In China, KJ Noh, Nazism and World War Two


By K. J. Noh,

Published on NCW, Jan 28, 2023:

K J Noh writes about how China became the only place on the planet that allowed continuous, open, unconditional sanctuary to fleeing Jews in the late 1930s, as they were being refused entry by countries such as the US and Canada, a subject that continues to be neglected by much of mainstream western media.

In 1938, in early July, a group of the representatives of 32 countries met at Evian Les-Bain, France, to decide whether to let in Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.

The Jews had already been stripped of their citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws. Almost all of the Countries participating refused, not wanting, as the US representative put it, to “import a Jewish problem” to their own countries.

Only the tiny Dominican Republic agreed to allow in Jewish refugees. (Zionist leaders like Ben Gurion also conspired to prevent entry in order to force open migration to Palestine).  Again, in 1943, in the Bermuda conference, the US and the UK refused to allow entry of Jews.

In 1939, May 13, over 900 desperate Jewish passengers boarded the St. Louis from Hamburg to go to Cuba, where they were refused entry.  They then went to Miami, where they were again denied entry.  Canada also denied entry.  They eventually returned to Europe, where a large number of them would eventually perish in the Holocaust.

The world essentially became cleaved into two: countries forcing Jewish people out, and countries refusing to let them in.

During this horrific period, it’s also a fact that China became the only place on the planet that allowed continuous, open, unconditional sanctuary to fleeing Jews.

This was not an accident of history, but a result of China’s long cultural traditions: there were already vibrant 19C & 20C Jewish émigré communities in Tianjin, Shanghai, and Harbin, but even before that, for over thirteen hundred years, merchant Jews had traded and settled in China; synagogue communities were found all in all major port cities of China, including Hangzhou, Ningbo, Yangzhou, Ningxia, Guangzhou, Beijing, Quanzhou, Nanjing, Xi’an and Luoyang, and Kaifeng.

Seven Chinese family names can also be Jewish, Ai (艾), Shi (石), Gao (高), Jin (金), Li (李), Zhang (張), and Zhao (趙); “Jin” and “Shi” are, of course, Chinese translations of “Gold” and “Stone”.  These Jewish communities also freely intermarried with Muslim communities, who also had a large, unfettered, and open presence in China.

In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that China, as a civilization state, pioneered the very concepts of diversity, inclusion and ecumenical, multi-religious tolerance and harmony–drawn from its traditional Confucian, Buddhist, and above all, Mohist traditions (with its concept of “inclusive/universal care (兼愛)”). This was at a time when the European Christians were mercilessly subjecting Jews to violent pogroms and slaughtering Muslims wholesale.

Harvard Historian Simon Schama put it succinctly:

To survey the predicament of Jews in much of the rest of the world is to marvel at what the Kaifeng community escaped. In China, Jews were not subjected to violence and persecution, not demonized as God killers. Their synagogues were not invaded by conversionary harangues. They were not physically segregated from non-Jews nor forced to wear humiliating forms of identification on their dress. They were not forced into the most despised and vulnerable occupations, not stigmatized as grasping and vindictive, and portrayed neither as predatory monsters nor pathetic victims.

This inclusive care was also reflected, during the Holocaust, in the individual actions of Ho Feng Shan, a Chinese diplomat in Vienna is known to have issued 1000’s of visas to Jews in Austria. This allowed them to leave the country (whether they were going to China or not), thus saving their lives.  He is sometimes referred to as the “Chinese Schindler”.

Jewish and Chinese children in Shanghai during WWII, from the collection of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. Right: Young Jewish and Chinese girls in Harbin, China.

Shanghai itself was a genuine sanctuary for Jews:

Shanghai—already home to a few thousand Jewish immigrants who started slowly arriving as early as the mid-19th century for business or later to escape the Russian Revolution—not only did not require visas for entry, but issued them with alacrity to those seeking asylum. In many cases, newly arrived immigrants were not even asked to show passports. It was not until 1939 that restrictions were placed on Jewish immigrants coming into Shanghai and even then these limitations were decided not by the Chinese, but by the amalgam of foreign powers that controlled the city at the time. This body, made up both of Westerners and Japanese who wanted to restrict the influx of Jews, decided that anyone with a “J” on their passport would now have to apply in advance for landing permission…

Nevertheless, many of the Shanghai locals, in spite of their own hardships, welcomed their new neighbors and shared what little they had, whether that meant housing, medical care, or just simple kindness. Gradually, with that support, Jewish refugees began, little by little, to create lives in their new country, and before long, the proliferation of Jewish-owned businesses was such that the Hongkou area became known as “Little Vienna.” Like their Chinese neighbors, they did their best to survive in difficult circumstances. They established newspapers, synagogues, retail businesses, restaurants, schools, cemeteries, guilds, social clubs, and even beauty pageants. They practiced medicine, started hospitals, got married, had babies, and held bar and bat mitzvahs. They learned to cook in coal-burning ovens and to haggle with street vendors.

“If the [people of Shanghai] had not been so tolerant, our life would have been miserable,” Moses is quoted as saying. “In Europe, if a Jew escaped, he or she had to go into hiding, and here in Shanghai we could dance and pray and do business.”

Such camaraderie was key to maintaining the spirit of Shanghai’s Jewish community, many of whom still had family in mortal danger back in Europe. At a time when hopeful entrepreneurs from across the world looking to strike it rich had turned Shanghai from a humble fishing village into the world’s fifth-largest city, Tilanqiao didn’t offer Jewish refugees wealth or luxury, but something much more valuable: safety.

BBC: How China saved more than 20,000 Jews during WW2

A Star of David on an old brick building in Shanghai testifies to the city’s remarkable Jewish past (Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images)

As we hear the extraordinary lies, slander, and propaganda perpetrated against the Chinese peoples and government in the current moment–that the Chinese are a threat to the global order and that they are committing “genocide” against Muslims–as the US readies the world mentally for war against China–it’s important to remember this history.

The lies and propaganda are refuted by the facts on the ground, themselves anchored in millennia-long traditions of religious and ethnic tolerance, coexistence, inclusivity, and universal care, and continued up to current moment in the socialist mass line of “serve the people”–all people.


A version of this article is published on Asia Times

More info:

Xièxiè, Shanghai

The significance of Shanghai as a haven during the holocaust

Surviving the Holocaust in Shanghai

At 9 minute mark, the grand daughter of Feng Shan Ho, the “Chinese Schindler” tells his story:

Jewish and Chinese tell their stories

生命的记忆——犹太人在上海 (Partly English)

纳粹铁蹄下的生命使者——何凤山 (Chinese)


KJ Noh is a journalist, educator, political analyst; organizer with Pivot to Peace and Veterans for Peace.


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