Name: Marianne Williams, ’11
Major: History and international studies, concentration in modern Europe
Minor: German studies
Academics: Boatwright Scholar
Activities: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship; “Life, Literature and the Arts” living and learning community; Spiders for Life


Marianne Williams, ’11, received a School of Arts & Sciences Summer Research Grant to fund her history study, “The Shanghai Ghetto: Diaspora and Zionist Identities.”

So you’re researching a Jewish population that formed in Shanghai during World War II?

The Shanghai Ghetto was an extraordinary diaspora community formed within an area of approximately one square mile in the Hongkou district of Japanese-occupied Shanghai. As an international city, Shanghai became a haven for refugees from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Poland who could not obtain visas to travel to other countries. As the rest of the world closed to desperate Jews seeking escape from the Nazis, Shanghai remained one of the rare free transit ports. An estimated 20,000 poured into Shanghai from 1937 to 1939. Some merely passed through, en route to the Americas, Palestine or Australia, but about 90 percent stayed. Shanghai provided refuge for many Jews escaping the Holocaust, but living in the alien Chinese city posed challenges of its own. Few Jews spoke Chinese, and most arrived with only $10 to their name. Remarkably, even in this foreign environment, Jewish cultural life flourished — schools were established, newspapers were published, theaters produced plays, sports teams participated in training and competitions and even cabarets thrived.

And you’re researching the global effect this population had?

Zionist groups were among the most active organizations within the Shanghai refugee community, and many members eventually left for the newly created state of Israel after the close of World War II. In examining the role that Zionism played in this community, I am seeking to understand how being considered “stateless persons” shaped the Shanghai Jews’ sense of personal identity and, in turn, how this affected the desire for a Jewish homeland.

You’re using this summer’s research as the basis for your honors thesis, right?

I decided to conduct summer research because I wanted to have the opportunity of immersing myself in the letters, newspapers and artwork from the Ghetto, which are located primarily at the YIVO archive in New York. I wanted to feel that I really understood the community about which I would be writing, to become so familiar with individual names and places that I would almost feel as if I knew the refugees from Shanghai personally.

How did you decide upon this topic?

My mother, who had recently watched a documentary about the Shanghai Ghetto, brought it to my attention. It was perfect because I have been interested in Jewish history since high school, and during my semester abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I had the opportunity to take a Chinese history class, which ignited my interest in East Asian studies. This topic proved to be the perfect nexus of my historical interests.

What has a liberal arts education meant to you?

The liberal arts education that I have been afforded at Richmond has taught me to continue what I have been doing since my toddler days: asking, “Why?” I have been able to take classes in a wide variety of subject areas, from visual art to biology. I am able to see how these seemingly disparate subjects intersect. Having a well-rounded education provides context for everything new that I learn; it allows me to place information within an ever-broadening framework of connections.

What’s in store for you after graduation?

I wish that I knew! I am considering applying to master’s programs in urban planning and policy, with an eye toward working in the developing world. I could also see myself working for some government agencies, and I continue to seriously consider pursuing a Ph.D. in history. Regardless of my career, I intend to approach my work with passion and a desire to serve others.