Third Wave of Jewish Immigrants


The final wave of Jewish immigrants, scared by the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, came to China in terror. The Chinese take great pride in this part of history, because during this period Shanghai alone took in more refugees – 23,000 Ashkenazi Jews – than Canada, India, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia combined.

After Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, Jews, previously employed as civil servants and academics, quickly found themselves without a job, whilst Jews running businesses faced nationwide boycotts. Many Jews began to consider leaving Deutschland; indeed, by November of 1933, 26 Jewish families had arrived in Shanghai and had integrated smoothly into their new city.

A Jewish family in Shanghai.  [Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum]

A Jewish family in Shanghai. [Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum]

The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped the Jews of their Reich citizenship. Jews were forbidden from marrying Germans and were not allowed to employ German females under the age of 45. Subsequent laws followed which prohibited Jews from attending public schools, going to theatres, and even from being seen in certain districts. Jewish businesses had it worse; troubles which were once boycotts turned into looting by anti-Semitic Germans.

In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria. Four months later, the United States initiated the Evian Conference, encouraging all 32 invited nations to take in more Jewish refugees; but apart from the Dominican Republic, no country changed its existing stance. This was Nazi gold. Indeed, Hitler and Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, seized this as a chance to affirm their verdict that Jews were the scum of the earth that no one wanted in their country. 

In November 1938, a Polish Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan, killed a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, in Paris. This was used by the Nazis as pretext to initiate Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, which saw German paramilitary troops destroy Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues; in addition to 91 killed in this pogrom, 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to concentration camps.

This was the existential turning point for the Jews – staying put was no longer an option. Unfortunately, by this time, the United States and many other countries had already closed their doors and denied visas to Jewish refugees.

Germans walk by a Jewish business destroyed on Kristallnacht.  [Public Domain]

Germans walk by a Jewish business destroyed on Kristallnacht. [Public Domain]

In 1937, the Battle of Shanghai ended with Japanese victory. Whilst the Japanese took over the Chinese regions of Shanghai, the foreign regions remained under the jurisdiction of Europeans. Shanghai’s was divided and left in a mess; no one was in charge, and border control had completely broken down.

As such, although the Jews knew little about Shanghai, other than it was a city far away from home, the option of immigrating to Shanghai to them came as a delight. 

Although one did not need a visa to enter Shanghai, it was a prerequisite to leaving Austria. From 1938 to early 1940, Ho Feng-Shan (何凤山), the Chinese Consul-General in Vienna, issued over 3,000 Chinese visas to Austrian Jews. Indeed, this was done against the will of his superior, the Chinese ambassador to Berlin, who warned him not to do anything that would anger the Nazis. 

Between 1938-1939, about 23,000 Jews arrived in Shanghai, in complete destitute.

Ho Feng Shan (何凤山).  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Ho Feng Shan (何凤山). [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Although there is no official count of Jews who were saved by Ho Feng Shan, it is recorded that he issued his 200th visa in June 1938, and his 1906th by 27th October. Ho Feng Shan was honoured for his services for humanity and, in 2000, recognised by Yad Vashem officially, as he was given the title ‘Righteous Among the Nations (חֲסִידֵי אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם)’.