Day 6

'Stranded in Shanghai': The Jewish refugees who found an unlikely safe haven in China

Arthur Rothstein's WW II photographs of Jewish refugees in Shanghai are on display in North America for the first time. His daughter tells us how the photos were lost for 25 years and why the story they tell is still relevant.
Many Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai during the Second World War, but reunions with family members were rare. In this photograph, refugees are looking through lists for relatives and friends who may have survived the Holocaust. (Arthur Rothstein)
Listen8:18

They were lost in a warehouse for 25 years. But now, Arthur Rothstein's rediscovered photographs are finally on display in North America. 

The exhibit, called "Stranded in Shanghai: The Hongkew Ghetto through the Eyes of Refugees and the Lens of Arthur Rothstein," opened this week at the Jewish Museum of Florida.

The photos in the exhibit were taken after the Second World War and feature refugees in the Shanghai ghetto.

For Rothstein's daughter, Ann Rothstein-Segan, seeing the photos up close is particularly special because of the lessons they continue to reveal to her all these years later.

"I know what it means to me, which is that it's a story of tolerance. I'm sure [my dad] felt it was very important to tell the story of tolerance because we don't have enough in the world," she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury in an interview. 

Arthur Rothstein pictured with a Rolleiflex Camera. After the Second World War, Arthur Rothstein worked with the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). While working with the agency, he photographed refugees in Shanghai. (Arthur Rothstein )

Lost and found

The story of how these photos were taken begins in Shanghai in 1946, one year after the Second World War ended. 

Shanghai had become an unlikely refuge for Jewish people escaping Europe during the war. As the rest of the world closed its doors, it was one of the few places they could go.

More than 20,000 refugees ended up in the "Hongkew Ghetto," which was cramped, disease-ridden and dirty, but ultimately safe.

At the time, Rothstein was working with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), a relief agency that had invested $600 million in fixing and rebuilding China's infrastructure. 

A communal home operated by international relief agencies for Jewish refugees in Shanghai. Conditions were often cramped, disease-ridden and dirty. (Arthur Rothstein )

"He was a first generation Jewish-American whose parents and grandparents happened to be alive because they had escaped anti-Semitic government sanctioned pogroms at the turn of the century," says Rothstein-Segan about her father. 

"He knew about the many sacrifices his family had made and he was always drawn to stories about immigrants, migrants and the dispossessed." 

Inspired, Rothstein took photos of the community, and eventually got them developed and processed. As time passed, the photos got lost and Rothstein went on to work as a photojournalist at major magazines like Look and Parade. 

The courtyard between buildings served as a community laundry and kitchen for refugee families. Although conditions were challenging, traditional German and Austrian dishes were prepared over improvised stoves using surplus U.S. Army field rations. (Arthur Rothstein )

But in the 1970s, he finally got a lead on where his lost photos might be. It was from an unlikely source: Kurt Waldheim, an Austrian diplomat who had just become the Secretary General of the United Nations. 

At the time, the complete picture of Waldheim's wartime connection to the Nazis had yet to emerge. He was later accused of committing war crimes.

Rothstein, who had met Waldheim and his family during a photoshoot, tried to get the diplomat to smile by making small talk about his own time working for the UN and the photographs he had taken in Shanghai.

"Mr. Waldheim said, 'You know, I might be able to help you Arthur," says Rothstein-Segan. 

"A week later, dad heard from Waldheim's office. He was directed to a UN warehouse in Queens, New York and he got there and with the help of the staff, he found the box of photos and negatives...and the pictures and negatives were in pristine condition." 

Refugees read a proclamation ordering them to evacuate their homes. Even after the war ended, they struggled to maintain a dignified existence. (Arthur Rothstein)

'A wonderful story of inclusion and tolerance' 

Now, more than 70 years since the photos were taken, Rothstein-Segan says the images still resonate. 

"I see beautiful images that tell a wonderful story of inclusion and tolerance," she says, adding that she hopes people can look at her father's photos and learn to be more accepting of others. 

"The Jewish immigrants — the refugees — were welcomed in Shanghai and treated humanely by their Chinese neighbours. And today, victims of religious persecution should be welcomed and offered refuge just like these people in Shanghai were."

Many children of Jewish refugees were born in China. All of these children knew how to speak German and English, but few learned Chinese. (Arthur Rothstein)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear our full interview with Ann Rothstein-Segan, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above