Jewish Refugees History: China and Houston

The other museum I visited today in zone 4 of Houston's Museum District is the Holocaust Museum. I am particularly interested because I had been to other Holocaust memorials, museums, centers, and even my high school had one. I also visited the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, so I wanted to compare the two.

The Holocaust Museum in Houston had architecture and design that was very... black metal gate chamber esque. I wish I have the right words to describe it, but it gives a very somber feeling. The outside of the museum is a upward incline hill with stone tiles that named various Jewish communities that were annihilated during the Holocaust. Visual representation and memorial of history is very fascinating, as you can see all these communities lined up from bottom to up, and it only included a portion of the Jewish communities, many others also suffered.

Inside, the permanent exhibit is called Bearing Witness. The beginning of Nazi propaganda against Jewish peoples was set up with photos and texts standing in picket line form - very controversial, very monumental. The huge colorful maps on the walls also did a great job representing how many Jewish people from what countries were deported and sent to concentration camps, as well as the Jewish diaspora throughout the ages.

Something that stuck out to me at the Houston Holocaust Museum as well as back in the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is that sexual exploitation was not really mentioned (at least not that I could read/see), where was labor exploitation was frequently mentioned at both museums. I am no expert on how prevalent sexual exploitation was in the concentration camps, but it seems to me that if the Holocaust encompassed many many bad things and we talk about the mistakes in order to look toward a brighter future, why not talk about sexual exploitation? It certainly happened, and it certainly is important. And I don't mean that just because sexual exploitation involve women, I mean that sexual exploitation involved people of all gender and ages in the Holocaust, as a way to dehumanize and harm people.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, on the other hand, had a lot of visible and tangible history. What do I mean by that? Well, it is situated in the Hongkou district, where the Jewish ghetto and settlement was during World War II and on. Part of the experience was to also go through tours of the neighborhood to see what life was like back then for Jewish refugees. It gave the museum that much more meaning by being there in the middle of history. Another thing that I liked about the Shanghai Refugees Museum was that they mentioned a prisoner who voluntarily gave his life in place of another prisoner who was about to be killed. In such dire circumstances, what little humanity is left is very valuable. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum also talked about Jewish history in Shanghai in general, which gave a broader context as to what Jewish history is like. According to the Holocaust Museum in Houston, apparently when Japan invaded Shanghai, very soon many Jewish refugees left to emigrate to Canada or the U.S. Which explains why the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum talked about many Jewish people's stories when they live there briefly, and it was very cool to see stories of Jewish people returning to visit Shanghai. I remembered this story about a Jewish guy who dated some Chinese girls and how much he loved partying. Also, interracial marriages are fascinating, not to mention the fact that I didn't even know there was once a substantial Jewish refugees population in Shanghai. Another heart-warming story was that a Jewish American woman reunited with her best friend from Shanghai growing up. It's incredible to think an elderly Chinese woman has anything to do with an elderly Jewish woman halfway across the world. Their bond is still so strong after so many years, it really is a testament to love and care regardless of cultural differences. Sometimes worlds that are far apart collide and are marked and changed forever, which is quite beautiful.

Looking at both museums together, they both talk about resistance and help inside and outside of the concentration camps, which certainly gave a thorough picture of what people were doing about it. The Holocaust Museum in Houston is a little smaller, but I did manage to find some mention of the Jewish refugees population in Shanghai. In one temporary exhibit (which actually ends tomorrow so I'm glad I got to see it) titled Uprooted, it traced the migration of two big Jewish families during the Holocaust. One woman, whose name I cannot accurately recall, but was something along the lines of Johanna "Hansi" Frankenbusch, left Europe after Kristallnacht to Shanghai. She started a textiles shop and worked with many local Chinese women on weaving. There was a huge picture of her and other Jewish women with local Chinese women at their factory and shop. When Japan took over Shanghai, anyone that wanted to leave the Jewish ghetto even if for a few hours had to obtain a permit. The artifacts in that exhibition gave a glimpse of what life was life back then.

Being able to learn about Jewish history in both the U.S. and in China is such a privilege. If you want to know more about what the museums look like and had, check out the photo slideshow below - they're from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum!


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