Jewish Refugees in Shanghai 1939-1942

From the 1930s, the beginning of the Nazi regime in Germany, there was always Jewish immigration from Germany into Shanghai- the first group of 12 families arriving in 1933.[1] Shanghai was a particularly appealing destination for Jewish refugees from Central Europe was because ‘it is the only place in the world where no entry visa is required’.[2] By Passover 1939, roughly 7000 Jewish refugees were living in Shanghai.[3] There were fears that the Jewish refugees were going to take the jobs of White Russians in Shanghai, and the huge influx of Jewish refugees in 1939 and Chinese war refugees in 1937 made acquiring housing in Shanghai nearly impossible.[4] These factors combined to create an increased pressure from the public to halt free acceptance of Jewish refugees into Shanghai.

The first serious restrictions were passed in August 1939- Alvin Mars uses a quote from the North China Herald, stating that ‘Jewish Refugees arriving in Shanghai after August 21 will not be permitted to live in Hongkew according to a memorandum sent to the committee in charge of Jewish refugees here’.[5] Despite this restriction, the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) records between 1939-1941, show an incredible amount of confusion regarding enforcement of Jewish Refugee laws.

For example, the file titled “Letter from the Harbour Master dated June 28, 1940” gives evidence for three separate authorities – the Harbour Master and River Police, Passport Officers and the SMP – arguing over whose responsibility refugee passport checks are. The Harbour Master complains that the SMP is ‘usurping the functions of either Passport Officers or the River Police’.[6] To this, the police report replies that ‘It should be emphasised that the SM Police are not concerted with any other persons than European refugees and that the passports of other persons are not examined’.[7] A further statement made on July 3, 1940 by the offending SMP officer, J.F Lovell, scathingly remarks that ‘the River Police have never shown any desire to “get a move on” when assistance is sought’.[8] There is clear confusion in regards to whose responsibility these passport checks are, and a clear lack of communication regarding whose jurisdiction and authority these checks operate under. Lovell further remarks that ‘the River Police have no conception of the value of the information secured by the Police as a result of the registration of incoming refugees’.[9]


The lack of unity amongst the authorities in relation to the refugees is very possibly the result of the fragmentary nature of Shanghai, in terms of its diverse population, its international settlements, and the authorities in charge of these settlements. This disjointed, unclear system upset many Jewish refugees. A police report titled “Article in North China Daily News Dated May 24, 1940” discusses newspaper clippings containing letters from anonymous refugees criticising the system:

My own application…has been filed since November 1939 without myself having received…notification as to its possible success (…) SMC issues permits on a more lenient scale with the regrettable drawback however, that the validity for some is for four months only’.[10]

However, even here the SMP refuses to take any responsibility for the issues presented in the letter. The report simply states: ‘The contents of the letter [printed in the newspaper] are fundamentally correct but do not reflect in any manner at all upon this office’.[11] Thus, although Shanghai was filled with migrants from China and the rest of the world, this seemed to reflect in a lack of a central authority in law enforcement. This is particularly true in regards to the acceptance of international refugees, which would affect the city as a whole, not simply a single settlement.

Often, the informal immigrant communities – guilds and bangs – were more effective in allowing the SMP to locate immigrants or refugees in Shanghai. In the search for a certain Ero Edmend Rosenfeld this is particularly evident. Though the report does reference their own records, noting the date and ship upon which he arrived- the key piece of information comes from Rosenfeld’s engagement with his Jewish community in Shanghai. As Goodman outlines in her article, immigrants to Shanghai tended to group not only by native place, but also by trade: by extension, businesses of one nationality supported each other.[12] ‘[Rosenfeld’s firm’s] chief business [is] conducted in the sale of boot-polish and a brand of mouthwash, both of which products are manufactured by a German Jewish refugee in Hongkew’, states the report.[13] This information concerning Rosenfeld consolidates his identity as the Jewish refugee the SMP were looking for.

Thus, despite the post-1939 utter lack of organised law enforcement from the legal authorities, the informal communities were much more effective as a system of tracking and understanding Shanghai’s growing community of refugees.




Goodman, Bryna. “Introduction.” In Native, Place, City and Nation: Regional Networks and Identities 1853-1937. California: California University Press, 1995.

Mars, Alvin. “A Note on the Jewish Refugees in Shanghai.” Jewish Social Studies 31, no. 4 (October 1969): 286–91.

Shanghai Municipal Police Report. “Bernhard Fr-Udenthal – German Jew 2609,” 1940. Shanghai Municipal Police Archive.

———. “Central European Jews – Article in North China Daily News Dated May 24, 1940 2150,” 1940. Shanghai Municipal Police Archive.

———. “Central European Refugees 2144,” 1940. Shanghai Municipal Police Archive.


[1] Alvin Mars, “A Note on the Jewish Refugees in Shanghai,” Jewish Social Studies 31, no. 4 (October 1969): 286.

[2] Ibid, 287.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 288.

[5] Ibid, 289.

[6] Shanghai Municipal Police Report, “Central European Refugees 2144” (1940), Shanghai Municipal Police Archive, 1. (Note that all page numbers are PDF numbers).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 4.

[9] Ibid, 4-5.

[10] Shanghai Municipal Police Report, “Central European Jews – Article in North China Daily News Dated May 24, 1940 2150” (1940), Shanghai Municipal Police Archive, 2.

[11] Ibid, 1.

[12] Shanghai Municipal Police Report, “Bernhard Fr-Udenthal – German Jew 2609” (1940), Shanghai Municipal Police Archive, 30.

[13] Shanghai Municipal Police Report, “Bernhard Fr-Udenthal – German Jew 2609” (1940), Shanghai Municipal Police Archive, 4.