A global survey found that almost half of adults had never heard of the Holocaust. In Asia that number exceeds 75 percent, with the vast majority questioning the accuracy of historical accounts.
Today, few in the East or West remember that the strategic port city of Shanghai, China, was actually the site of an important piece of Holocaust history: a ghetto of 23,000 Jewish refugees. While other countries closed their borders, it was the one place in the entire world where anyone could enter without passports, visas, or fees.
Among the many World War II events being commemorated this year is the liberalization of the Shanghai Ghetto on September 3, 1945. This improbable cross-cultural intersection of world events reveals some profound truths about the arc of God’s redemption throughout human history.
About 10,000 kilometers from Germany by land, or a three-week journey by sea, Shanghai would seem an unlikely place for Jewish refugees to flee. But as the Nazi regime stepped up its anti-Semitic persecution in the mid-1930s, German Jews were running out of options. Biochemist Chaim Weizmann, who later became the first president of Israel, wrote, “The world seemed to be divided into two parts—those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.” When the United States and Great Britain refused to accept significantly more refugees, dozens of other countries were more than happy to follow suit.
News of the opportunity to escape to Shanghai through a free port of entry “spread [among the Jews] like fire and whoever could, went for it,” according to Dana Janklowicz-Mann, who directed the documentary Shanghai Ghetto. Nearly 30,000 Jewish refugees entered Shanghai during World War II; several thousand moved on to other countries before the ghetto was officially established in 1942.
The reason for the lax entrance requirements dates back to an unequal treaty signed in 1842, initiated by Western powers to leverage more favorable trading terms. During the Opium Wars, China's last dynasty was forced to open up trading ports along its eastern coast to Britain, France, and the US. According to the exploitative Treaty of Nanking, Europeans did not need a visa to enter Shanghai. When the invading Japanese Imperial army took control of the city in 1937, they went one step further, allowing entry with no paperwork whatsoever.
Under pressure from their German allies, the Japanese eventually rounded up the Jewish refugees in Shanghai. Alongside 100,000 Chinese in the ghetto, they faced cramped, unsanitary conditions and severe restrictions on food, employment, and movement. The survival of the refugees—hunted, stateless, and with few friends—was by no means guaranteed. But Japan was strangely reluctant to support Hitler’s “final solution.”
At various times during World War II, Germany pressured their Japanese counterparts to hand over the Jews in Shanghai or to execute them themselves. Though Japan’s leaders were not averse to committing mass murder, as can be seen by the sickening carnage perpetrated by the Imperial army across China, in this case they refused to implement such violence. This decision, which rankled their allies, was inexplicable—unless one takes into account the hand of an all-powerful, all-redeeming God.
I find it nothing short of extraordinary that the historic Treaty of Nanking, designed for harm and exploitation, set the stage for the deliverance of almost 30,000 Jews a century later. A port meant to feed the greed of Western powers was transformed into a refuge, protected from the wickedness of the Nazis and eventually liberated by Chinese general Chiang Kai-shek.
As a single city, Shanghai accepted more Jewish refugees than Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa combined. Among those who survived included academics, composers, singers, rabbis, even a chess master. Many would go on to become political, cultural, and religious leaders in the US, Europe, and Israel. Our world would have looked very different if those Jews had not survived.
It can be difficult to wrap our minds around the extent of humanity’s capacity for evil when we consider events like the Holocaust or the large-scale murder and rape perpetuated by the Islamic State today. What we do know is that these horrific acts are far from the purposes of God. And we also know that no amount of evil can stop him from turning these deeds into a means for salvation and redemption—today, or further into the future than any of us can see.
Many of us have experienced God’s redemption in our lives and our communities. But the story of the Shanghai Ghetto compels me to remember that the arc of God’s redemption is far grander and more glorious than our lifespans: his purposes spread across centuries, across geography and cultures. We see that in Scriptures, as the prophets of the Old Testament prepare God’s people for the arrival of the Messiah hundreds of years later. The same is true today, so long as we have eyes to see an eternal God who is not limited by time or borders.
The fact that the Opium Wars are still being used by the Chinese Communist Party for ill—to drill shame into its own citizens and fuel their distrust of foreigners—tells me that God’s purposes for this particular chapter in history are still not complete. But they are certainly in process: the social, political, and economic challenges faced by the Middle Kingdom today are driving more and more Chinese to the gospel.
The full redemption of God’s work for China, for the US, and for the rest of the world may not come to fruition in my lifetime or yours. But we can remain confident in this truth: God’s redemption for all peoples will certainly happen, and when it does, it will be a glorious story.