The soothing sounds of the pipa (Chinese lute) and other Chinese instruments resonated through the grand ballroom on the third floor of Hillel on Sunday, Oct. 27. The Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941) symposium convened at 11 a.m. with the first session, “Cosmopolitan Sounds and Jewish Music in pre-1949 Shanghai.” The walls surrounding the audience were filled with large posters of refugees, about whom the guests had come to listen and learn. The numerous photographs and documents, set up in their lit glass cases under the posters, gave a dignified air to the history presented.
As described by the exhibit brochure, Shanghai was a “modern-day ‘Noah’s Ark'” from 1933 – 1941, when about 18,000 Jewish refugees streamed to the city from Nazi-occupied Europe. The exhibit highlights diverse cultures coming together over the shared goal of saving lives — in this case, those of Jews.
Kosher Chinese food was served after the first session. Over lunch, Allison Hernandez, a first-year ethnomusicology major, reflected on the morning’s portion of the symposium. The first session, she said, “provided new insights into the confluence of Jewish and Chinese music in World War II Shanghai, and the enduring significance of their legacy.”
After lunch, the event continued into its second session, “Translational Shanghai, Modern Metropolis,” which featured many prominent individuals from universities across the United States, who came to discuss the history of Jewish Shanghai, immerse the audience in the culture, and follow the trail of Jewish refugees years ago. The discussion revolved around Jewish involvement in local film and literature, such as the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle and Shanghai cosmopolitanism.
“Shanghai cosmopolitanism encompassed numerous groups of people,” University of Oregon professor Bryna Goodman explained during her presentation. She showed various images of the Shanghai skyline stretching as far as the eye could see, with the pitch black night aglow with the twinkling lights of the cosmopolitan center.
The third session, “Opening Celebration,” introduced additional, vibrant keynote speakers, including the Honorable Liu Jian, Consul General of China, and Chen Jian, head of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
Steve Hochstadt, Professor of History at Illinois College and author of Exodus to Shanghai, related the experience of the Jewish Refugees in Shanghai through his research and interviews. He communicated the memories of the Jewish refugees whom he interviewed, and the sense of kinship that they felt with the Chinese. “We were never afraid,” Hochstadt relayed one refugee’s experience. He also evoked a Chinese man’s memory, saying that “Jews and Chinese have always been friends.”
The Shanghailanders (Jewish Refugees from Shanghai) narrated their personal journeys to Shanghai, their subsequent experiences in Shanghai, and their immersion in Chinese culture. They spoke about how they lived and adapted to their new home, while also altering some of the local customs to fit their Jewish identity.
“My family fled from Vienna when I was only three,” recalled one Shanghailander. “We came by boat with nothing.” However, her family was able to settle in the city and even had a cook who made them Austrian strudel.
Another speaker recalled how her family had come from Germany and that she was born and raised in China. The woman recalled even going back to have her wedding in China, which earned her nods of understanding from several audience members. At her wedding in China, she had two rabbis and three cantors present in order to mix both her Jewish and Chinese upbringing, adjusting to the world around her and still remaining true to herself and her connection to her family.
When ascending the podium to discuss his or her experiences in Shanghai, each Shanghailander invariably expressed his or her Jewish identity. The themes of Jewish identity and how Jews adjusted to new circumstances while remaining connected to their own family, culture and Jewish integrity was continuously explored at the event — questions which still pertain to Jews today.
“To preserve the Jewish spirit is to open it to Jewish art and culture,” said Perla Karney, Art Director of Hillel at UCLA and Vice President of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Karney partnered with Todd Presner, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA, as well as Hillel at UCLA and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum to bring the Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941) exhibition to Los Angeles. While Karney provided the artistic expertise for the exhibition, Presner provided the historical perspective. Additional cosponsors included the Dortort Center for Creativity and the Arts at Hillel at UCLA, UCLA Confucius Institute, UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, and the Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office of the Hongkou District.
Prior to the elaborate dinner reception, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller closed the daylong symposium with an explanation of its significance and meaning. “What we heard this evening is wonderful because we heard both scholars and we heard also experience, lived experience,” he said. “This is real learning. It is not just learning of the book or of observations. It is the learning of life…This was a special moment in history that was realized and we are here today because we want to hold on to that…We leave here today with a charge. We have to carry these memories in to the world we live in.”
That same charge — mandating that Jews carry past collective memories — is the basis of the identity that gave strength to the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, helping them to carry on in a foreign place. That charge can also give us strength to be Jews today, and to never forget our identity no matter in which society we live. The Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941) exhibit is the reminder of the memories that fought to keep the Jewish identity alive. It will run from October 27th to December 14th at the Hillel at UCLA.
“Jews United” is a 3-part series identifying and expressing the concepts of Jewish identity, the Jewish spark, and how they relate to the importance and survival of Israel and the Zionism behind it. Check out Part 2 of the “Jews United” series in the fall print edition of Ha’Am.