SHANGHAI -- 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.