Illinois Holocaust Museum’s Shanghai Exhibit Depicts Largely Unknown Tale of Escape from the Nazis

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s latest special exhibit depicts a fascinating and rarely told story of Jews escaping Nazi persecution by fleeing to China.

Twenty-two black-and-white photographs by photojournalist Arthur Rothstein show a harsh existence in the Shanghai ghetto for thousands of Jews during the Second World War. 

The images offer an interesting combination of cultures and give a glimpse of everyday life. One photo captures a couple cooking matzah balls in a Chinese fire pot. Another shows a refugee reading a German Shanghai newspaper. 

matzoh balls on fire pot

In the 1930s through 1941, some 20,000 European Jews found refuge from the Nazis in China. In early 1943, the Japanese, who controlled much of the Shanghai region, forced the stateless Jewish refugees into the ghetto, where those who survived remained until the end of the war. An estimated 3,000 people in the ghetto died primarily due to hunger and disease.

“These photos provide a window into the lives of refugees who found temporary sanctuary during the turbulent years of World War II,” Chief Curator Arielle Weininger said. “The exhibition is a tribute to human endurance, capturing both the enormous hardship and fierce perseverance of these refugees and their families as they managed to survive.” 

view of heim with refugees

Living conditions in the Shanghai ghetto were rustic and cramped. And yet, we know most of these refugees, at least statistically, were among the lucky ones because they escaped Europe before the Nazis seized control.

The museum’s main exhibit covers the Holocaust in detail. It’s a must visit and really a must re-visit for those who have not seen it in a while. That was true for me on a recent weekday trip to the museum. A return for the first time in at least a few years to the main exhibit — where the lighting, acoustics, architecture, and subject matter all work together to encourage reflection — allowed me to gain some perspective.

holocaust refugees

Survivor stories are the hallmark of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, giving grim statistics meaning and forging a personal connection with visitors. This approach is true of the Shanghai exhibit as well.

One of those survivors is Judy Fleischer Kolb. She was born shortly after her parents left Germany and arrived in Shanghai, and she spent the first years of her life in the ghetto. 

A little red sweater knitted for Kolb in 1941 by her grandmother is on display in the main exhibit of the museum. When I saw it, my mind flashed to Schindler’s List and the film’s famous scenes with the little girl in the striking red coat. That was a Hollywood storyline meant to represent any of the hundreds of thousands of children killed in the Holocaust. 

holocaust exhibit red sweater

The red sweater at the museum is no storyline. It’s real, and it belonged to a toddler who escaped the Holocaust because her family fled to Shanghai.

Shanghai: Safe Haven During the Holocaust opened this summer and will be on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center through Sept. 5, 2022.

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Patrick Regan is Better’s Editorial Director. He’s been a Chicago-area journalist for more than 20 years, most of that time as an editor at the Chicago Tribune.