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Museum of remembrance: 83-year-old WWII refugee recalls stories of Jews in Shanghai

Time:2023/5/18 14:17:34    Author: Yang Jian    FromSHINE

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  Sonja Muehlberger finds the names of her family and herself on the Wall of Names of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

  Sonja Muehlberger wiped her eyes after seeing the washboard that her mother once used in Shanghai, displayed at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

  The 83-year-old woman from Germany said these familiar exhibits remind her of her childhood in Shanghai. She was born in the city in 1939 during World War II.

  "I cannot forget my first hometown, and always try to find people who shared the same fate as me, and kept contact with them," Muehlberger said.

  She also braved a drizzle to check the names of her parents, brother and herself being inscribed on the Wall of Names of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, at the museum.

  Most of the names were found through her dedicated collection and verification over decades. She's been awarded the 2nd Silk Road Friendship Award for her contribution in promoting the history of Shanghai Jewish refugees.

  The database she is still working on contains 19,730 names, mostly of European refugees who fled to Shanghai, she said.

  After returning to Germany at the end of the war, Muehlberger became a teacher, and often shared her experiences in Shanghai with her students, as well as her gratitude for the city.

  "My father once told me if you have any difficulties later on, you can always say you were born in Shanghai," she recalled. "It gave me a bit hope that if I would ever had any difficulties, I could always return to Shanghai."

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  Jewish refugees, their descendants, scholars and experts are invited to the 2nd meeting of the International Advisory Board of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

  About 20,000 Jewish people from Europe fled to Shanghai and other Chinese cities between 1933 and 1941 to escape Nazi persecution during World War II.

  As many former Jewish refugees have passed away, the local museum is looking for descendants of holocaust survivors to continue to share their family stories to the world, said Chen Jian, the curator of the museum.

  Some of the descendants were invited to the 2nd meeting of the International Advisory Board of the museum on Wednesday along with scholars and experts from across the world to jointly preserve and promote the history of Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

  They shared their experiences and latest approaches on the international promotion of the museum, and suggested how to improve the museum's influence among the young generation.

  Dani Dayan, Chairman of Yad Vashem in Israel expressed the hope in his video speech to "strengthen cooperation in exhibitions, education and many other endeavors" with the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

  "Let us continue our mission of education and remembrance. This lesson in history can help us ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past," said Andrzej Kacorzyk, deputy director of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in his video speech.

  Jews from Germany to Shanghai and their lives there continued to be an important theme that was also portrayed in the first permanent exhibition, as well as the following temporary exhibition of the Jewish Museum Berlin, as Hetty Berg, director of Jewish Museum Berlin told audiences in her video speech.

  "The deep friendship between the Chinese and Jewish people has highlighted the common values of human beings, such as peace, development, justice and freedom," said Fu Jihong, vice president of the Shanghai People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.

  "These values have been involved in Shanghai's history and culture, and become part of the city's urban character," Fu said.

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  The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum signs a memorandum of cooperation with the Florida Holocaust Museum in the United States.

  The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Florida Holocaust Museum in the United States, on the symposium to jointly promote the history and look for descendants of Holocaust survivors.

  The two museums will explore the curation of a temporary exhibition from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum to be displayed at the Florida Holocaust Museum, and perhaps tour across the United States, said Paul Martin, founding director of the Florida Holocaust Museum.

  He said the US museum has shared the Jewish refugees' story in Shanghai to hundreds of thousands of visitors and students across Florida. In 2022 alone, over 400,000 students attended the museum's teacher training, educational workshops, virtual tours and other programs.

  "We will jointly identify, recognize and reconnect descendants and relatives of the Jewish refugees saved in Shanghai," said Martin.

  Kenny Sheftel from United States, the grandson of Claire Sheftel, who is featured at the local museum, said his grandma's history in Shanghai had shaped the his future, and would influence all the other descendants like him.

  "It would be a lifelong mission for me and many of us to be connected with those who share similar stories," Sheftel said.

  His grandmother Claire left Vienna, Austria in 1939 to Italy and took a boat to Shanghai. Her father hollowed out the heel of his shoe and placed a diamond in it. The family later used the diamond to purchase housing in Shanghai and rent out rooms to other refugees.

  She was married in the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, which is part of the museum now, in 1943. The wedding certificate in Chinese language is on display at the museum, along with medals of a local table tennis competition that she won in Shanghai.

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  Claire Sheftel's wedding certificate is on display at the museum.

  She died in 2022 just shy of her 101st birthday.

  "The wedding certificate had been hung in my grandparent's house for over half a century before it was donated to the museum," Sheftel said.

  "It was hung vertically because the English names on the certificate go sideways, until one day, staff from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum came to interview my grandmother," he recalled.

  Dean Bloch, the son of David Bloch (1910-2002), a deaf-mute Jewish painter who created hundreds of paintings and woodcuttings about the life and customs in Shanghai during 1930s and 40s, has presented 17 of his father's works to the museum for exhibition.

  The artworks, including paintings, woodcuttings and painting tools of David Bloch, reflect the hard life of the toiling masses in Shanghai, and his miserable experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. His father spent nine years in the city around the 1940s during the war and married a Chinese woman.

  "History must be remembered and I'm looking forward to seeing more of my father's artwork exhibited at the museum, to help pass on the friendship," Dean Bloch said in a video speech at the symposium.

  The International Advisory Board for the museum was established in Hongkou District in 2019. More than 20 members, including historians and descendants of the refugees, were appointed to the board.

  They offer support on academic research, operation and international communication of the museum, as well as help in gathering resources to boost the museum's influence.

  The museum, which reopened to the public on December 8, 2020, on the North Bund after a three-year renovation, has more than quadrupled its size to 4,000 square meters under the guidance of the board.

  More space has been created for items to be exhibited after donations, mainly from former Jewish residents, surged to about 1,000 items, according to the curator Chen.

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  Jewish refugees, their descendants, scholars and experts are invited to the 2nd meeting of the International Advisory Board of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum.

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