Ohel Rachel synagogue in Shanghai
Ohel Rachel synagogue in ShanghaiiStock

The Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, New York has launched its new Precious Gift: Rescue and Shanghai exhibition and educational program for schools and private groups.

During World War II, thousands of Jews from Europe whose lives were in imminent peril miraculously escaped the Nazis and found safe haven in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China.

Through original artifacts and primary source materials, the exhibition engages visitors with this little-explored aspect of Holocaust history, explaining the plights of Jews who sought refuge in foreign lands and the heroic efforts of those - from diplomats to everyday people - who risked their lives to help them.

In the exhibit, visitors are introduced to diplomats from Japan, the Netherlands, and Lithuania who defied orders by distributing visas that became lifelines for thousands. They also learn about the journey from Europe to Shanghai, daily life, and the flourishing of Jewish religious life in Kobe, Japan and Shanghai. Throughout the tour, guides note the significance of the various artifacts - such as the sacred Hebrew texts printed in Shanghai and a meal ration card with unused days - to illustrate the personal stories of those who lived through these difficult times.

Everyday life is explored in Precious Gift: Rescue and Shanghai by looking at the victims’ experiences.

In 1941, the Walkin family (husband, wife, and three young children) escaped Europe through Kovno via the Trans Siberian Railroad, arriving first in Kobe, Japan and then in Shanghai where they remained for the duration of the war. Their artifacts tell us about the Sabbaths and other holidays they celebrated and the difficulties they faced (shortages of food, clothing, and medicine). In 1946 the family immigrated to the United States where they spent the next several years pursuing visas for the remaining Jewish refugees in Shanghai - Jews who had no homes or families to return to in Europe.

The exhibit is accompanied by an educational program for school groups which includes group workshops. One workshop explores the experiences of Judith Cohn-Goldbart, a Jewish girl whose family escaped from Munich to Shanghai. The Cohn-Goldbart artifacts narrate Judith’s childhood in Shanghai as a Bais Yaakov (girls’ religious school) student.

“The story of the Jews’ escape to Shanghai is one that students don’t typically encounter in school, and yet it carries with it important lessons: the power of faith, the importance of perseverance, the role of resilience, and the imperative of survival,” said Rabbi Sholom Friedmann, Director of Amud Aish Memorial Museum.

“Shanghai could not have been more foreign for these European Jews, yet the city largely welcomed them and allowed for their customs; so the Jews were able to practice their faith and establish their institutions without issue. The only yeshiva to survive intact from Europe, the Mir Yeshiva, did so by taking refuge in Shanghai. It operates today, relocated to Jerusalem, and is the largest yeshiva in the world.”