Was there a Jewish concentration camp in Shanghai during WWII?

I once heard an anecdotal account of how around 2 million Jews were quarantined in Shanghai during the early World War II. Is this true? Is there any history of Jews in China?


Can’t see a Cecil column relating to this, so this possibly should be GQ …

Yes. But then the history of Christians and Muslims in China is also longer than most people tend to assume: trade between Europe, the MENA and China has been going on for a long time.

Isolated instances. Benjamin of Tuleda, a Spanish Jew, possibly travelled to China in the 12th century. Marco Polo recorded several Jewish communities in China. In the 16th century, Matteo Ricci came across observant Jews in China. And there were sufficiently many in early 20th-century Shanghai that there was a Jewish Club with “an auditorium for lectures and dancing, a well stocked library, a cricket ground, and tennis courts.” (Shanghai: Crucible of Modern China by Betty Peh-T’i Wei, Oxford, 1987, p119.)

Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Board, definitely, we’re definitely glad to have you with us.

I’m moving this question to the appropriate forum, General Questions. You might want to take a quick glance at the main Message Board page to get a feeling for what sort of questions belong in which forum. It sort of helps readers understand what kind of questions or comments they’re likely to see.

No biggie, you’ll know for next time.

The condensed version of the story.

Shanghai was the most international port in China, and was largely being controlled by concessions given out to several nations. They lived in a large international district on the Whangpoo (now Huangpu) River. Next to the International Settlement was next to Hongkou, where about 6000 Jews lived. Jews have a very long history in China, dating back to the Silk Road. Despite this, their numbers were small and they stayed mostly in the larger cities, and especially in Shanghai.

During the 1930s, Jews were being deprived of their German citizenships. Yet Germany didn’t want them and didn’t want to let them go, and most other countries wouldn’t let them in. Even if they could get out, they were officially stateless and could not receive the visas necessary even to land in other countries. The odd nature of the International control of Shanghai meant that it was about the only place in the world that would allow Jews in without visas.

About 12,000 Jews made it to Shanghai in various ways. Some went out through southern Europe; many Russians made it via Siberia. (A large number of so-called White Russians had settled there are refugees from communism.) At first they lived in fairly good if crowded conditions. After the war started the Japanese took over Shanghai and in 1943 forced most of the Jews into a small ghetto that was only a corner of Hongkou.

Conditions got much worse, but not worse than those of the Chinese who surrounded them. There was no bombing until very late in the war, but all supplies were in short supply and jobs were being restricted so there was little money to buy them in any case. People died from sickness - no medical supplies either - and some from inadequate food, but virtually the entire community survived the war.

There was never anything remotely similar to a concentration camp. Some Jews were arrested and taken to prisoner camps that were mainly used for the civilians trapped in the country from the allied countries - Britain, France. If you’ve seen the movie or read the book Empire of the Sun you’ll get a good look at these. Not at all pleasant, but not concentration camps.