With the door closing on the Jews of Europe in the late 1930s, places of refuge were desperately sought to escape the clutches of the Nazi enemy. Shanghai, more than any other Asian city, became the choice for some, as there were no visa requirements to settle there. One could be stateless and on the run and could conceivably find refuge when they arrived. As a result thousands of Jews chose Shanghai as a sanctuary.  In a three-year period they became the most numerous foreign community in Shanghai. [1] Modern scholarship on the subject has reflected the importance of Shanghai, not because of its openness between cultures, but precisely because of its immorality, its refusal to civilize itself and its penchance for crime. This fact Juxtaposed with the stark realization that there were so few places on Earth to escape Nazi persecution made Shanghai arguably the safest place for Jews to immigrate during the late 1930s and early 1940s. I would argue that as chaotic as the world was in the early 1940s, “decadent” Shanghai stood out as a beacon for the desperate people who were lucky enough to end up there.

In the context of people who were grateful for their very lives, many reflect an eternal thanks to both the Chinese and Japanese who were responsible for their survival. Ernst Heppner, wrote a memoir of his experience in Shanghai. He lived there from 1938 to 1949. Heppner waited until a generation had passed to record his memories. Consequently, he had to rely on historical evidence to provide the historical background for his own personal story. “Shanghai Refuge”  is his story of escape from Austria as a result of the “Anschluss”[2] in 1938. As one of the first refugees to arrive in Shanghai, Heppner had the added advantage of describing from the beginning the triumphs and the failures of the refugeesThese first refugees found a waiting Jewish community who “warmly welcomed and urged (them) to forget their national origin, to consider themselves just Jews.”[3] Relief was a relatively easy task for the Shanghai Jewish community. Funds were established, the Sephardic synagogue was used as a makeshift reception center, and everything was done to insure the refugees’ return to normalcy. However, only 1,500 Jews arrived in 1938.

By 1939 the number of refugees increased immensely. Literally hundreds of people per month poured into the city. Overwhelmed, local relief had neither the resources nor the knowledge of how to absorb so many people so fast. Most of the refugees arrived by ship. One after another the liners pulled into the harbor unloading their human cargo. The Italian liners, “’Conte Biancamano,’ ‘Conte Verde,’ and ‘Conte Rosso’ shuttled back and forth between Italy and Shanghai bringing thousands.”[4] Through this entire time the Japanese were strangely silent. Heppner conveys this puzzlement felt by the community at the time.

Through all of this the Japanese maintained public silence. This was puzzling. Japan was the real power in Shanghai. Japan controlled the harbor and permitted Jews to land without a permit until late in 1939, when the refugee population had reached about 16,000—almost three-fourths the number of Japanese residents. Even then, the Japanese authorities hesitated to stop the flow…[5]

The Japanese were not opposed to Jewish refugees entering and taking refuge in the city because they were busy with their own plan bringing Jews into Shanghai. This part of the story has been related in the work, “The Fugu Plan,” by Marvin Tokayer and Mary Schwartz. This is a work that largely gets its information from David Kranzler’s “Japanese, Nazis and Jews.” It was their book, which outlined the entire plan from its inception to the realization of settling Jews in Shanghai. Published slightly earlier than Heppner, the Japanese plan was a well guarded secret so it is not hard to see why the Jews might have been confused with the situation. Only after years of investigation by a select group of researchers the scholarship revealed an organized, deliberate plan to populate Shanghai with Jewish refugees.

Kranzler’s book , “Japanese, Nazis and Jews” is the definitive The definitive work on the subject. Kranzler had possession of the “Kogan Papers” which outlined the specific Japanese policy concerning the settlement of Jews within their realm.

Since invading and occupying Manchuria in 1931 the Japanese were interested in improving the economics of the region. They believed that Jews could help in doing that.[6] As early as 1934 they brought several thousand Russian Jews to Harbin. They were pleased with the results, as the “Manchukuo Fugu Plan” had turned out to be a success. Consequently, in 1937 when they had taken over Shanghai from the Chinese, the existing Jewish community presented the Japanese with “exciting new possibilities.” [7] Tokayer and Schwartz indicate that it was the Japanese success with settling Jews in Manchuria in 1931, which had prompted Japanese leaders to do the same in Shanghai. The city was already a refuge for anywhere between 1, 000-4,500 Jews from the Russian Revolution in 1917.[8]

Although neither group totally trusted the other it became what we now call a win-win situation for both the Japanese and the Jews. Taking advantage of the Jewish misfortune in Europe, the Japanese believed that increasing the number of Jews in Shanghai would help in two major areas. As mentioned it would provide a boost to the economy. And, according to Tokayer and Schwartz it might help in easing the tension with the United States since the Japanese were under the impression that Jews controlled so much of America.[9] For the Jews who were lucky enough to take advantage of the offer, did so enthusiastically.  Whatever awaited them in Japanese dominated Asia was far better than being taken into custody by the Gestapo and maybe never heard from again. More than 17,000 refugees arrived in Shanghai by 1941.[10]

Primarily three men, Colonel Norihiro Yasue, Captain Koreshige Inuzuka and Consul General Shiro Ishiguro, developed the Fugu Plan.[11] It should be stated from the outset that these men were not in any way rescuing Jews out of sense of outrage to the Nazi “final solution.” This was purely a practical maneuver in which they saw an opportunity to use some people in trouble for their own purposes. At the same time the distrusting nature of the Japanese saw the Jews as much a potential enemy, as a purposeful addition to creating a success of occupied China. Yasue wrote:

We cannot develop northern China without the Jews; therefore it is proper to use them; but care should be taken…that we can properly defend ourselves from a potential enemy who may one day devour us.[12]


Inuzuka was even less tactful. “ (The) Jews must be strangled by the throat if they do not cooperate with us.”[13] Most Japanese contact with Jews and Jewish culture at this time came from a rather unlikely and aberrant source. In 1918 and 1922 Japanese expeditionary forces were sent into Siberia to help White Russian soldiers escape from the advancing Bolshevik army. White Russians, known for among other things their virulent anti-Semitism, introduced Japanese soldiers to “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” an anti-Semitic diatribe that describes a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. It might have been the one time in history that “The Protocols” worked in the Jews’ favor. It gave the Japanese a false impression of Jewish abilities and this was one of the reasons why they sought so vigorously to have Jews settle in their realm.[14] Heppner agrees with this view (Check out page 103 to see if he really does) Whatever the motives of the Japanese at the time, and however their treatment of this segment of humanity may have at times seemed harsh, few would disagree that the “Fugu Plan” saved the lives of those Jews who participated in it.

Having “The Protocols” as a guide, the Japanese engaged in some typical stereotypes. They perceived that Jews were by nature somehow good business people simply because they were Jews. They thought as “The Protocols” claimed, and as their White Russian allies had insisted, that Jews somehow were able to tilt the world order in their favor.  Other than these distorted influences the Japanese had very little exposure to Jewish people or culture previous to this time. Consequently, they had no reason to disbelieve what they were being told.

In the late 1930s the Japanese believed the only obstacle to creating their empire was the United States. They had the notion that Jews somehow had influence over the U.S government and its president. They were hoping that by settling Jews into their realm would somehow ease the condemnations of America toward Japanese hegemony in the area. Through propaganda manipulation they would invite American Journalists, to “Japan to write glowing articles about the country,” and since “eighty per cent of American Journalists were Jewish” having a thriving Jewish community was definitely in their favor. They also wanted to invite Hollywood producers to make movies in Shanghai because “all movie producers were Jewish.” This was all designed to influence American opinion to ease governmental criticism of Japanese actions in the area.[15]

The Jews were not very trusting of the Japanese either. There were several reasons for this including the obvious. The Japanese were sympathetic with the ideals of National Socialism. In 1940, they formally allied themselves with Germany and Italy when they signed The Tripartite Pact.[16] This further solidified suspicions that Japan might join the war on the side of Germany in Asia. This did not encourage optimism for the refugee Jews who found themselves under Japanese rule in Shanghai. Therefore, this was a relationship of convenience whereby both groups were given something they needed in return for something received by the other.

The Jews were supposed to have persuaded Roosevelt to yield gracefully to Japanese domination of the East. Japan should not have been forced to go to war with the United States. Hadn’t that been the purpose of the Fugu Plan?  But the Jews had failed the Fugu Plan totally… [17]

By the spring of 1939, these men went to work on three fronts to put into effect their “refugee settlement scheme.”[18] One, they decided to improve relations with the Ashkenazi community as a way of influencing the Baghdadi Jews who made up the Shanghai Jewish elite. The Japanese needed their absolute cooperation in economic relief for the new arriving refugees.[19]  Two, they improved relations with the Manchurian Jewish community, which had been strained for several years. [20] They sought to prove that, Manchukuo Jews, the only Jewish community under Japanese control in the world, was not subject to racism or persecution of any kind. Furthermore, the cooperation of the Harbin Jewish community was essential to the “Fugu plan” as the Japanese planned on bringing European Jews through that city on their way to Shanghai. And, if they were to facilitate a settlement of Jews within their sphere of influence.[22] Always suspicious of the “international Jew” years later they put forth restrictions, which could not be considered anything less than anti-Semitic. However, in 1939, they were very enthusiastic about treating their Jews with respect and dignity. [23]

Since 1938, most refugees ended up in the Hongkew section of the international settlement. It was the most practical place to settle thousands of newcomers with little or no personal resources. Located in the Eastern portion of the International concession, Hongkew served as the home for thousands of Jews.[24] Although the Japanese did not occupy all of Shanghai they did exert control over the Hongkew settlement. Knowing what is now known about the Fugu plan it seems logical that so many Jews might have been settled in that area.

There was a stark difference from the world of Germany before the Nazis and this new world of Shanghai, China. Many eye-opening experiences formed hard realizations about this new reality. But tempering this awesome change in lifestyles was the sobering fact that anything was better than what was happening in Europe.

Every morning coolies pushed carts around the city to gather up, depending on the weather, sixty to eighty corpses from the streets.

I was particularly disturbed to see the bodies of many babies and children among them. These were often baby girls whose parents either did not want them or could not feed them and lacked the money for a funeral. After one cold spell, 534 dead bodies were picked up. At the collection center they were piled up and burned. Seeing these frozen corpses, we came to the frightening realization that we were totally dependent on the Jewish relief organizations for food and shelter. We were living in a society where only one’s extended family would care for a person; no one else would. Those who left their villages lost the protection and care of their families. Whoever got sick and died might as well do so in the street, where the sanitation crews would pick up the body.[25]

As Jews were fleeing Europe during 1938 and ’39 it became apparent, however slowly, the need for relief. “When the need was finally recognized…the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), through their financial contributions enabled 15,000 refugees to survive.” Because it could not fund all the Jews in Shanghai, the JDC sought and received help from The London Council for German Jewry, The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HAIS), and B,nai Brith.[26] In all there were six major organizations, with countless committees and sub committees who pitched in to help the refugees. Because they worked independently of one another until 1940, “the Shanghai relief scene was well-intentioned chaos.”[27] The workers from the community who volunteered to help their brethren, “except for a handful of professionals, were all newcomers to the problems of organizing and maintaining destitute strangers.”[28]

The JDC had been the primary source for everyday expenses, food, housing, and medical care. The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society handled emigration costs, legal problems, and reconnecting scattered families.[29] They also managed to get many needed birth certificates right up until the time the offices were shut down in Warsaw.[30] The American Quakers worked with approximately 1,000 people to teach them English and distribute clothing.[31]

As well intentioned as local relief might have been it could not keep up with the flood tide of humanity that poured into Shanghai during 1939.  However, they continued working in this inefficient manner until 1941. Finally, in May of that year, the JDC office in New York was given the “green light” by the State department to send someone to speed up the processing of applications for emigration to the United States, investigate refugee complaints, and report on the general situation.[32] The JDC sent Laura Margolis, a very capable young lady who was destined to become a major character in this story. ” Margolis was a courageous and dedicated woman (who) performed a heroic role in the relief of the refugees.”[33]  She came to Shanghai voluntarily six months before Pearl Harbor, while America was humming about a coming war with the Japanese. With intrepid single-mindedness she let nothing get in the way of performing her task. When necessary, she confronted the established Shanghai-lander Jewish community as well as the Japanese authority.  She took a thoroughly chaotic situation and brought order to it.[34]

More than once she put her own safety in jeopardy. For example, in January 1942 food and provisions were in short supply because of the start of the war. Many refugees had little or nothing to eat for weeks and were literally starving to death. The stubbornness of the Baghdadi elite kept them from helping Margolis relieve the suffering of the refugees. She knew a demonstration was in order to engage the Shanghai Jewish community into action. But, she also knew that the Japanese would frown on anything that might cause them embarrassment. Undaunted, she risked arrest and imprisonment by publicizing that people were starving.

The next day “the Shanghai Times” ran the full story, “Hungry Starving Refugees in Shanghai.” “The Kempetai,” the Japanese police, and a particularly brutal organization, was outraged and issued a warrant for her arrest. She was called to the consulate to explain her actions. Only the intervention of a friend with Japanese connections in high places saved Margolis from a Gestapo like punishment.[35]

Among Margolis’ major problems was trying to convince local relief organizations to give up the funds they controlled, a necessary component of cooperative organizing. They continually resisted any attempt to “reorganize the committee structure…She found it difficult to cope with the individualism of Ellis Haim Sassoon and the Kadoories.”[36] Another obstacle was Margolis’ own JDC office in New York. They had forbid her from setting up her own office as this was not what she was originally sent there to do. However, after many requests they finally granted Margolis the right to set up an office and actually take control of the relief effort.[37]

After the war started the United States passed the “Anglo-American Trading With The Enemy Act,” which prohibited all communications between Americans and anyone in enemy occupied territory. Since the Japanese occupied Shanghai this left the refugees without a benefactor. The JDC made the tough and inevitable decision to indeed break-off any contact with the refugee Jews of Shanghai. From May 21, 1942 no more contact was made with its branch office in Shanghai.[38]

The outbreak of the war was not good news for some people who found themselves within the sphere of Japanese influence. This obviously included the Jews of Shanghai. Since the Japanese were allied with the Germans, it was only a matter of time before the Nazis would approach the Japanese about their “Jewish problem.” That time came in July 1942. The Nazis issued a proposal to the Japanese local Shanghai authorities to remove and eliminate their entire Jewish population. [39]

While not totally adverse to the idea, there was at least one official whose conscience got the better of him. He forewarned the Jewish leaders and a counter plan was developed to try to hold off any formal “final solution” in Shanghai. The Japanese discovered the counter plot and many Jewish leaders were arrested. They were imprisoned and tortured, the effects of which stayed with them until the ends of their lives.[40]

If left to the local authorities, they might have carried out the plan. However, the Jews’ efforts were not totally inept. Through some influential intermediaries, both Jewish and non-Jewish, word was sent to Tokyo. The Tokyo brass threw out the plan much to Nazi displeasure.[41] However, the Japanese did practice anti-Semitism. And, as the war progressed, it manifested itself in some fairly harsh ways. On February 18, 1943 the Japanese issued a proclamation effectively creating a ghetto out of the Hongkew settlement.  All Jews had to stay in that area. Jews who lived elsewhere had to move there. They could not leave the ghetto for any reason, not even for work.

The ghetto area totaled less than three-quarters of a square mile. It housed more than 18,000 Refugees among perhaps 100,000 Chinese—twice the population of density of Manhattan.[42]


Resources for food and other necessities ran dangerously low. People were starving in some quarters. However, at the communal “heime” cafeteria approximate 5000 very closely measured meals were served each day. One could count on 1350 calories, at least, for each day they ate a meal in the cafeteria.[43] These meals were a saving grace to the sick, the elderly and at least 1000 children each day.[44]

For Jews to have remained in Europe during the Nazi years, history has told us, would have most likely meant death. If given the chance, most refugees probably would have chosen some other place, other than Shanghai. But precisely because Shanghai was not a first choice to immigrate to might have made it more of a haven. It was a new environment, within a new culture. It had a preexisting Jewish community already living there, and the Japanese for their own reasons were very accommodating, at least during the crucial years of escape. As crowded with Jews as Shanghai became, it is a wonder why more didn’t discover its allure.

Even though it was not a first choice, the experience of those who survived there must be counted as one of the more successful stories of foiling Nazi extermination plans. Therefore, in some ways Shanghai turned out to be paradise. Of course, not in the way we usually think of paradise. The conditions were overcrowded, food at many times was scarce, the cultural problem of understanding the Japanese, and them understanding the Jews, and the fact that the refugees had a short brush with the Holocaust were all part of an experience that at any other place in just about any other time would have been unbearable. But, for European Jews, in the 1940s, coming to Shanghai saved their lives. To them that classifies it as paradise.




[1] Maisy J. Meyer, “The interrelationship of Jewish communities in Shanghai.”  Immigrants and Minorities, Vol. 19(2), 2000 p. 82. There is no consensus among historians as to their exact numbers, which varies from 17,000 to 30,000. Ernest G. Heppner, Shanghai Refuge: A Memoir of the World War II Jewish Ghetto, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1993, P. 38 . Shanghai was ”a metropolis of more than five million people in 1939…(and) included every conceivable nationality. In addition to the Chinese, approximately 20,000 Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Indians, 4,000 Americans, 9,000 British, 2,600 French, 5,000 Germans and Dutch, and more than 15,000 Russians.” If these figures are correct then Jews in the 1940s constituted the largest single foreign group in Shanghai. Although on page 45 of the same book, Heppner quotes a report from Laura Margolis, the JDC representative in Shanghai at the time. ” When the refugee population had reached about 16,000—almost three-fourths the number of Japanese residents…”

[2] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge p. 42. The Anschluss –the annexation of Austria into the Third Reich.

[3] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge, P. 42. See also Meyer, Jewish communities of Shanghai, p. 82. See the note on page 89, quoted from  Kranzler, Japanese, Jews and Nazis.

[4] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge, p. 42

5 Heppner, Shanghai Refuge,.  p. 45

[6] This is not unlike the previous 1,000-year history in Europe when kingdoms would encourage Jews to settle in their realms for the same reason.

[7] Marvin Tokayer and Mary Schwartz, The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews During World War Two.  Weatherhill Publishers, New York, 1979, p. 64

[8] Meyer, Jewish Communities, p. 80. See also Heppner, Shanghai Refuge p. 38. More than 15,000 White Russians had found their way to Shanghai after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.  Among these people (some of whom were fanatical anti-Semites) there were approximately 4,500 Ashkenazi Jews (those that lived in central and eastern Europe).

[9] Tokayer, Fugu Plan ,p. 59

[10] Meyer, Jewish Communities, p. 82  also see note 88, P. 89. Also see Tokayer, Fugu Plan, p. 223

[11] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, P. 65

[12] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, p. 65

[13]  Tokayer, Fugu Plan, p. 65

[14] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge p. 103

[15] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, p. 69.

[16] Robert D. Schulzinger, U.S. Diplomacy since 1900, Fifth edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002,  p. 179

[17] Tokayer, Fugu Plan,  p. 217

[18] Tokayer, Fugu Plan,  p. 65

[19] Tokayer, Fugu Plan,  p.65. The Ashkenazic Jewish community was not so forthcoming. They had been suspicious of Japanese intentions because of her links with Germany, but they were more conciliatory than the Sephardics and it was the Sephardics who had the economic potential to supply proper relief.

[20] Tokayer, Fugu Plan,  p. 53-54. Manchurian relations were strained because of the Simon Kaspe kidnapping case. In 1933 Kaspe was a French citizen visiting his parents from Europe. He was abducted which was not uncommon for occupied Manchuria at that time.  For three months the kidnappers played a cat and mouse game with authorities and with the family. They demanded a ransom which the chief of the Japanese police did not allow Kaspe’s father to pay. He claimed they could catch the culprits without it. His body was finally found brutally murdered. The Harbin Jewish community protested vehemently when the kidnappers were caught and given a reprise on their fifteen-year sentences and freed after a week.

[21] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, p. 72-73. The American connection would be a hard one for the Japanese. They needed to “woo” Rabbi Steven Wise, who had been an outspoken critic of Japanese policy of the invasion of China.

[22] Tokayer, Fugu Plan,  p. 65-67

[23] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge, p. 104 “On March 2, 1939, foreign Minister Hashiro Arita declared in the Japanese parliament that Japanese policy aimed at no discrimination against the Jews.”

[24] Frederic Wakeman, Policing Shanhai: 1927-1937, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995 p.4-5. See map.

[25] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge, P. 52

[26] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge, P. 44

[27] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, p. 201

[28] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, p. 201

[29] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, . p. 219

[30] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, p. 40

[31] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge, p. 97

[32] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge, p. 93

[33] Meyer, Jewish Communities in Shanghai, p. 85

[34] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge, p. 93

[35] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge, p. 98

[36] Meyer, Jewish Communities in Shanghai, p. 85

[37] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge, p. 93

[38] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, , p. 220

[39] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, P. 223. There were three notorious Nazis at this meeting. Adolf Puttkamer, chief of the German Information Bureau, Hans Neumann, former Commandant of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, and Colonel Josef Meisinger, who was known as the butcher of Warsaw. Meisienger led the meeting and spoke methodically how the Jews are a menace to the world. He appealed to the Japanese sense of greed by telling them they would be able to take over Jewish assets once they were gone. He then described three methods of extermination, which were inexpensive, easy and efficient.

[40] Tokayer, Fugu Plan,  p. 225-226. Vice Consul Mitsugi Shibata could not reconcile what Meisinger was proposing. Tokayer and Schwartz quote him as saying,” What is happening to the Japanese that they should even be thinking these things.” (p. 225) He called a meeting the next day between representatives of all the Jewish groups in Shanghai. Present at the meeting were Hayim and Michael Speelman, Boris Topas , Joseph Bitker, Dr. Kardegg, Fritz Kaufmann and Robert Peritz all leaders of there respective national communities.  This was before there was a Holocaust so the Jews were a little incredulous. “Whoever heard of annihilating every Jew in such a big city.” (p. 226) It was here that they hatched their counter plan. But, none of these men had any experience in the art of clandestine work. Their plan failed and they were all arrested and tortured by the Kempetai.

[41]Tokayer, Fugu Plan, p. 233.  See also Heppner, Shanghai Refuge p. 104-108 passim.

[42] Heppner, Shanghai Refuge,  P. 113-114. One could get a pass if you had work outside the ghetto. But the process for obtaining a pass was often a laborious and at times a humiliating experience. One could wait possibly all day just to get a temporary pass. A Japanese bureaucrat named Ghoya had the power to issue passes. He was a little man, prone to unreasonable outbursts, who had proclaimed himself the “king of the Jews.” By 1943 the situation in the Hongkew ghetto had become extremely overcrowded since all Jews had to be housed there.

[43] This is not enough to remove hunger but it was better than the gas chambers some were experiencing, as Auschwitz was running at full capacity by the middle of 1943.

[44] Tokayer, Fugu Plan, p. 253


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