05 April 2011

Jewish Shanghai 1850-1950: safe haven

I am familiar with C19th and C20th Jewish history in communities from Estonia to the Ukraine; to Spain and Britain and all countries in between. I have either read histories or walked with my own feet across Jewish Turkey, Israel and North Africa. Even India.

Ohel Rachel synagogue, opened 1920

But regarding China, the only Jewish communities I knew of were the great Russian outpost of Harbin and the would-be Autonomous Oblast of Birobijan, very close to the Russian-Chinese border. Two things changed that. Firstly two of my school friends had mothers who lived in Shanghai until the post-WW2 years and I wanted to ask them about every memory they had, while they could still tell their stories coherently. Secondly The Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne had a wonderful exhibition in the 1990s called The Story of a Haven: The Jews in Shanghai.

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

A second and much bigger tier of émigrés was added to Shanghai's Jewish community when thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia arrived, starting just before WW1. Many settled in Shanghai's French Concession district and opened small businesses. They opened day schools, concerts, picture theatres, Hebrew classes, youth movements and fur businesses.

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

But by May 1943 Japanese officials forced all stateless people living in Shanghai to move to one suburb (Hongkou), and turned it into an urban prison camp. Artdaily.org showed how 20,000 German and Austrian Jews were crammed into the neighbourhood, many families squished together in a room. Disease and starvation were inevitable, so the Jews tried to help themselves by setting up clinics, soup kitchens, schools and shelters. But it was never an anti-Semitic plan by the Japanese. They only rounded up stateless people and left the Russian Jews, who all had their Russian passports still, totally alone.

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

Jewish schools, shops and concert halls were closed, and most synagogues were demolished. So modern visitors who go on an organised tour will want to see the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. This museum has the most wonderful photos, newspapers produced by the refugees and artefacts left behind by families who may have lived in Shanghai for decades. A stone monument in peaceful Huoshan Park tells visitors that the neighbourhood was once a designated area for stateless refugees.

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.


Hermes said...

What an absolutely fascinating post and exhibition - certainly a real advance in our knowlege as the way the different periods interacted with the Jewish settlers is significant.

Andrew said...

I knew a bit about the Jews in Shanghai, but you have fleshed it out nicely. I was quite incredulous the first time that I heard that Jews had settled in Shanghai.

Hels said...

the Chinese were absolutely splendid. Even if we assume they opened up the ports for economic reasons, they were still the almost the only nation offering desperate refugees a home, from the pogroms and from Nazism. I wish Australia had acted as morally.

I must thank Philip at English Buildings blog for his very useful contribution.

Hels said...


agreed totally. If you asked historians to guess which of the 193 nations on this globe allowed tens of thousands of German and Austrian refugees to settle, I doubt that anyone would have put China in their top 100 guesses.

Harbin was different, I think, because Harbin was specifically developed as a Russian enclave for the Trans-Siberian Railroad - even though it was technically inside Chinese territory. Harbin's buildings, language, food, money, passports and religious practices were Russian. Before WW2, Harbin held the largest Russian population outside of the state of Russia, some 25,000 of them being Jews.

columnist said...

I saw a very interesting programme about this on the History Channel some months ago, (with good footage).

The name you mention of the Baghdadi Jews - Sassoon, and indeed Kadoorie - went on to become very successful business people in Hong Kong, and there are roads named after them.

The Kadoories are extremely wealthy, and inter alia own the Penninsula Hotel Group, and China Light & Power.

vide: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Kadoorie

Hels said...

some families work very hard, are keen to educate their children and are prepared to travel wherever in the world trade takes them. Plus the Baghdadi families in question were very clever and ambitious as well.

But I have no doubt that being in Shanghai after c1850 also gave those families a wonderful and safe environment for traders to work in. Ditto Hong Kong, as you proposed.

Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Another interesting post. I was not aware of the Jewish community in China before now.


CarolineLD said...

Thank you for this - very timely for me as I'll be visiting Shanghai in a few weeks!

Hels said...

Glen and Caroline
thank you both.

Bloggers are often accused of filling the virtual world with self indulgent wanking. But there are many occasions when we actually do some serious learning. And I would say the same about travelling.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great article -- I had no idea about Jewish Shanghai and your post has made that world very vivid and alive.

Hels said...


even big historical stories can be lost, with the passage of time and the movement of an entire community.

I was totally indebted to the 1986 exhibition at the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv and the 1997 exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne. And to the literature that came out of those two exhibitions.

Denise said...

Thank you for this post. I had no knowledge of any of this information. I have put up a blog post with the link for my readers here in West Bloomfield, MI. With a large Jewish population here, I am sure they will find it as interesting as I did.

Hels said...

thank you... it is good to have an audience in both hemispheres :)

With this post I was not just aiming for people interested in Jewish history. Even more interesting is the history of nations accepting desperate refugees and treating them with dignity.

China put the other nations to shame. TravelChinaGuide.com wrote "The number of Jewish refugees that Shanghai took in was equal to the total taken in by (the rich nations) Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa." I wonder if that is true.

Dianne said...

Hi Hels - this is my first visit to your wonderful blog - love reading the history and interesting background to the Jews in Shanghai. I look forward to return visits.
"Adelaide and Beyond"

Hels said...

many thanks :)

Last week I was looking at my PAST Australian stories and found they were largely Melbourne- or Sydney-based. So I looked at the posts scheduled to be published in the NEXT year, and found three of them were Adelaide-based. Your timing is perfect!

Hels said...

Empire Mansions 1931 is one of the large apartment blocks built in the French Concession area of Shanghai. Thousands of Russian emigrees settled in the French Concession area and would have needed housing.

See Art Deco Buildings at http://artdecobuildings.blogspot.com.au/

David Thompson said...

Thanks Helens,
It was very interesting hear a bit about the Jewish connection to Shanghai. In particular Victor Sassoon who bought up large areas of the French Concession and developed a large apartment complex (Grosvenor House) and the French Club, both of which now form parts of hotel complexes. He was also responsible for the Peace Hotel on The Bund. A very important man in the development of Shanghai in the early 20thC.

Hels said...


you were quite right to mention Sassoon's building programme. I had mentioned only the Peace Hotel because I was concentrating at that point on The Bund. But his impact was much deeper than that.

Thank you. I added another sentence but even that seems inadequate.

Hels said...

Readers might enjoy "The Jews in China" by Pan Guang, published by China Inter-continental Press in 2005. This book provides an extensive, mainly photographic record, with one chapter on Shanghai

heritagpoliceman said...

Great story, but to be accurate it wasn’t China that allowed stateless people to enter, it was Shanghai’s status as a treaty port, not a country, that worked in their favour. The government of China did not actually support this status, it was a very unequal treaty. But because of it, Shanghai was a good investment for foreigners, catering to the enormous market of the rest of China, making it by far the richest city in China, in fact in Asia generally except for Japan. It was also a good place to live for foreigners, but they did in fact live amongst a much larger Chinese population, some rich some poor - their lives were often separate, with European only clubs and schools, and famously the bund Park has a sign ‘no Chinese or dogs’, but the streets shops theatres offices businesses thronged with Chinese faces. I wonder what language they spoke ?? The Jewish refugees prob had to learn some mandarin or English to get by.

Hels said...


I am lecturing a subject later this year (2019) on Russian emigrants from Europe... moving to Siberia, Japan and China. You are spot on about Shanghai but I wonder what I am going to say about Harbin, Irkutsk etc.