Shanghai’s Jewish refugee history takes centre stage in new oratorio By Reuters



© Reuters. Musicians perform onstage at the debut performance of Emigre at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall in Shanghai, China November 17, 2023. REUTERS/Nicoco Chan


By Casey Hall

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Four years after it was first conceived, the oratorio Emigre made its debut this month in Shanghai, paying tribute to the Chinese financial hub’s war-time role in protecting European Jewish refugees who fled to the city in the late 1930s.

A collaboration between the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic as well as choirs from the U.S. and China, the work premiered on Nov. 17.

Composer Aaron Zigman, known best for his movie scores, said he was approached by Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s maestro Long Yu in 2019 with the idea for a piece telling the story of Shanghai’s Jewish refugee history.

“This is a story about two German Jewish brothers who had to flee Nazi Germany, and they came to Shanghai, which at that time opened its doors to many Jews,” Zigman said.

“It’s really a multicultural love story at the end of the day, and then a story of humanity, love, hope and acceptance through the tragedy of loss as well.”

In the late 1930s, as World War Two was about to break out, Shanghai was one of the few places in the world open to Jewish refugees, as many countries restricted visa access. As an “open port” a visa wasn’t required for those arriving in Shanghai, mainly by boat, from Europe.

An estimated 20,000 European Jews would escape to Shanghai throughout this period, though their new home was not without strife. China was also at war, with Japan, and Shanghai was occupied by Japanese forces from 1937.

Mark Campbell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist behind the lyrics for Emigre said he felt the story was “special and important” to tell now, in view of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, as well as the war in Ukraine.

“I believe that the message of accepting refugees, of accepting people and welcoming them, is resonating even more now,” he added.

Chen Jian, curator of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, was in the audience for Emigre’s global premiere at the Jaguar Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall in downtown Shanghai.

“I think this kind of creation is very meaningful and valuable,” he told Reuters before the performance. “In mankind’s darkest times, we need kind hearts and good deeds. This story should have an educational effect on how we look at disputes in the world today.”

The work, sung in English with Chinese supertitles, ran in Shanghai through Nov. 20. It is scheduled to be performed in New York early next year.


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