Life

When Jews have been fleeing the Nazis, they discovered an sudden refuge in Japanese-occupied Shanghai

The city became a Jewish cultural hub, with spots like the White Horse providing homesick refugees with schnitzel, apple strudel, and news from home

A Jewish restaurant near the Shanghai Hongkou “ghetto” in 1939. (Wolfgang Weber/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Shanghai in the 1940s may not have been the obvious place to find authentic schnitzel, apple strudel, and Viennese coffee, but all that and more was available at The White Horse restaurant. The venue was located just across the street from the largest municipal jail in the world, and was a popular haunt in the bustling community of Jewish refugees who’d fled Hitler and settled in the Chinese metropolis.

When Jewish immigrants arrived in China, they were in fact joining an existing community. A small group of Jews had lived in the city since the late 19th century, but Shanghai welcomed a wave of mostly Russian Jewish immigrants in the 1920s who’d left their homeland after the Bolshevik Revolution.

In 1937, Japan invaded China and some months later took full control of the Chinese city of Shanghai. But in spite of being part of the Berlin-Rome Axis, as the Germans closed in on Europe, Japan created one of the friendliest emigration policies for Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Beginning in 1939, Japan enabled thousands to flee without visas of any kind to the Hongkew area of Shanghai, which became a Jewish “ghetto,” home to more than 20,000 Jews.

The White Horse was billed as a slice of home. There, Jewish refugees — many who struggled financially and lived in a constant state of anxiety waiting on news about the fate of their loved ones — could enjoy a warm, convivial atmosphere and listen to an orchestra play the jaunty dance music of Johann Strauss. According to a 1947 New York Times piece about the place, a shell-shocked dog named Gypsy, who “takes cover under the bar at the sound of Chinese firecrackers,” was the café’s mascot and a semi-bald Dachau survivor named Rudy greeted the guests. In the evenings, refugees gathered around tables to discuss mostly matters of “repatriation, resettlement, ship sailings, quotas, restrictions, conditions in Europe and the uncertain future.” But doing so amid somewhat familiar surroundings may have brought some modicum of comfort — and the chocolate cake was to die for.

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