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Shanghai exhibit tells Jews’ prewar story

Between 1933 and 1941, Shanghai accepted approximately 18,000 Jewish refugees into the city, helping them escape the Holocaust in Europe.

Conditions were rough, spaces were overpopulated, and employment opportunities were limited, but they survived.

Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941), an exhibit at the Florida Holocaust Museum, is a collection of photos and artifacts summarizing these events, from arrival to assimilation to departure, and personal stories of triumph and tragedy. The exhibit opened June 29 and will be available to the public until next Sunday.

The exhibit comes from the Jewish Refugees Museum of Shanghai and is made up of plaques that give detail to different aspects of the refugees’ stay in Shanghai.

Erin Blankenship, curator of exhibitions and collections at the museum, wanted to share as much as possible of this lesser known story.

Despite the initial hardship, some of the refugees thrived in their new setting. Athletes fit into sporting events, raising the level of competition in boxing, football, tennis and table tennis. Theaters were formed for those interested in the arts. Those wanting to detail the progression of the war formed newspapers. This enabled the wealthier refugees to rent separate houses and spaces outside of the shelters.

Despite the locals living together harmoniously with the refugees, China faced pressure from Germany and Japan to carry out the “Meisinger Plan” to kill all Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

While it was never carried out, Japanese military police forced the refugees into the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees,” a ghetto in Shanghai. They lived in walled-in barriers and were watched constantly by police. It wasn’t until after World War II that the refugees started to leave gradually.

Before the exhibit was put on display, Blankenship was contacted by a St. Petersburg resident whose parents who had survived the Holocaust in Shanghai. Susan Fader, 58, is the child of refugees Erich and Malvina Rosengarten. She donated her parent’s marriage certificate, immigration documents and pictures of her parents to the exhibit along with other items. Fader says her parents were together throughout the Holocaust and had gotten married so Erich could take Malvina to the United States after the war.

Fader says they didn’t assimilate well and took jobs they didn’t want just to get by. They returned to Berlin for a period but saw the capital city still was recovering from the war so they returned to the U.S.

“The most vital part is to know how they came out of that,” Fader said. She noted that her father was physically and mentally damaged from the events, and both of her parents dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder and lived difficult lives. Fader’s mother passed away three years ago this month.

Since World War II, refugees have returned for reunions and commemorative events documented in the exhibit. For its generosity, Shanghai has been referred to as a “modern-day Noah’s Ark,” and the name Shanghai became synonymous with the words “rescue” and “haven.”

After the exhibit leaves the Florida Holocaust Museum, Fader’s donation will get its own small exhibit focusing specifically on her parents’ stories.

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