Despite the hardships of the Japanese occupation, but in sharp contrast to Europe, almost all Jewish refugees in Shanghai survived the war. But when in the summer of 1945, after the surrender of Germany and Japan, the news from Vilnius reached Shanghai, an overwhelming feeling of loss rushed through the small Yiddish-speaking community. More than ninety per cent of Jews in Lithuania perished during World War II and out of sixty thousand Jews of Vilnius, only a handful survived German occupation. After learning of the massacre in Europe, the Shanghai Yiddish newspaper, Yiddishe Shtime – Yiddish Voice – wrote: “The fields of Poland lament, the trees of Lithuania weep, and cursed Europe is crying – where are our Jews. Why did our earth become a grave for them?
Lithuania and China are tied to each other by the survival of the refugees from Vilnius in Shanghai, who lost everything they ever knew, yet still were able to save the language and memories of their homeland for future generations. With them, the Jewish spirit of Vilna was taken into the world. Individuals and their families on the Vilnius list were not the sole survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania; but while a few survived German occupation of Lithuania in solitude or in hiding, the group in Shanghai came out of the war without being forced to lose or disguise their Jewish identity. In that sense, they became a diaspora of the Diaspora, a living element of Vilna, a bit of Lithuania (and Poland) – more than a thousand souls – rescued by being sent to China. Not a small matter, considering the fact that there are less than two thousand Jews living today in Lithuania. Throughout many years, I have met some of the Shanghai survivors in different places around the world and from them I learned a side of my own native of town, Vilnius, I had never known. For the refugees, Vilnius and Shanghai marked neither the beginning nor the end of their world wandering, yet both cities became cornerstones in their struggle to live despite the losses.
In contemporary, twenty-first century Shanghai, the compact area surrounding the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum on Changyang Road provides acces to knowledge of Vilna of the pre-WWII era without leaving China. In part, what we know about Jewish Vilnius comes from the memories of Shanghai survivors. My own experience of the neighborhood during a lengthy stay in Shanghai several years ago was that of discovery and wonder. It felt like opening doors to a secret passage, leading me back to the unacknowledged past and, hence, still uncharted territory of Vilnius. I mused over listening to Yiddish, the language no longer heard in Vilnius, in the streets and courtyards of Hongkou. In Shanghai, by encountering, listening to and reading stories of the refugees from the Vilnius list I found something I had long been searching for in Lithuania: narrative ties that could make the country part of an extensive global story, both on the level of individual, and on the level of communal belonging. Following this revelation, I came to see China as being so much closer to Vilnius than one would ever imagine it to be.