Celebrating World Refugee Day

Remembering Dr. Ho Fengshan and the Jewish Immigrants to Shanghai

Two seconds isn’t much time. It’s a blink of an eye, really—but in that blink, another person became a refugee according to UNHCR. And in a world where one out of every 110 people is a refugee, you might not want to blink. Indeed, take a moment—if you haven’t already—to admire refugees and their unique experience. They epitomize strength and courage in the face of adversity. They leave for better, even when that better is increasingly closed off from them as both their countries and other countries push back. And on World Refugee Day, celebrated this past year on June 20th for the 18th time, the refugee is celebrated for their resilience that is often lost amidst the politics.

Even though World Refugee Day is relatively new, the refugee is not. Since 1950, the UNHCR has worked with refugees—from the early days working with those displaced by World War II to today’s 22.5 million. But what happened before the UNHCR? During World War II the refugee crisis was largely dealt with by countries directly. However these efforts were mostly unsuccessful: the Evian conference failed to find a solution for what was then termed the “Jewish Refugee Problem.” Out of the 32 countries that convened in July 1938, only the Dominican Republic was willing to take in 100,000 refugees. Leaving thus required the kindness of others, especially that of diplomats.

One such diplomat was Dr. Ho Fengshan, who was the consul general of the Chinese Consulate in Vienna, Austria from 1938-1940. He helped issue thousands of “lifesaving visas” against his superior’s orders to help Jews migrate to Shanghai, which was then an open port city with no immigration controls. Some used the Shanghai visa to obtain a transit visa to other destinations. One professor estimates Dr. Ho Fengshan helped save over 5,000. His efforts earned him the posthumous title “Righteous Among the Nations,” a civil honor bestowed by Israel, and the nickname the “Chinese Schindler.”

And in Shanghai the impact of Dr. Ho Fengshan’s action can still be seen at the Jewish Refugee Museum housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the Hongkou neighborhood. A memorial spans a back wall with the names of the some 18,000 who found refuge there. Interspersed amongst the Goldsteins, Roths, and Schwartzs are quotes that speak to the refugee experience. Rena Krasno referenced tough beginnings, “the refugees found it very hard to adjust to local conditions,” while Nina Admoni looked on her time as a refugee as an “emotional experience.” Most remarkable is  the absence of prejudice on the walls—rather it is a sense of camaraderie seemed to have formed between the Chinese and Jews in Hongkou. A kinship that later became founded on a shared pain from the Japanese occupation.

The start of the memorial wall at the Jewish Refugee Museum (62 Changyang Road Shanghai, China)

The start of the memorial wall at the Jewish Refugee Museum (62 Changyang Road Shanghai, China)

Looking back at the Jewish refugees in Shanghai provides a glimpse of refugees today: a mix of personal perseverance and external kindness. For many of the Jews in Shanghai, Dr. Ho Fengshan was a boost to their internal determination and shows the power of a small act of kindness. And as we celebrate the courage of refugees this week, we must ask ourselves how we can lend a helping hand. Maybe it is something small, like being a welcoming neighbor to resettled refugees, or something as big as  volunteering with the International Rescue Committee. Whatever it may be, focus on the individual and their story.

TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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