The Jewish Refugees Who Fought for China
In my role as curator of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, I spend most of my time studying and memorializing the history of the 20,000 Jews who fled the Holocaust and the turmoil of Europe for the relative safety of the “Shanghai Ghetto.”
Yet, the relationship between China and its Jewish population in the middle of the last century was not one of one-sided succor. Jews, including many Jewish refugees, made outstanding contributions to China’s revolution and fight for national independence.
A century ago, the Communist International and the then-Russian Communist Party dispatched several agents to help foment revolution in China, including Russians like Grigori Voitinsky and Vladimir Neiman-Nikolsky and the Dutch Communist Henk Sneevliet. In addition to their shared commitment to Communism, all three were of Jewish heritage.
Of the three, Sneevliet might be the most famous, in part because of the role he played in saving China’s earliest Communist revolutionaries from arrest. On June 3, 1921, Sneevliet arrived in Shanghai under journalistic cover and soon made contact with local Communists. On the evening of July 30, less than a month after the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), members of the CPC’s First National Congress met for a vote on a new party program. Suddenly, an unfamiliar middle-aged man barged into the meeting hall. “Sorry, I’m in the wrong place,” the man declared before hurrying off. Sneevliet, well-versed in the techniques used by the police around the world to crack down on revolutionary activities, suggested that the meeting be adjourned and urged members to leave. By the time police arrived 10 minutes later, the building was already cleared out.
Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, given my current job, I am most interested in the stories of Jews who found refuge in Shanghai and later took up arms, literally or metaphorically, to aid China in its struggle for freedom. China is not the only country where this occurred. As fascism took root and spread across Europe and Asia in the 1920s and 1930s, Jews, Communist or otherwise, fought back on battlefields around the world. For example, some of the Jewish medics who took part in the Spanish Civil War later participated in China’s War of Resistance Against Japan.
A few of those who helped China in its hour of need were themselves refugees in dire straits. For instance, Jakob Rosenfeld graduated from the University of Vienna’s medical school in 1927 and was sent by the Nazis to the Dachau Concentration Camp after his arrest in the 1930s. A year later, he was transferred to Buchenwald before being released on the condition that he leave Germany within 14 days.
After arriving in Shanghai, Rosenfeld opened a clinic in the city’s French Concession. Then, in March 1941, he left his practice in the city and traveled to the country’s interior to take part in the war against Japan. As the first non-Chinese to join the Communist-led New Fourth Army, Rosenfeld provided troops and officers with vital medical services before becoming the highest-ranked foreigner to ever serve in the People’s Liberation Army. He only returned to Austria after the People’s Liberation Army’s capture of Beijing and the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
Richard Frey followed a similar path. Like Rosenfeld, Frey was an Austrian Jew who fled to Shanghai in the late 1930s. He worked for a hospital in the city until 1941, when he moved to a Communist military base in North China to teach medicine. In 1944, Frey was transferred to the central Communist base in Yan’an in China’s northwest Shaanxi province, where he soon succeeded in producing a crude but much-needed form of penicillin. Frey joined the CPC in 1944, became a Chinese citizen in 1953, and was a member of the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth National Committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Sometimes the support provided by anti-fascist Jews was psychological instead of material. Born in Vienna in 1908, Ruth F. Weiss emigrated to Shanghai in the early 1930s. She soon found herself drawn to the cause of the Chinese revolution. During the war against Japan, she helped establish the English-language Express Chengdu newspaper and reported extensively on the conflict. Although she briefly left China after the Japanese surrender, she returned after the founding of the PRC and would spend most of the next six decades living in Beijing.
A lesser known but no less important figure is Hans Shippe. Born in 1896 in present-day Poland, Shippe joined the Communist Party of Germany as a young man. In the 1920s, he lived for a time in China, covering worker movements as a journalist. After returning to the country in the 1930s, he set up a Marxist-Leninist study group for foreigners in Shanghai with the support of Sun Yat-sen’s widow Soong Ch’ing-ling. In the spring of 1938, Shippe met with Mao Zedong in Yan’an, and later interviewed several prominent Chinese Communists, including Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Ye Ting, Chen Yi, and Su Yu. Like his better-known counterpart Edgar Snow, Shippe’s reports brought the CPC’s struggle to readers around the world.
In 1941, while on a reporting trip to the northern province of Shandong, Shippe was killed in a Japanese attack, making him the only international journalist to die in combat during the war.
In the 1930s, Shanghai took in thousands of Jews from around the world, but their stories didn’t end when they set foot in the city. Refugees brought their past struggles and ideals with them, fighting and sometimes dying together with the Chinese in the global struggle against fascism. Their sacrifices deserve to be remembered.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A photo of Hongkou’s Jewish district, Shanghai, 1930s. Wolfgang Weber/ullstein bild via People Visual)