Thursday, February 19, 2009

Historic Jewish Haven In Shanghai Faces Demolition

Part of Shanghai's Jewish history is under threat from bulldozers.

In the 1930s, Shanghai was the only place in the world to offer visa-free sanctuary to Jews fleeing Nazism — 20,000 ended up in Shanghai. In 1943, the Japanese restricted them to a one-square-mile area, which became known as Little Vienna.

A pianist and a violinist used to play popular music for customers at the White Horse Inn, or Das Weisse Rossl. The waitresses wore dirndls — traditional Bavarian outfits — and the menu featured Wiener schnitzel.

But the White Horse wasn't in Austria or Germany, it was in wartime Shanghai. And for the city's wealthier Jewish refugees, it offered a memory of homes that no longer existed.

"My wedding party was in White Horse Inn, which was fantastic," remembers Kurt Mosberg, now 90 years old and living in Sydney. "It was mostly my friends, mostly Jewish people, about 120 people. Thinking that it was in Shanghai, it's an amazing thing, you know."

Mosberg's parents started the White Horse Inn in Shanghai in 1939 and ran it for five years as a nightclub.

Uncovering Layers Of the Past

Today, the building still stands. It's easily identified by a distinctive fluted circular turret. Below that, painted on its wall is the Chinese character "to be demolished." The White Horse Inn is among a number of buildings inside the Jewish district to be knocked down to make way for a widened road.

As they start work, the demolition crews are uncovering layers of the past, like unwitting architectural archaeologists. By knocking down shop facades, old shop signs beneath are revealed, like one for Wuerstel Tenor, a sandwich shop, which had been covered for decades.

They will pull down other fading shop fronts at the heart of Little Vienna, as well — those of Cafe Atlantic and Horn's Imbiss-stube (Horn's Snack Bar).

"The existing refugee coffee shops [and] restaurants were a shining light in the lives of the refugees, who did not know how long their isolation and misery would last, should they survive," says Rena Krasno, who has written about her experiences living through World War II in Shanghai.

"In these eateries, they felt they were back in Europe … and for a short time eliminated their painful fate from their minds," she says.

Dvir Bar-Gal is an Israeli journalist who is writing a book about Shanghai's Jewish past. He also leads tours around the Jewish quarter. For him, the question is how important it is for a society to keep its past. If the demolitions go ahead, he fears there will be less and less to show visitors, and he fears the little-known story of Shanghai's Jewish past will be in danger of being completely forgotten.

"People will stop coming. There will be no interest in the almost forgotten story of the 1940s, the people who were saved here from the Nazis," he says.

Preserving History Difficult, Unpopular

In 2005, the Chinese government declared 70 acres of the Jewish ghetto a conservation zone. The White Horse Inn and buildings slated for demolition are inside that zone, but aren't designated protected buildings.

Ruan Yisan, a professor at Tongji University in Shanghai, oversaw the designation of the conservation zone three years ago. Yet he had no idea about the demolitions until alerted by NPR. After visiting the area, he vowed to take action.

"I'll start making appeals to see what options there are," he says. "These are important historical sites in the conservation zone. If you knock them down, it will never recover."

But the professor notes that preserving history is difficult — and unpopular — in China.

"Normal people all want these buildings knocked down, the government wants to knock them down, the developers want to knock them down. It's only us conservationists who want to keep them."

Officials Try To Strike Balance

For local government officials in Shanghai, the case is a classic example of the challenge they face in balancing the city's modernization with conservation of its past. But Cheng Jun from the Hongkou district urban planning and management bureau says the demolitions are necessary to form part of a larger road network.

"In the future, the amount of traffic will be far greater. And we must build roads for that, otherwise the traffic in the city center will be a catastrophe," he says.

"When we drew up the conservation zone, we decided then to widen this particular road, as the impact would be relatively small."

Another official, Chen Jian from the Hongkou district government, emphasizes that many other historic buildings, dating back to the time of the Jewish ghetto, still remain, including the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which has become the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

"We'll do our best to remove and save some of the most valuable artifacts, if feasible," he says. "But that's not to say that we won't demolish these buildings."

Vanishing Without A Trace?

That decision will not be welcomed by Gary Matzdorff, an 83-year-old refugee who now lives in California. He remembers the White Horse Inn clearly, because his father went there every afternoon to sip coffee and chat.

"I'm very saddened to hear that it's really going to be demolished," he says. "It's not a happy thought that this area is going to be destroyed for the purpose of so-called progress."

Back in 1983, one former refugee, Fred Marcus, returned to Shanghai. His first reaction, noted in his diaries, which have just been published posthumously, was shock.

"It was as if we had never been there!" he wrote. "More than 20,000 people vanished without a trace!"

His initial confusion was due to the rundown nature of the area, rather than demolitions. But his words now sound like a prediction, as building for China's future obliterates its past.

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