Saul Marmer, a retired Cincinnati shoe retailer, peeled away from his tour group the other day to reflect on a special moment in Shanghai's long and eventful history. As summer rain bathed the city, and its residents raced about in their relentless drive to accumulate wealth, Marmer, 79, ducked into the Ohel Moishe Synagogue.
The European-style temple, constructed in 1927, was the centerpiece of what was once a ghetto inhabited by nearly 20,000 European Jews who landed here seeking safety, first from Russian pogroms, then from Hitler's Holocaust. The Shanghai Jews have long gone, but they left behind an eccentric little neighborhood in the middle of Shanghai with European-inspired row houses, a theater, the synagogue and several grand buildings that would not be out of place in Vienna.
Prodded by Chinese and foreigners with a personal or historical interest in the story of the Shanghai ghetto, the city government has for the first time begun to recognize the cultural and tourist value of the historic neighborhood. It is set in the low-rent Hongkou district, a few hundred yards from the Huangpu River and the prestigious towers of the Bund, the west bank of the river traditionally renowned as a center of finance and culture.
According to Chinese and foreign activists, municipal authorities who long ignored their city's Jewish legacy have accepted several proposals to save at least some historic buildings from the developers who are eager to transform Hongkou into another Shanghai boom scene. If all goes well as city officials make their final decisions in the months ahead, the activists said, the outcome will be preservation of the heritage that Marmer arrived to appreciate.
"We need to have development, but we also need to have protection of these historical sites," said Wang Weiqiang, an architect and urban planner at Tongji University, whose Institute of Urban Planning and Design has identified about 50 buildings that should be preserved. "These buildings cannot be reproduced. We must protect them."
The Ohel Moishe Synagogue, which has been placed under the wing of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, has long enjoyed the protection of city cultural authorities, who renamed it the Jewish Refugee Memorial Hall. No longer a temple for religious services, it has become a center for remembering Shanghai's Jewish past and responding to the needs of tourists who drop by regularly to visit.
One frequent visitor is W. Michael Blumenthal, who was treasury secretary under President Jimmy Carter and spent part of his boyhood in a one-room apartment at 59 Chushan Road, just around the corner from the synagogue. The rust-colored buildings along Chushan Road have retained their European facades, but have been taken over by low-income Chinese families more interested in getting decent places to live than in preserving history. Protecting the heritage of Chushan Road would mean finding new apartments for dozens of families, with all the expense that implies.
"We just don't have experience with this," Wang said, an allusion to Shanghai's reputation as a city moving as fast as it can into the future, not thinking about the past.
"Sometimes making money has a different meaning from the quality of life," said Chen Yifei, a Shanghai-based painter and arts entrepreneur who has made a documentary on the Jews' time here entitled "Escape to Shanghai." He called the old Jewish neighborhood "the most important area for Shanghai's history."
Wang and other activists predicted that Shanghai authorities will end up with a compromise, preserving the synagogue and many of the buildings around Chushan Road but sacrificing others to the developers' wrecking ball.
"The government cannot preserve the whole Jewish area," said Zhou Guojian, who is an associate dean at the Jewish Studies Center and a scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "It is very large, and they want to develop it. But we have asked them to preserve the main part."
A group of Canadian Jews has proposed a broader preservation project, he said, and is raising money to help finance it. Wang's group also has drawn up a preservation plan, as have others here and abroad.
The Hongkou district People's Congress, or consultative legislature, held a hearing two weeks ago to take more suggestions. But authorities have not indicated what they plan to do.
Religious manifestations have been sensitive issues in China since the Communist Party took power in 1949. During the Cultural Revolution, extremists destroyed churches and other religious sites, including Jewish cemeteries and other legacies of Shanghai's Jewish past. Even after the Cultural Revolution, the government has insisted that only state-sanctioned churches and religious groups have the right to conduct worship services.
Zhou said that only two or three Jews from the large community of the 1930s and 1940s remain, the product of mixed marriages. The others, such as Blumenthal's family, emigrated to the United States, Canada or Israel after World War II.
Several hundred foreign Jews moved to Shanghai more recently, he explained, but they are here largely as part of a large expatriate business community. With permission, they have held services occasionally in Shanghai's other remaining synagogue, which is usually closed, Zhou said, but Ohel Moishe plays only its historical role.
The walls have been decorated with photographs from days when the Jewish community flourished. Furniture from some of the Chushan Road apartments has been put on display upstairs. Zhou and others have made themselves available to explain the history to visitors. But the cafes and delicatessens that once lined the street have disappeared.
"Now that I'm here, what do I do?" Marmer cracked.
A widower, Marmer said he stopped by to carry out a mission for his brother, an Atlanta ophthalmologist. One of his brother's patients, Marmer said, is an elderly woman who spent several years of her girlhood here and insisted that Marmer take a look and report back on what was left of her past.