Refuge in Shanghai

My Shanghai

During World War II, thousands of European Jews found refuge in Shanghai. Sonja Mühlberger was born here as the daughter of Jewish immigrants. She recently visited the city in search of her roots, and is amazed at how much it has changed.

Refuge in Shanghai

The alleys of Hongkou

Some things, however, have stayed the same. The typical alleyways lined with two-storey houses - the so-called longtangs - can still be found. In the mid-20th century, most Shanghai residents lived in narrow streets. The Jewish refugees lived alongside Chinese residents in low-income quarters in the north-eastern of the city.

Refuge in Shanghai

Traces of the past

Occasionally, traces of Jewish immigration can still be found in this part of the city. Sonja Mühlberger discovered the Star of David on this building by chance.

Refuge in Shanghai

Last chance

Sonja Mühlberger's parents managed to escape from the Nazis at the last minute. Her father, Hermann Krips, had already been deported to Dachau. He wrote to his wife Ilse from the concentration camp. She discovered that he only had one possibility to be released: She had to secure their exit papers.

Refuge in Shanghai

Ticket to freedom

She managed to get the papers and Hermann Krips was freed. In Genoa in March 1939, they boarded the Conte Biancamano en route to Shanghai. Sonja's mother was already pregnant with her at the time.

Refuge in Shanghai

Baby Krips

Sonja was born on October 26, 1939, just a few months after their arrival. She was one of the first refugee children to be born in Shanghai. The German Consulate refused to register the child because German race laws forbade the first name "Sonja." The Shanghai officials wrote "Baby Krips" on the birth certificate.

Refuge in Shanghai

On the balcony

The Krips found accommodation in a small room in Hongkou - a poor neighborhood in the northern part of Shanghai. Most of the Jewish refugees lived here. They weren't able to take more than one suitcase with them when they left Germany.

Refuge in Shanghai

Room for a boom

Jewish refugees used to live alongside impoverished Chinese, Russian exiles and other stranded individuals, in what was then the outskirts of Shanghai. Then a construction boom began in the area and most of the original buildings in the Jewish quarter were torn down.

Refuge in Shanghai

Searching for memories

Sonja Mühlberger is carrying photos of her family's old house in Shanghai. She had been told that it was torn down. But some of the neighbors can remember the house.

Refuge in Shanghai

New Hongkou

This is where her house once stood. Sonja Mühlberger used to have a view of a cigarette factory from her window. Today, the headquarters of China Tobacco, the state-run tobacco company, are located here. The street has been rebuilt and trees have been planted.

Refuge in Shanghai

A remnant

The only thing that Sonja Mühlberger recognizes is a red fire hydrant, which seems to have outlived all the modernization efforts the neighborhood has undergone. She remembers the hydrant well because she used to watch the rickshaw drivers drinking from it from her window.

Refuge in Shanghai

Survival in Shanghai

Rickshaw drivers were a regular part of the Shanghai cityscape, just like beggars and vendors. Sonja Mühlberger can't remember ever having sat in one of the wagons though.

Refuge in Shanghai

Window to the world

Despite the family's poverty, Sonja Mühlberger remembers having a happy childhood. From her time in Shanghai, she took with her an openness for the world and the ability to endure hot temperatures, she says.

Refuge in Shanghai

Official commemoration

The city of Shanghai has since recognized the significance of its Jewish heritage. The neighborhood's former synagogue has been turned into a museum, which was completely renovated five years ago.

Refuge in Shanghai

Born in Shanghai

Sonja Mühlberger and those with similar stories have a place in the museum. The title above her placard reads: "Born in Shanghai."

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