(May 9, 2013 / JNS) During his visit to China this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled that the city of Shanghai was “one of the few places that opened its gates” to Jews fleeing Hitler. Officials of the Chinese Communist government, standing nearby, beamed with pleasure at the expectation that people all over the world would read how their regime rescued Jews.
But is it true?
As the prime minister noted, the port city of Shanghai was a haven for many European Jewish refugees during the Hitler years, at a time when most other countries, including the United States, closed their doors to all but a fortunate few. It is important to note that much of China was under Japanese military occupation from 1931 until 1945, and immigration to Shanghai was controlled by the Japanese government, not the Chinese. The Japanese, hoping to improve their relations with the U.S. and the American Jewish community, permitted about 20,000 German and Austrian Jews to settle in Shanghai during the 1930s.
This immigration was made possible in part by false documents given to Jews by the Dutch consul in Lithuania, Jan Zwartendijk, and by transit visas to Japan provided, without official sanction, by Japan’s acting consul-general in Lithuania, Sugihara Chiune. Officially the visas were good for only eight to 12 days, but the Japanese authorities allowed the refugees to remain in Japan for up to eight months until they found other destinations. Many went to Shanghai, including 500 rabbis and students (and their families) from the famous Mir Yeshiva.
Beginning in 1943, most of the Jews in Shanghai were confined to a two-square-mile section of the city known as the Restricted Area. Conditions were harsh but certainly not comparable to what Jews suffered in Europe. These Jews were saved from the Holocaust because of Japan’s—not China’s—policies.
There were several individual Chinese citizens who came to the aid of the Jews during the Holocaust. But they were nationalists, not Communists; they were associated with the anti-Communist forces led by Chang Kai-Shek, who later lost the Chinese civil war and fled to Taiwan in 1949.
One was Dr. Li Yu Ying, a prominent scholar and president of Soochow University. While living in the United States in the 1940s, he served as one of the co-chairmen of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson Group), an activist movement that held rallies, lobbied in Washington, DC, and sponsored hundreds of full-page newspaper advertisements promoting rescue of Jews from the Nazis. Dr. Ying had previously served the Chang Kai-Shek government in several capacities, including as China’s representative to League of Nations meetings.
Two other Chinese citizens have been honored by Yad Vashem for assisting Jews during the Nazi era. One was Pan-Jun-Shun, who moved from China to Russia in 1916 (i.e. more than thirty years before the Communists took over in China). He was living in the city of Kharkov, in the Soviet Ukraine, when the Germans invaded in 1941. Pan saved a Jewish girl named Ludmilla Genrichovna from the Nazi round-ups by hiding her in his home.
The other Chinese rescuer was Dr. Feng Shan Ho, who served as China’s consul-general in Vienna from 1938 to 1940. He issued unauthorized visas to Jews trying to escape Nazi-controlled Austria, enabling them to reach the safety of Shanghai. Dr. Ho represented the Chang Kai-Shek government. And after the nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949, he served as Taiwan’s ambassador to Egypt, Mexico, and other countries.
When Dr. Ho was posthumously honored by Yad Vashem in 2001, the Communist Chinese ambassador attended the ceremony—and insisted that the ambassador from Taiwan be excluded. The Beijing government-controlled press gave prominent coverage to the honoring of Ho, whom it identified as “a Chinese diplomat,” erroneously implying that he was associated with the Beijing regime.
It is not hard to understand why Beijing’s rulers would falsely seek to take credit for what the Chinese nationalists and the Japanese did to help the Jews. Xu Kuangdi, an official of a government agency called the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, explained after visiting the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum last fall, “The spreading of this story plays an active role in promoting the understanding and friendship between the Chinese and people from all over the world.”
Translation: It’s good PR for the regime, and it stimulates tourism, especially by foreign Jews interested in seeing the old Shanghai ghetto area—the same reason the Chinese government installed a kosher kitchen at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
And China’s leaders are determined to keep up appearances: a government website reports that a Beijing official who visited the Shanghai museum “put his hand on the escalator, and when he casually raised the hand, he saw it was still spotlessly clean. Then, he looked back at the head [of the museum] with a satisfied smile… The two Sanitation Aunts are very industrious… Whenever visitors come to the Museum, they would see the two Aunts busy with their job.”
Sanitizing the museum is one thing. Sanitizing history is another. Chairman Mao was not some kind of Asian Raoul Wallenberg. His followers are not the ones who deserve the credit for the Shanghai haven, or for the brave efforts of individual Chinese citizens who rescued Jews from the Nazis.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org. His latest book is ‘FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.’