Vice Consul General Zhang Meifang of the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in New York wasn’t born when hundreds of Jews fleeing the Nazis in Europe began trickling into Shanghai, China, but she heard about the wave of refugees from her great-grandparents.
“When I was a child, they told me the story time and again, and it left a deep impression,” she told an audience at the Aidekman campus in Whippany on Jan. 15. “I’m very proud of this history and of China’s relationship with the Jewish people.”
Zhang Meigang was one of the two speakers at a Lunch and Learn hosted by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, a program of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The other guest was Ellen Chaim Kracko of New Rochelle, NY, who was born in Shanghai to parents who fled there from their home in Germany.
Their presentations were part of a “Sanctuary in Shanghai” series presented by the Holocaust council and replaced a presentation from mid-December canceled because of a snowstorm.
Around 30,000 Jews from Germany and other countries occupied by Nazi Germany sought refuge in Shanghai between 1933 and 1941. Some left as soon as they could; others stayed on until the communists took over. They were assisted by Jewish immigrants who had come before, mostly on business, and by their Chinese neighbors, many of them impoverished themselves and suffering the effects of the Japanese occupation of China.
Chaim Kracko also has no personal memory of the actual period, but from all that she learned afterward, she said, she shares the sense of kinship the vice consul mentioned. “I have been back over and over again because I feel such a bond with the people there,” she said.
Around 100 people came to the event, so many that additional tables and chairs were needed. Council director Barbara Wind said she was surprised and pleased by the turnout. “We brought this ‘Sanctuary in Shanghai’ exhibit and presentations here,” she said, “because it’s an important, little-known story about Jews finding safety from the Nazis in China when the rest of the world refused to take them in as refugees. There’s a strong parallel to what’s going on in Africa today and the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans a few years ago.”
Presenting a plaque to the vice consul, Howard Rabner, the COO and CFO of GMW federation, anticipated the rare kindness the speakers depicted: “In a world at war, this was an example of humanity,” he said.
In addition to the slides shown by Chaim Kracko, the audience got to see the traveling exhibition of posters about the Jewish experience in Shanghai that was on display in the foyer from Dec. 17 until Jan. 21.
The show included a series of vivid oil paintings of Jewish and Chinese inhabitants of Shanghai by the late artist John H. Less. Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, explained that his son Steven, who now lives in Germany, approached her a couple of years ago in search of a display space for his father’s work. In addition to the Whippany venue, they were shown at the Jewish Museum of New Jersey at Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark, and at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
“We were so glad to be able to show these pictures,” Forgosh said. “The historical society is always on the lookout for a local connection to world events, and this felt beshert — meant to be.”
There will be another chance to learn more about the Jewish experience in Shanghai: Holocaust survivor Peter Engler will speak about his family’s time there at a Lunch and Learn on Thursday, Feb. 6.