International Holocaust Remembrance Day: Shanghai Photograph Collection

Jewish children in China
Jewish kindergarten, Shanghai, China

In 2005, the United Nations (U.N.) passed a resolution designating January 27 — the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp — as an international day of commemoration in honor of the victims of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of over a third of the Jewish people and countless other minorities. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is one component of the U.N.’s outreach and Holocaust education program, which seeks to remind the world of the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust — including the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudicein order to help prevent future acts of genocide. In honor of this day, we are highlighting photographs and documents from the Werner von Boltenstern Shanghai Photograph and Negative Collection that bear witness to the lives of one group of Jews who managed to flee war-torn Nazi Europe and ultimately forged a legacy of courage and resiliency in the shadow of death.

The Werner von Boltenstern Shanghai Photograph and Negative Collection, or Shanghai Collection (previously), provides stunning documentation of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. A small fraction of Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945 were able to escape persecution in Nazi-controlled Europe, despite tightening restrictions on entry into many countries (including the U.S.), who feared an influx of foreign refugees.  Most entered the U.S., Palestine, Great Britain, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, or Bolivia.

Over 19,000 Jewish refugees mainly from Germany, Austria, and Poland made their way to Shanghai, China, whose existing Jewish community grew more than ten-fold during this period. Photographs and documents in the Shanghai Collection capture the lives of Chinese citizens, Jewish Holocaust refugees, existing Baghdadi and possibly Sephardic and Russian Jewish communities, French and British nationals, and the Japanese military presence in 1937-1949 Shanghai.

During this period, Jewish refugees in Shanghai earned their living by cottage industry and small businesses.

man with block ice
Harpuder’s block ice business on Seward Road, Shanghai, China (Image credit: Archives and Special Collections)

Others resumed or took up various professions and trades, including medicine, which the German Reich had forbidden Jews to practice for Aryan patients.

Print out of Reich Citizenship Law
Eighth Decree to the Reich Citizenship Law issued to Richard Israel Arronge, 1939 (Image credit: Archives and Special Collections)
Nurse and child
Nurse and child, Shanghai, China (Image credit: Archives and Special Collections)

Nevertheless, the majority of those who fled Nazi Europe suffered severe economic hardship and depended on significant aid from international Jewish organizations, as well as the help of more established Shanghai Jewish inhabitants and their Chinese neighbors. These refugees further weathered culture shock, the prejudice of existing residents, and the occupation by the Japanese, who forced ghettoization in 1943.

Chinese resident certificate
Resident certificate issued to Ernst Bienenfeld, Shanghai, China (Image credit: Archives and Special Collections)

After liberation in 1945, many faced rising hostility from Chinese Nationalists and Communists and an ambiguous legal status and once again struggled to find refuge. 

Vignettes presented by many of the images within the Shanghai Collection suggest a Jewish refugee community that did more than simply endure displacement. These photographic records provide glimpses of extraordinary fortitude, resilience, and vitality. Jewish refugees established businesses, synagogues, and schools, as well as a recreational association and community theater.

Jewish children in China
Jewish kindergarten, Shanghai, China (Image credit: Archives and Special Collections)
Theatrical performance
Jewish community theatrical performance, Shanghai, China (Image credit: Archives and Special Collections)

Scenes of Jewish children and families, gatherings, performances, and soccer games demonstrate a reclamation and affirmation of the human spirit in the face of indescribable suffering and loss.

Soccer match
Jewish community soccer game, Shanghai, China (Image credit: Archives and Special Collections)

The journeys of Holocaust refugees are stories of pain, suffering, and the nadir of human cruelty, yet they may also bear witness to the ultimate triumph and renewal of individuals and of the Jewish people.

For more on the Shanghai Collection, see the collection guide. For more on the Jewish community in Shanghai, including oral histories and other artifacts, see the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s digital collections.

Today’s post was written by Desirae Zingarelli-Sweet, Reference & Instruction Librarian for Theology.