Ohel Rachel synagogue, opened 1920
Irene Eber* acknowledged that foreigners lived a privileged life in Shanghai. They did not live amongst the Chinese but had their homes and businesses in foreign enclaves eg The French Concession. So even if China was involved in rebellions and wars, the treaty ports were insulated from the rest of the country. It was the international market that mattered, not the local one.
Three tiers of émigrés from elsewhere helped make Shanghai the splendid city that it became. In the 19th century, since the opening of China's largest treaty port in 1842, a relatively small number of Jewish merchants from Baghdad helped build Nanjing Road into the Bund’s commercial centre. The Peace Hotel was built in the 1920s by Victor Sassoon, one of these successful Baghdadi Jewish families. In other parts of the city, Sassoon’s massive Cathay Mansions 1929, The Grosvenor Mansions and Grosvenor Gardens apartments, both built in the early 1930s, were elegant and modern.
Ron Gluckman in The Ghosts of Shanghai wrote that in 1932, the Shanghai Stock Exchange listed almost 100 members; nearly 40% were Sephardi Jews, mostly from Baghdad and mostly working in the Bund district. If people visit the Bund today, they can still find historical banks, consulates and trading houses from Europe and the Middle East, lining the Huangpu River. The Bund neighbourhood is north of the old, walled city.
The Bund neighbourhood of Shanghai, facing the river, in 1930
The final tier of Jews fled from Central Europe after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 and Austria in 1938. These German and Austrian Jews tried to replicate life as they had known it in Vienna or Berlin. Everyone else rejected them, says the historian and tour leader Dvir Bar-Gal, referring to the limits other countries placed on admitting Jewish refugees. In the late 1930s, because visas were not required and because there was no anti-Semitism in China, Shanghai was the only option. As a result no other place in the whole world saved so many Jewish lives – almost 20,000 German and Austrian Jews.
At its peak, Shanghai had a Jewish community of 30,000-40,000 people. The well settled Baghdadi families contributed to the welfare of the new-comers. When refugee children filled the existing Shanghai Jewish School in the International Settlement to breaking point, the community was able to lease a vacant building in Hongkou. And by November 1939, they were running the Kadoorie School for German-speaking children.
The greatest irony of the war era was that Shanghai remained open to Jewish arrivals despite the fact that the city was under control of the Japanese. And even though the Japanese were allies of the Nazis, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, issued thousands of visas that allowed Jews to escape Europe for Japan or China. Every one of these fortunate people owed his life to Chiune Sugihara and the wonderful city of Shanghai.
German refugees arriving in Shanghai, 1938
Ohel Rachel synagogue had been built in 1920 to provide religious services for a large group of Baghdadi Jews who had earlier settled in this port city. Built by the Sassoon family, this lovely building was one of the most significant symbols of Shanghai’s colourful Jewish history. The Sassoon family built many of Shanghai's land marks: the Peace Hotel, Grosvenor House, the Metropole. The Kadoorie family, which founded the China Light & Power Company and today owns the Peninsula Hotel Group, is also descended from Sephardi Jews who found a successful life for themselves with the Sassoon family.
But when the Jewish community emigrated to Australia and other countries, the synagogue became part of the Shanghai Education Commission compound. Now visitors may not enter the synagogue, except during World Expo 2010. The World Monuments Fund has added the synagogue to the 2002 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.
After WW2 ended, fighting continued in the civil war between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists. Israel evacuated several ships of Jews from Shanghai as Mao Zedong's Red Army crept closer in 1948. Several towns in Israel were settled entirely by Shanghai survivors. San Francisco has a synagogue founded by former Shanghai residents. Australia became a very popular destination for families on the move again.
Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum
What is there to see now? Not much. Eber says Jewish self-definition is intimately related to the creation of cultural institutions, not to the creation of farms, forests or even urban architecture. Jewish Shanghai had more musical classes and halls than Odessa, more coffee shops than Vienna and more vocational schools than the Bauhaus. But the facilities that once gave life to the Jewish community have disappeared since the 1950s. It was an extraordinary 100 years.
*The very best photos come from Passage Through China: the Jewish communities of Harbin, Tientsin and Shanghai, written by Irene Eber. This catalogue accompanied the 1986 exhibition held in Bet Hatefutsot, The Nachum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Tel Aviv. Happily it was given to me by Ron Tait, son of a Shanghai mother.
Sam Moshinsky wrote Goodbye Shanghai: A Memoir, published by Mind Film in 2009. Moshinsky’s experience of wars, changing regimes, different currencies and a variety of schools reflected the evolving political landscape and his parents’ stateless status. The book shows how they were sustained, in their beloved Shanghai haven, by their Russian Jewish culture and community.