The Building in Shanghai That Became a Home to Jewish Refugees During World War II

December 17, 2015 | Eleanor Goodman
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Shanghai’s Embankment House was once the largest apartment building in Asia, and it remains an impressive feature of the city’s skyline. Writing from one of its apartments, Eleanor Goodman reflects on its history:

In the late 1930s, as the United States and many other countries were closing their doors and denying visas to Jewish applicants, . . . Shanghai was one of the few places where Jews could flee without any paperwork. It was a long journey from Germany, but once they arrived, they would be welcomed into an established community [consisting] largely of Russian and Baghdadi Jews. After Kristallnacht [in November 1938], nearly 20,000 Jews made it to safety in Shanghai. When they landed in the ports, many of them were taken here to Embankment House, where Victor Sassoon—the developer and owner, himself of Baghdadi Jewish origin—had converted the first several floors of the 1936 building, originally seven stories, into a receiving hall for refugees.

They were fed, registered, and given safe haven until they could find more permanent lodgings, often in the nearby Jewish quarter, where they were helped in myriad ways by the local population. Sassoon worked in concert with the Shanghai city government, aided by diplomats like He Fengshan, who issued visas to Jews in Austria—these allowed them not to enter Shanghai (it was an open port), but to leave their home country. For many of the lucky ones who made it out, Embankment House offered them their first sanctuary.

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