Shanghai profiles: Learn about Jewish exodus from China to Bklyn

Prints from the past: This “resident certificate” allowed Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi persecution to settle in Shanghai.
Brooklyn Paper
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

Check out Brooklyn’s least-known refugees.

A new exhibit at several branches of the Brooklyn Public Library highlights the little-known, World War II–era migration of Jewish people from Europe to Shanghai to the Borough of Kings. “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai” — now on view at the Central Library, and opening at the Kensington branch on April 20 — illuminates an overlooked part of the past and draws parallels to our treatment of refugees today, according to one organizer.

“We want to explore the history to see how much we can learn from it, and how much use it can have in our current reality,” said Bay Ridgite Frank Xu, who manages the library’s languages and literature division. “The theme is ‘What should people do when another nationality is on the verge of collapse?’ ”

The exhibit uses text and photos to tell the story of more than 20,000 Jewish people who fled to the Chinese city — one of the few places they could travel to without a visa — in the 1930s and 40s to escape the Nazi regime, and the smaller group of about 150 people who arrived in Brooklyn after the war ended in 1945.

Part of the display focuses on the ancestors of current-day Flatbush resident Benson Chanowitz, whose father, two uncles, and aunt escaped modern-day Belarus for Shanghai around 1940. The group stayed there for about four years, Chanowitz told this paper.

The Jewish and Chinese residents of Shanghai mostly peacefully co-existed, but the Japanese authorities that occupied the city forced the Jews to live together in a ghetto, leading them to count down the days until they could build better lives elsewhere, according to Chanowitz.

“Their focus there was surviving during the war, and then getting papers,” he said. “They never had any intention of resettling there.”

Chanowitz’s ancestors — all teenagers and young adults at the time — spent their years in Shanghai studying at a yeshiva with other Jews from their homeland, he said, and moved to Kings County with a group of fellow students.

“They were looking to congregate with their own people — they wanted to go to a neighborhood where there’s synagogues and kosher food available,” he said. “They saw that there were already established areas in Brooklyn, and that’s where they went.”

The refugees dispersed throughout various Kings County neighborhoods once they arrived — including Borough Park, Kensington, Williamsburg, Midwood, and Sheepshead Bay — but their experiences bonded them for life, Chanowtiz said.

“They didn’t necessarily have nametags saying, ‘I was in Shanghai,’ ” he said. “But there was always a camaraderie with anybody my father would introduce me to who he was in Shanghai with.” The exhibit will be enhanced by special events, including a screening of the documentary “Survival in Shanghai,” at the Central branch on April 20 at 4 pm, and a discussion and screening of another documentary, “Ark Shanghai,” at the Kensington branch on May 2 at 5:30 pm. And at the Central branch on April 16 at 5 pm, Xu will talk with survivor Lisa Brandwein about her experience growing up as a Jewish refugee in Shanghai 80 years ago.

“Jewish Refugees in Shanghai” exhibit at Brooklyn Public Library (Central Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza at Eastern Parkway in Prospect Lefferts Gardens; Kensington Library, 4207 18th Ave. between Seton Place and Ocean Parkway in, Through May 10 at Central; April 20–May 31 at Kensington. Free.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 5:12 pm, April 18, 2019
Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

Reasonable discourse

Susan Berkowitz from Sheepshead Bay says:
I had a neighbor who survived the war in Shanghai. He used to tell me that the Chinese were very tolerant people. They should be teaching the world.
April 16, 8:29 am
Ruth A appel from Moved to NJfromMidwood says:
Some of my grandma' family( schmulman) escaped in that direction,but our family lost touch after she had died..someone had put some of those names intonYad Vashem, but no family in USA knows who
April 16, 12:16 pm
Glenn Krasner from Parkchester, Bronx, NY says:
My Aunt Sylvia's friend, nicknamed Simmy, was one of these refugees you speak of. Her family fled from Europe to escape the Nazis, and immigrated to Shanghai. After the war, her family immigrated to Brooklyn, where she grew up. I remember visiting her house in Florida, and she and her husband still had very fancy, hand-carved Shanghai wooden chests from her family in their house.
April 16, 8:28 pm

Enter your comment below

By submitting this comment, you agree to the following terms:

You agree that you, and not or its affiliates, are fully responsible for the content that you post. You agree not to post any abusive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous, hateful, threatening or sexually-oriented material or any material that may violate applicable law; doing so may lead to the removal of your post and to your being permanently banned from posting to the site. You grant to the royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such content in whole or in part world-wide and to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.

First name
Last name
Your neighborhood
Email address
Daytime phone

Your letter must be signed and include all of the information requested above. (Only your name and neighborhood are published with the letter.) Letters should be as brief as possible; while they may discuss any topic of interest to our readers, priority will be given to letters that relate to stories covered by The Brooklyn Paper.

Letters will be edited at the sole discretion of the editor, may be published in whole or part in any media, and upon publication become the property of The Brooklyn Paper. The earlier in the week you send your letter, the better.

Keep it local!

Stay in touch with your community. Subscribe to our free newsletter: