees arrived in the 1920s, fleeing the Russian revolution. They settled in Harbin which was home to 20,000 refugees until the mid-1930s. There, the Chinese authorities have just restored two synagogues, a cemetery and a Jewish school and are planning the Harbin Museum for Jewish History and Culture.

"There was no other shelter open to the Jews. It was a unique situation. The Chinese not only let them in, they made them welcome," Mr Maor said.

The next group came in the 1930s, fleeing from the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. Israel is still grateful to the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, who disobeyed Tokyo's instructions and issued over 2,000 visas to Jews who until 1941 used them to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. From there they took a boat to Kobe, Japan, and then another to Shanghai.

Other refugees fled Germany, Austria and other countries as they came under the Nazi heel. The Chinese consul general in Vienna, Dr Feng Shan Ho, also ignored the Kuomintang's orders and issued over 20,000 visas between 1938 and 1940.

The KMT had strong ties to Germany in the 1920s but turned against Hitler when he formed a pact with Japan. Among Chiang Kai-shek's followers was Morris "two-gun" Cohen, a bodyguard who rose to be a general in the Chinese Army.

The Jewish refugees joined the White Russian refugees and crowded into a city caught up in bitter fighting between the Japanese and KMT forces under Chiang. By the time the Japanese seized Shanghai, 25,000 people were crammed into less than one square mile.

In fact they survived more thanks to the Japanese than the Chinese. After the start of Japan's war with the US, they were forced into a ghetto, about a square mile in size, where some 100,000 Chinese already lived. It was a crowded, working-class area near the docks, but they were free to open their own restaurants and shops, though they needed special permits to leave the area. The British and others were interned in camps outside Shanghai.

In July 1942, the Gestapo chief in Japan, Colonel Josef Meisinger, came to Shanghai and put forward his plan for a "Final Solution in Shanghai". The Japanese authorities refused to listen. Many powerful figures in Japan felt a debt of gratitude to Jewish bankers who had organised loans and issued government bonds which enabled the Japanese government and the military to finance its modernisation program 30 years earlier. After Japan's defeat, many of the refugees eventually reached America, Australia, Israel and other countries. The great Jewish families of Shanghai, the Kadoories, Hardoons and Sassoons never got their properties back, although some branches still prosper in Hong Kong. The Kadoories still own China Light and Power, Hong Kong's largest power utility.

These Jewish families were among the first group of immigrants, some 700 Sephardic Jews, to arrive from Baghdad, Spain, Portugal and India when the British and French began to turn Shanghai into China's premier trading city 150 years ago. Until the early 1920s, just 1,700 Jews were in Shanghai but they were prominent and the Chinese Communist Party has been reluctant to preserve or celebrate their capitalist legacy.

The Sassoons, who arrived in 1844, built the luxurious Cathay Hotel (now the Peace Hotel). Sir Victor Sassoon lived in a fantastic nouveau Tudor villa with a minstrel's gallery and a fireplace big enough to roast an ox in. It is now the Hotel Cypress.

The Kadoories left behind a white, wedding cake-style mansion which is now the Children's Palace. The famous Shanghai Musical Conservatory is housed in the former Shanghai Jewish Club. "These people were big capitalists, speculators, opium-dealers. They came here to make money, like the English went to America," said Professor Ruan.

The Ohel Rachel Synagogue, the majestic building built in 1920 by Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon in memory of his wife, Rachel, is now on the World Monuments Fund list of the 100 most endangered sites. It remains closed to the public and for years was used as offices by the city's education commission The question of what to do with the heritage of all the capitalists and colonialists which remind people of the good-old, bad-old days when Shanghai was the Paris of the East remains a headache.

They left the city full of architectural gems: the neo-classical facades of the Bund, the elegant Art Deco hotels, the Gotham-Gothic mansions, complete with mullioned windows and stained glass, of the rich Chinese and Western tycoons, and the Edwardian suburban villas of the middle classes.

Only three areas have been earmarked for preservation and just 400 old buildings. According to the Shanghai government, more than 20 million square meters of old buildings, half of Shanghai's old neighbourhoods have been torn down in the past 15 years.

The Chinese Communists want to trump this legacy and present the world with a a dazzling modern city by the time it hosts the World Expo in 2010.

It can be a harsh process. Developers have free rein to evict people and often do so overnight. The inhabitants of a stretch of land in the French concession, not far from Xin Tiandi, were pushed out last month by 300 police and thugs hired by a relocation company when they refused to move quickly enough. There were reports of beatings and some houses were set on fire.

"Shanghai property prices are rising so fast that people can't afford to buy new apartments so they refuse to leave without better compensation," said Mr Liang.

The decrepit houses around the ghetto are a sad, dishevelled sight with the washing hanging from the windows. The rooms have been divided again and again and most people are, he says, happy to move out.

They will have to rebuild from scratch before the project can become the symbol of the new ties growing between Israel and China that its supporters want to see.

Shanghai's new Jewish Community is growing fast and now numbers around 500, including 150 Israelis. An Orthodox rabbi, Shalom Greenberg, moved here five years ago although the Chinese government refuses to let the community open, or re-open a synagogue because Judaism is not considered one of the five official religions.

Even so, commercial ties are flourishing and Israel sent a delegation of over 100 business leaders last week. The Chinese are particularly interested in building up ties with Israeli hi-tech companies.

One of those who escaped from Germany and found shelter in Shanghai was Saul Eisenberg. Later, in Israel, he built up a commercial empire in the defence sector, the Eisenberg Group. He died recently but had tried to broker the sale of arms to China, including an Awacs early warning surveillance aircraft, which was blocked by the US. Israel still needs to find a way to counterbalance China's ties with Arab countries as it becomes more reliant on imported oil to run its economy.

If the ghetto is preserved, it will be another sign that the tide is turning against skyscrapers in Shanghai, which has built over 3,000 in just over a decade. Work resumed last year on the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Centre which aims to be the world's tallest building when it is completed in 2007.

Shanghai has become a city of towers, a city designed to impress outsiders with its modernity but not one to live in.

The sheer weight of all these towers is causing the city to sink into the swampy banks of the Huangpu river. Experts say it sank about 8 feet since 1921 and is still sinking at roughly half an inch a year. Even the city's prized, German-built, magnetic railway is sinking.

"There are too many tall buildings. Profit-chasing by developers has destroyed the urban space. The competition for higher and higher buildings has created a dinosaur city, with more and more gigantic buildings. It is not on a human scale, it is not good for the life of ordinary people," admitted Zheng Shiling, a prominent architect who heads the Shanghai Urban Planning Commission's Urban Space and Environment Committee.

"Many of them are empty and can't be sold. Perhaps 30 per cent. If you go around at night you will see there are no lights, said Professor Ruan.

Another 40 or 50 high rises have been approved and can't be stopped but he thinks they will be the last.

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