Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Part of Shanghai's Jewish history is under threat from bulldozers.

Ruan Yisan, a professor at Shanghai's Tongji University, has launched a campaign to try to save historic buildings in the Jewish quarter. 
In the 1930s, Shanghai was the only place in the world to offer visa-free sanctuary to Jews fleeing Nazism — 20,000 ended up in Shanghai. In 1943, the Japanese restricted them to a one-square-mile area, which became known as Little Vienna.
A pianist and a violinist used to play popular music for customers at the White Horse Inn, or Das Weisse Rossl...the menu featured Wiener schnitzel.

But the White Horse wasn't in Austria or Germany, it was in wartime Shanghai. And for the city's wealthier Jewish refugees, it offered a memory of homes that no longer existed.

"My wedding party was in White Horse Inn, which was fantastic," remembers Kurt Mosberg, now 90 years old and living in Sydney. "It was mostly my friends, mostly Jewish people, about 120 people. Thinking that it was in Shanghai, it's an amazing thing, you know."

Mosberg's parents started the White Horse Inn in Shanghai in 1939 and ran it for five years as a nightclub.

Today, the building still stands. It's easily identified by a distinctive fluted circular turret. Below that, painted on its wall is the Chinese character "to be demolished." The White Horse Inn is among a number of buildings inside the Jewish district to be knocked down to make way for a widened road.

As they start work, the demolition crews are uncovering layers of the past, like unwitting architectural archaeologists. By knocking down shop facades, old shop signs beneath are revealed, like one for Wuerstel Tenor, a sandwich shop, which had been covered for decades.

They will pull down other fading shop fronts at the heart of Little Vienna, as well — those of Cafe Atlantic and Horn's Imbiss-stube (Horn's Snack Bar).

"The existing refugee coffee shops [and] restaurants were a shining light in the lives of the refugees, who did not know how long their isolation and misery would last, should they survive," says Rena Krasno, who has written about her experiences living through World War II in Shanghai.

"In these eateries, they felt they were back in Europe … and for a short time eliminated their painful fate from their minds," she says.

Dvir Bar-Gal is an Israeli journalist who is writing a book about Shanghai's Jewish past. He also leads tours around the Jewish quarter. For him, the question is how important it is for a society to keep its past. If the demolitions go ahead, he fears there will be less and less to show visitors, and he fears the little-known story of Shanghai's Jewish past will be in danger of being completely forgotten.

"People will stop coming. There will be no interest in the almost forgotten story of the 1940s, the people who were saved here from the Nazis," he says. (NPR)

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