In the Hongkou district of Shanghai stands the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, a European-style red-and-black brick building with archways and wraparound balconies. It’s a piece of Shanghai’s history that is now nearly lost in its race toward modernity: During World War II, Shanghai was home to 20,000 Jewish refugees who had fled Europe and needed a place to take them in. The Ohel Moshe Synagogue, established by Russian Jewish immigrants in 1907, was converted to a psychiatric hospital and an office space under the reign of Mao Zedong. It reopened in the 1990s and today is part of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
The Jewish community first formed in Shanghai in the late 19th century and grew as Russian Jews escaped from the Bolshevik Revolution and sought business opportunities in Shanghai’s foreign concessions. In the 1930s, tens of thousands of Ashkenazi Jews flooded into the city to escape the reign of Nazi Germany. At the time, Jews were allowed to leave Germany, yet most countries refused to let them in. Only the Dominican Republic and Shanghai—then carved into concessions run by foreign powers—agreed to take in a large number of Jewish refugees.
So 20,000 European Jewish refugees settled in Hongkou district and opened shops, restaurants, and synagogues, turning the area into “Little Vienna.” One Jewish immigrant, Peter Max, fled with his family from Berlin to Shanghai, where his father set up a suit store. He told Atlas Obscura: “On the ground floor of our building was a Viennese garden-café where my father and mother met their friends in the early evenings for coffee and pastries while listening to a violinist play romantic songs from the land they had left behind. The community of Europeans that gathered and grew below our house kept me connected to our roots.”
Yet the war soon came to Shanghai as well. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops took control of Shanghai’s international settlements and forced the Jewish refugees to live in the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees or the “Shanghai Ghetto,” an area of 1 square mile in Hongkou. They cut off funding from American organizations helping the Jewish refugees.
After American and Chinese troops freed Shanghai in 1945, China fell into civil war between Nationalists and Communists who had joined forces to defeat the Japanese. Amid the turmoil, Jewish refugees returned to Europe or immigrated to the United States, Israel, or Australia. The Cultural Revolution and China’s economic boom wiped out the neighborhoods that once housed Jewish refugees. Today the local government and developers are replacing the historic buildings around Ohel Moshe Synogague with high-rises and spacious department stores.