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Shanghai has always been known for its cosmopolitan status, achieving the nickname of the Paris of the East in the 1920s. That reputation continues today as Shanghai steps back into the cultural and historic spotlight. Even as the city undergoes a number of prosperous changes, as shown by the new luxury hotels, boutiques and restaurants found along the Bund and the gleaming skyscrapers in the financial center of Pudong, Shanghai continues to rediscover its roots.
Here on the Bund, regarded as the epicenter of the city with its historic art deco buildings and the new Peninsula Shanghai hotel, clients may discover that there is much more history to this area than expected.
This month, The Peninsula Shanghai launched its new Peninsula Academy tours and, while clients might be so inclined to opt for a basic city or art tour, they might also want to consider delving into a period of Shanghai’s history and diverse community that is often overlooked: Jewish Shanghai.
For clients interested in exploring this unsung period of history, The Peninsula Academy’s four-hour tour offers a fascinating, historical look at the years between the Opium War and the arrival of the Iraqi Jewish community. The main part of the tour covers events that took place during WWII, when the Japanese occupied Shanghai. During this period, Shanghai’s small but vibrant Jewish community was relegated to the only ghetto ever established in the Far East, which became a safe haven from 1933 to 1941.
We met our guide, Dvir Bar-Gal, out in the already sweltering humidity of the early morning in front of the Peace Art Hotel, a fitting historic monument on the Bund. Dvir was an animated middle-aged man with dark curly hair and a low-key, dry sense of humor. He introduced himself to the crowd, a mix of older, retired travelers and the younger generation with their parents, mainly composed of Eastern Europeans and American tourists.
We began the journey on the Bund with a one-hour background lecture. Dvir came to Shanghai almost a decade ago as a journalist from Israel.
“Back in Israel, we don’t get this history,” he told us. “This was all new to me when I came here nine years ago and it has become a personal project for me to try and collect all the stories.”
Another labor of love for Dvir has been to collect old gravestones; many were made out of former washboards. One day, he hopes to create a memorial.
For the second part of the tour, we traveled by air-conditioned motorcoach to the park at Huo Shan Road in the Hongkou district. Here, Dvir chronicled WWII and the third wave of Jewish immigrants who traveled to Shanghai — refugees from central Europe, Germany, Austria, Poland and others who came to Shanghai after they had been rejected by other countries.
For the third and final chapter of our tour, we were taken to the former site of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which has now become a government building and is home to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. The distressed brick building was broken up into three sections beginning with the Synagogue, an upstairs museum and a learning center. I wandered out into the peaceful garden courtyard and watched several films in one of the two exhibition halls before viewing the touching letters and memorabilia of survivors who lived in the ghetto during this period.
What was particularly fascinating about this tour was how Dvir weaved in the history of the famous art-deco buildings on the Bund and the historical figures behind the rise of the city. All of this, as he described, became a complex story and a very important, albeit unsung, part of our world history, during which Shanghai became a safe haven for the Jewish community. Were it not for passionate people like Dvir, we might forget about the 20,000 Jews that were saved — or possibly never even know that they existed.