By Greg Hugh

Today, few would guess that Shanghai once played host to a bustling community of 18,000 – 20,000 Jews  --  the focus of the exhibit “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1932-1941).” For Jews desperate to flee the Nazi regime but barred from entry almost everywhere, Shanghai was the “Last Place on Earth” and a rescuing Noah’s Ark.

The exhibit runs March 19 – May 7, 2015, at the Sabes Jewish Community Center, 4330 S. Cedar Lake Road, St. Louis Park.  A grand opening reception will take place on Thursday, March 19, at 5 p.m. and is free and open to the public.  As part of the grand opening reception, a question and answer panel will be held with a few of the Minnesota Shanghailanders that have agreed to attend.


This international, traveling exhibit tells the stories of European Jews who immigrated to Shanghai to escape Nazi persecution.  Why should one see this exhibit?  Joan Brzezinski, executive director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota, one of the sponsoring organizations of the exhibit, stated that “This is a story of survival and cooperation between two groups of diverse but similar people that both experienced extreme hardships.”  Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council commented, “This exhibit shows how two of the world’s oldest civilizations were able to co-exist and survive through great adversity.” 

Chaim Weizmann, the leading Jewish statesman of his time and, later, first President of Israel, noted ruefully in 1936: "(from the perspective of central and Eastern European Jews) the world is divided into two places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter."

Across thousands of miles and culture, though, the Chinese opened the doors of survival to Jews who could reach Shanghai.  One year after Weizmann's assessment, Japan invaded China and subjected the Chinese people to vast and horrible atrocities.  Nevertheless, the Chinese protected the European Jews who had found their way to their country as these two great and ancient civilizations descended into their respective dark and dangerous passages of the 1930s and 1940s.

History is brought to life in this exhibit with photos, documents and artifacts from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum (SJRM) and personal stories from “Shanghailanders,” the term given to this group of Jewish refugees.  The Shanghai museum is located on Changyang Road in the Hongkou District of Shanghai.  Housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue where the Jewish refugees gathered for religious activities, it was established in memory of the time when Jewish refugees sought sanctuary from massacre during the Second World War.  The museum holds many scrolls and other cultural relics, which will be displayed in storyboards.  Exhibit attendees will learn why and how the Jews settled in Shanghai. 

The traveling exhibit created by the SJRM has given communities around the world an opportunity to learn about this significant, but little-known, story about Jewish immigration and settlement in world history.  The 40- panel exhibit highlights historical content and biographies of many “Shanghailanders” who escaped Europe and made Shanghai their temporary home.  

In Minnesota, the exhibit will be enhanced with additional stories from four Shanghailanders with deep Minnesota connections.  Their personal stories, family photographs, and surviving artifacts have been added to the existing traveling display.  The organizers hope that by sharing the unique stories of Helen Bix, Manny Gabler, Kurt Hort and Ellen Wiss will inspire visitors to learn more about this period in history and learn more about the people who are part of our community.  

Attendees will learn how Helen Bix, as a little girl in 1938 Germany, witnessed her comfortable lifestyle disappear.  What she thought was her home was no longer a safe place.  After a long and arduous trek that lasted four months, Bix, aged 4, her mother and brother arrived in Shanghai, an Open City for Jewish immigrants.  Bix began a life experiencing different cultures, language barriers, rampant tropical diseases, and unsanitary conditions.  The exhibit shows how she managed to settle in Minnesota and persevered to get an education and run a successful business.

Memories from Ellen Eisner Wiss’ childhood in Shanghai are limited to impressions of the family’s room and playing at Wayside Park.  After the ghetto was officially liberated on Sept. 3, 1945, and most of the refugees were able to leave quickly.  However, because Wiss was born in Shanghai, she was considered “stateless,” which fell under a separate quota and delayed her family's departure by more than two years.

The parents of Manny Gabler arrived in Milan just before Manny's birth.  In 1939, when Gabler was 1, the family left for Shanghai by ship, departing from Genoa.  The Gabler family arrived in Shanghai's Hongkou district near the docks, where most of the Jewish refugees settled.  For the first several years, they lived at the Chaoufoong Road Heim, a converted warehouse designated for Jewish refugees.  Even as a child, Gabler remembers recognizing how many of the Chinese people in their community were suffering from extreme poverty, illness and starvation.  He had positive interactions with his Chinese neighbors, and remembers they displayed no prejudice against the Jews.  Gabler and his brother Ralph returned to Shanghai in 1998 and visited the Hongkou district and the SJRM.  During a tour of the neighborhood, they identified the door to their former apartment and found that the doorframe had not been painted for 50 years.  The holes where their mezuzah had been were still clearly visible!

Kurt Hort arrived in Shanghai at the age of 18.  He and his family were placed in the Chaoufoong Road Heim refugee camp in the Hongkou district, which he remembers as a “cross between a POW camp and a concentration ghetto…”  After the war, he was relocated with his family to Minnesota where he became a very successful businessman.  In addition, Hort was also a respected community leader.  He was president of the Saint Paul chapter of B'Nai Brith for many years, eventually becoming president for the entire Midwest region.  He also actively participates in Holocaust remembrance activities and educational opportunities so new generations can learn about the ghettoes of Shanghai.  Hort says he is “proud and happy” to call Minnesota - “a place of such decency and liberal values” - his home now.

In addition, Doug Lew, a Chinese gentleman who lived in Shanghai during this same period, has been located and his recollections will be added to the exhibit. 

The exhibit is a collaborative community effort to share information about the unique experiences of Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II.  Additional events including academic lectures for the general public and workshops for grades 5-12 teachers about the Holocaust, will be made available.

The organizers hope the exhibit will illustrate the compassion of the Shanghai people during this period of hard times and the contribution Shanghai made for the development of the Jewish civilization.  To preserve this history, Shanghai is applying to have the neighborhood that sheltered Jewish refugees during WWII added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.  The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is working with the Hongkou district government to complete the application.  As part of the application, the city completed the compilation of the refugee list, data bank, literary, video and audio materials.

The exhibit started its U.S. tour in New York City in 2013.  Since then it’s been seen in Chicago, Houston, Washington, D.C. and many others.  Through the Confucius Institute partnership, it had also been to many universities.  It will be heading to Savannah State University, Georgia, after leaving Minneapolis.  Additional stops hosted by the Confucius Institute includes Webster University, Missouri; Central Connecticut State University; Arizona State University and the University of Hawaii.  

Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941): A Journey of hope for more than 18,000 Jews to China, is organized by the Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, and Sabes Jewish Community Center.  Additional partners include the University of Minnesota Center for Jewish Studies, the University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and the St. Paul Jewish Community Center.

Detailed information about this and related events can be found at or

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