‘Future historians will call the twentieth century not only the century of great wars, but also the century of the refugee. Almost nobody at the end of the century is where they were at the beginning of it. It has been an extraordinary period of movement and upheavals.’
– Rabbi Hugo Gryn
Hong Kong Refuge?
Known as the ‘Paris of the Orient’ and a ‘Paradise for Adventurers’, Shanghai was to provide an unlikely refuge for approximately 18,000 European Jewish refugees escaping the horrors of Nazi Germany. Since the 1990s, autobiographies, documentaries, exhibitions and reunions with former refugees have sought to record the history of this ‘Port of Last Resort’. In more recent years there has been a concerted effort by scholars seeking to document the wider history of Asia rescue independently from the history of Shanghai by looking to the ports of Manila and Kobe. Despite these attempts to write a more comprehensive history of Jewish refuge in Asia, a major gap in our understanding persists due to the absence of Hong Kong.
In the 1930s, amidst a wider Chinese refugee crisis, a small group of European Jews came to Hong Kong seeking refuge. These refugees found employment as musicians, dress makers and engineers thanks to the existing Jewish community, British intellectual progressives and family connections. Jewish physicians were also sent to the interior of China to work in mission hospitals and refugee camps for the Chinese Red Cross during the Sino-Japanese War. In September 1939, Austrian and German refugees were interned in Hong Kong as ‘enemy aliens’ following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, and in 1940 they were ordered to leave the colony. Many left for Shanghai, where they spent the duration of the war in the Hongkew Ghetto.
In the post-war years, the port of Hong Kong played a complex and little understood role in the migration of refugees from China. This project seeks to uncover the work of the Jewish Community in facilitating refugee transit in partnership with Jewish and non-Jewish aid agencies operating in and around Hong Kong, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the International Refugee Organisation, and record the experiences of those transiting through the colony, which included European, Russian and Iraqi Jews.