Orthodox Jews in WWII Shanghai

Holocaust Education Center Off 9

New Exhibit Reveals Stories of Rescue, Refuge, and Rebirth During the Holocaust

Brooklyn, N.Y.— Amud Aish Memorial Museum has launched Precious Gift: Rescue and Shanghai, an exhibition and educational program for schools and private groups. During World War II, thousands of Jews from Europe—whose lives were in imminent peril—miraculously escaped the Nazis and found safe haven in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China. Through original artifacts and primary source materials, the exhibition engages visitors with this little-explored aspect of Holocaust history, explaining the plights of Jews who sought refuge in foreign lands and the heroic efforts of those—from diplomats to everyday people—who risked their lives to help them.

In the exhibit, visitors are introduced to diplomats from Japan, the Netherlands, and Lithuania who defied orders by distributing visas that became lifelines for thousands. They also learn about the journey from Europe to Shanghai, daily life, and the flourishing of Jewish religious life in Kobe, Japan and Shanghai. Throughout the tour, guides note the significance of the various artifacts—such as the sacred Hebrew texts printed in Shanghai and a meal ration card with unused days—to illustrate the personal stories of those who lived through these difficult times.

Everyday life is explored in Precious Gift: Rescue and Shanghai by looking at the victims’ experiences. In 1941, the Walkin family (husband, wife, and three young children) escaped Europe through Kovno via the Trans Siberian Railroad, arriving first in Kobe, Japan and then in Shanghai where they remained for the duration of the war. Their artifacts tell us about the Sabbaths and other holidays they celebrated and the difficulties they faced (shortages of food, clothing, and medicine). In 1946 the family immigrated to the United States where they spent the next several years pursuing visas for the remaining Jewish refugees in Shanghai—Jews who had no homes or families to return to in Europe.

Precious Gift: Rescue and Shanghai is accompanied by an educational program for school groups which includes group workshops. One workshop explores the experiences of Judith Cohn-Goldbart, a Jewish girl whose family escaped from Munich to Shanghai. The Cohn-Goldbart artifacts narrate Judith’s childhood in Shanghai as a Bais Yaakov (girls’ religious school) student.

“The story of the Jews’ escape to Shanghai is one that students don’t typically encounter in school, and yet it carries with it important lessons: the power of faith, the importance of perseverance, the role of resilience, and the imperative of survival,” said Rabbi Sholom Friedmann, Director of Amud Aish Memorial Museum. “Shanghai could not have been more foreign for these European Jews, yet the city largely welcomed them and allowed for their customs; so the Jews were able to practice their faith and establish their institutions without issue. The only yeshiva to survive intact from Europe, the Mir Yeshiva, did so by taking refuge in Shanghai. It operates today, relocated to Jerusalem, and is the largest Yeshiva in the world.”


In 1938, the Jews of Europe were running out of options. The Evian conference’s failure to address the Jewish refugee crisis only emboldened Hitler, and Kristallnacht followed soon after. Shanghai was the only place with unrestricted immigration and no entry visa requirement. It was the last hope for German and Austrian Jews to escape, and thousands did until 1941 when Jewish emigration was forbidden. Shanghai then became a sanctuary for Orthodox Polish Jews who had fled to Lithuania only to find themselves in the path of the Soviets and the Nazis. Chiune Sugihara, Japanese Vice Consul in Kovno, Lithuania, became their ally, disobeying orders by issuing transit visas to the Far East to every Jew who applied. Upon arrival in Shanghai, the refugee population energized the tiny existing Jewish community, establishing Jewish schools for boys and girls and ensuring access to kosher food.

About the School Program

The school program in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, accommodates students from grade six and up. School visits are content-rich experiences. Museum educators provide resources to teachers in advance of each visit. In addition to a tour of the exhibition and a small-group classroom workshop, students have the opportunity to express what they learned through the tools in the new art workshop. Tours are available in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. The online group reservation system is currently taking requests here. Since its opening, many thousands of children have visited the school exhibition program.

About Amud Aish Memorial Museum/Kleinman Holocaust Education Center

Amud Aish is dedicated to documenting the micro-histories of observant Jewish victims and the role of faith within the broader context of the annihilation of European Jewry. It will service the general public and students at its soon-to-open permanent museum location that incorporates the Kleinman Holocaust Education Center, the Orthodox Testimony Project (in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), a document and research archive, and an artifact collections archive. Amud Aish is active globally through its International Division, with current projects in Poland, Hungary, and the United Kingdom. Amud Aish is located in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, with future annexes in Lakewood, New Jersey, and Jerusalem.

About the author / 

Rabbi Sholom Friedmann

Rabbi Sholom Friedmann is a Talmid of Rabbi Leib Bakst זצ"ל, of Yeshivas Ateres Mordechai, Detroit, Michigan. After learning in the yeshivah and kollel, Rabbi Friedmann moved to the British colony of Gibraltar and studied in the Gateshead Kollel for three more years, at which time he received rabbinical ordination. From there, Rabbi Friedmann moved to London, England. In London, Rabbi Friedmann taught in the Menorah Grammar School, and was appointed the communal Rov of Kehilas Kol Yaakov, Edgware, London. Rabbi Friedmann was awarded Qualified Teaching Status by the British Board of Education in 2002, and a diploma in educational psychology by the Tavistock clinic (London) in 2006. In 2005, Rabbi Friedmann was accepted as a Fellow in Holocaust Education by the prestigious Imperial War Museum, London. Rabbi Friedmann relocated to New York in 2008 to become the Director of Zechor Yemos Olam, the Holocaust education division of Torah Umesorah. While occupying that position, Rabbi Friedmann created teaching materials, videos, and teacher training programs, including the ZYO Holocaust education fellowship program. In April 2012, Rabbi Friedmann was appointed as the director of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum. The museum founded by Elly Kleinman will carry on the legacy of holocaust history. For more info about when it is expected to open read this article.

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