September 21, 2019

The Resilience of the Jewish People

On Yom HaShoah, I lit a candle in remembrance of the innocent lives lost during the Holocaust. As the flame flickered in front of me, I also reflected
on the resilience of the Jewish people despite genocide, exile and involuntary immigration.

I recently visited the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, site of the former Ohel Moishe Synagogue, at the corner of Changyang Road in Hongkou District, China. Between 1933 and 1941, Shanghai provided a safe haven for 18,000 to 23,000 European Jewish refugees escaping the atrocities in Europe. The majority were Viennese Jews who undertook the 8,500-mile journey by ship or train to create a new life in the most unlikely of places.

A plaque prominently displayed on the wall quotes Evelyn Pike Rubin, one of these stateless refugees: “Tomorrow we would be starting a new life in a strange city, in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar language, climate, and people, where we would be safe and free.”

The local Shanghainese welcomed the Jewish refugees and shared their own scarce resources with them despite the vast differences between their cultures. It didn’t take long for the newcomers to adapt to Chinese culture. They learned to appreciate its people, Chinese opera and cuisine. Many learned the language by going to Chinese cinema and learned to write Chinese characters. This allowed them to read the newspapers. At the same time, the immigrants preserved their own traditions. Jewish schools and publications, as well as European-style cafes, restaurants, bakeries and clubs, transformed the Tilanqiao neighborhood into “Little Vienna.”

The local Shanghainese welcomed the Jewish refugees and shared their own scarce resources with them despite the vast differences between their cultures. 

The Shanghai museum displays hundreds of artifacts depicting this mutual respect and peaceful coexistence, including documents, letters, photographs and personal items such as a bamboo rickshaw toy from the late 1930s or early ’40s. One picture is of the wedding of Sylvia and Karl at Ohel Moishe Synagogue on October 15, 1944. A few years later, their son was one of 500 Jewish babies born in Shanghai. Another black-and-white photograph that caught my eye depicted a young Jewish girl and her two Chinese friends happily holding hands.

These photos evoked my own memories of having to immigrate from Iran to Houston in 1987 after the Iranian revolution. I, too, had to leave my home abruptly and quickly adapt to a new culture and surroundings. One day I was wearing the mandatory Hijab, covering my hair with a large scarf and covering my body with a long cloak, and the next day, I was sporting cowboy boots and airy summer dresses.

Many of my Iranian Jewish counterparts, who are neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic but Mizrahi Middle Eastern Jews, relocated to sunny Los Angeles. Like the European Jews who sought refuge in Shanghai, they adapted to the American culture but at the same time managed to preserve their own Persian Jewish traditions. Farsi language schools and publications, as well as many Jewish-owned Iranian-style cafes, restaurants, bookstores, bakeries and clubs, have turned Westwood Boulevard into “Tehrangeles.”

For the Shanghai Jews, the glory of the city remains in the past because the refugees gradually left after the end of the war. For the Iranian Jews, the glory of Iran remains in the past because they now are at the point of no return. However, the Hebrew words “Am Yisrael chai,” (“The Jewish nation lives”) is an expression of the spirit to survive and to rebuild against all odds.

On Yom HaShoah, in addition to reminiscing about the lives lost and the glory of days gone by, we should celebrate the revival of the Jewish people in unique communities around the world.


Jacqueline Saper is the author of the memoir “From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran” (Potomac Books — University of Nebraska Press) to be released on Oct. 1. jacquelinesaper.com