The Jewish Quarter in Shanghai was a melting pot of different communities in the early and mid-20th century.  There were two events that lead to the migration: the Russian Revolution in 1917 and World War II.  Over 23,000 Jewish refugees called this part of Shanghai home, between 1941-1945, some of which took a month-long boat ride from Italy to Shanghai.   

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Names of former residents at the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai. Photo by John Abrenilla

One of the main reasons why Jewish refugees made their way to Shanghai was a rule implemented as part of the Unequal Treaties. In the late 19th Century, China only required visas to be checked when departing European countries. In 1937, the Imperial Army took control of the area and the Jewish refugee community was forced to live in a small section of the district. Stateless and new occupants of the Jewish Quarter now found themselves dwelling in the Jewish Ghetto. At this point, the refugees left Europe to escape the holocaust, persecution, and imprisonment only to end up in the same conditions they feared.   

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New items including infrastructure and people hide the Jewish ghetto. Photo by John Abrenilla

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is in Shanghai, near the Huangpu River, and part of the Hongkou district. This museum tells a story of the large Jewish community that settled in the area during World War II.  The structure was retained, and remnants of the ghetto can be seen in the surrounding area, including plaques of former residents, including Michael Blumenthal, who served as the US Secretary of Treasury for Jimmy Carter. Blumenthal lived in the ghetto from 1939 to 1947. 

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The former Jewish Ghetto is occupied by new residents. Photo by John Abrenilla

Another notable story was that of Ho Feng-Shan, the Chinese consul in Vienna that freely issued over 3,000 “life visas” to Jews fleeing Austria.  Feng-Shan only needed to get the refugees out of Europe, given that Shanghai didn’t require one coming in. Feng-Shan was later recognized for his heroics.    

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Plaque displayed at the former residence of Michael Blumenthal. Photo by John Abrenilla

I had the chance to photograph and document the remnants of this ghetto.  As Ben mentioned, interesting street photography is not only about the people. Given that this was the home of many displaced refugees and struggling communities, their existence was enough to permanently alter the structures that housed them. Buildings were aged, often in possession of the original construction material. In a few places, businesses that cater to the current occupants overlap previous layers of a theater.

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Structures of the former Jewish Ghetto Remain. Photo by John Abrenilla

Preventing journalistic bias is important when documenting sensitive locations such as this. The Jewish Museum experience was absolutely moving and touching. Seeing the previously owned goods of the children, workers, and photos of their lives was important to understand what it may have been like to live in the area. 

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A shoe left behind by one of the former Jewish Ghetto residents. Photo by John Abrenilla

However, shortly after the war, most of the Jewish population left the area under Communist rule. It is important to understand why they left during this timeframe and I can’t find much literature to document the departure. Regardless, in the last 20 years, various Israeli organizations recognized China for their hospitality during World War II.

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Former theater hidden behind the framing of a convenient store. Photo by John Abrenilla

The structures and communities in the surrounding Shanghai’s Jewish Quarter followed that of the political rule. People, businesses, and cultural influences have come and gone. All that is left of the Jewish community are remnants of what once was, however, it continues to be a haven for those looking for shelter. 


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