DOWNTOWN — An exhibit commemorating a little-known story of survival from the Holocaust begins a week-long stay at the Thompson Center on Monday.
"Jewish Refugees & Shanghai" celebrates the 18,000 European Jews who escaped the Holocaust by either settling in the Chinese city or using it as a vital waystation in the '30s and '40s.
"It is an amazing story, and it's an important one to share," said Amy Stoken, Chicago regional director of the American Jewish Committee, which put the exhibit together along with the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum.
"The Chinese, unlike many other countries in the world, really have no history of anti-Semitism," Stoken said.
At the same time, Shanghai had an open immigration policy that did not require visas. Thanks to "a very welcoming population and some helpful diplomats," Stoken said, Shanghai came to serve as a rescue station for Jewish refugees.
"When you hear their stories, it's very compelling," Stoken said. "There are 18,000 lives that likely would have been lost if they didn't end up in Shanghai."
Among those saved in that manner was the future pop artist Peter Max, who came to Shanghai with his family after being born in Germany in 1937, and who first learned to paint there from a Chinese amah, or nanny. That tale is told as part of the exhibit, which includes story panels, photographs and other artifacts.
Stoken said some of the surviving "Shanghai-landers," as the refugees are commonly known, will be at the exhibit's opening on Monday. An opening ceremony and panel discussion at 5 p.m., and a private reception at 6:30, are both "filled to capacity," she added, but after that the exhibit will be open to the public in the building's atrium from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. through Friday.
The Thompson Center would seem an unlikely setting for the exhibit, but it was welcomed by state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who is now a Republican candidate for governor.
"He was very excited about the story and this opportunity," Stoken said. "So he was instrumental in providing this as a venue to us."
Chicago is one of the three U.S. stops for the exhibit, following New York City and preceding Los Angeles.