RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Back in the 1930s, Shanghai offered sanctuary to Jews fleeing the Nazis, the only place in the world that let them in without visas. Twenty thousand made their way to Shanghai, living in an enclave that became known as Little Vienna. Now part of that neighborhood and Shanghai's Jewish history is under threat from the bulldozers. With that story, here's NPR's Louisa Lim.

(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow")

LOUISA LIM: A pianist and a violinist used to play popular music for customers at the White Horse Inn, or Zum Weissen Rossl. The waitresses wore dirndls -traditional Bavarian outfits - and the menu featured Wiener schnitzel. But this was in Shanghai. And for the city's wealthier Jewish refugees, it offered a memory of homes that no longer existed.

Mr. KURT MOSBERG: My wedding party was in White Horse Inn, which was fantastic.

LIM: Kurt Mosberg, now 90-years-old and living in Sydney, Australia. His parents started the White Horse in Shanghai in 1939. He remembers his wedding their fondly.

Mr. MOSBERG: Thinking that it was in Shanghai, it's an amazing thing, you know.

LIM: Today, the building that housed the White Horse Inn still stands, easily identified by a distinctive fluted circular turret. Below that, painted on the wall is chai, the Chinese character for it to be demolished. It's among a number of buildings inside the Jewish district to be knocked down to make way for a road to be widened.

Already, demolition crews here are uncovering layers of the past like unwitting architectural archaeologists. By knocking down shop facades, old shop signs beneath are revealed, like one just down the road here for Wuerstel Tenor, a sandwich shop, which had been covered for decades.

The 70-acre Jewish ghetto is supposedly a conservation zone, but the targeted buildings like the White Horse Inn, while inside the zone, aren't actually protected buildings.

Mr. DVIR BAR-GAL (Tour guide of Little Vienna): (unintelligible) are important for society to keep on past.

LIM: Dvir Bar-Gal is an Israeli who takes foreign tour groups around the Jewish quarter. He worries about its future if the demolitions go ahead.

Mr. BAR-GAL: People will stop coming. There will be no interest in the story - the almost forgotten story of the 1940s here, the people who were saved here from the Nazis. It might gone if they will destroy everything.

LIM: To find out more about this, I went to office of Professor Ruan Yisan from Tongji University, who was involved in drawing up the conservation area in the Jewish district. And when he heard what was happening, he insisted that we come out straight away to see what's happening.

After looking around, he's shocked into action.

Professor RUAN YISAN (Tongji University): (Through translator) I'll start making appeals to see what options there are. These are important historical sites.

LIM: In the street, we meet tour guide Dvir Bar-Gal. Suddenly, a coalition of the concern seems to be taking shape, but the professor notes that preserving history is difficult and unpopular in China.

Prof YISAN: (Through translator) Normal people all want these buildings knocked down. The government wants to knock them down, the developers want to knock them down. It's only us conservationists who want to keep them.

LIM: Now I've come to meet some government officials to find out why the demolitions are so necessarily. Cheng Jun, who works for the Hongkou district urban planning and management bureau, has one answer.

Mr. CHENG JUN (Hongkou District Urban Planning and Management Bureau): (Through translator) In the future, the amount of traffic will be far greater. And we must build roads for that. Otherwise, the traffic in the city center will be a catastrophe.

LIM: The officials say they will try to save historic signs, and they point out that other important buildings in the Jewish district will still remain, but they say these demolitions will go ahead. That decision will not be welcomed by Gary Matzdorff, an 83-year-old refugee who now lives in California.

Mr. GARY MATZDORFF: It's not a happy thought to know that this area is going to be destroyed for the purposed of so-called progress.

LIM: Back in 1983, one former refugee, Fred Marcus, returned to Shanghai. His first reaction, noted in his diaries, which have just been published, was shock.

It was as if we had never been there, he wrote. More than 20,000 people vanished without a trace.

His initial confusion was due to the rundown nature of the area, rather than demolitions. But his words now sound like a prediction, as building for China's future obliterates its past.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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