Shanghai Jewry



Shanghai Jewry

Written by K…


Far and away the best thing we did in Shanghai was to take a walking Jewish Heritage Tour of Shanghai with an Israeli expat from Haifa named Dvir Bar-Gil, who has lived in Shanghai for about 13 years. What was fascinating about the tour was not merely the historical information about Shanghai but that Dvir used the Jewish experience in Shanghai to place life in China itself within a context that both enabled us to see what an unimaginably remarkable contribution Jews had made to the modernization of Shanghai and also illuminated our understanding of how things “work” in modern China itself. The sad fact is that there is precious little left in the way of traces of Jewish life in Shanghai prior to 1949, the year the Communists came to power and when almost all foreigners, including Jews, left the city and country. According to Dvir, everything in modern China – EVERYTHING – is related to business and to making money. If it can make money for the Government, it remains; if not, it is torn down, stopped, replaced with something else that will make money. This is where it begins and ends in modern China. According to Dvir, China has a long history of social networking, and in today’s modern China all business and social interaction is advanced by connections which are developed and nurtured. WHAT you know is not nearly as important as WHO you know in cultivation business. Connections here are everything, and this outlook is deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche.

Our group, sitting on the steps on the Bund,with Dvir in the back in the hat

Our group Dvir in back

With that in mind, and because there is almost nothing that survives of Shanghai’s Jewish story (a story about which the local Chinese are completely ignorant) Dvir tells the story of the Jews in Shanghai from the 1840’s to about 1949 and weaves it with visits to only about a half-dozen different places on a tour that lasted nearly 5 hours. We meet him at the Peace Hotel, perhaps the most prominent hotel in Shanghai, which was built around 1927.

Some of the buildings built by the Jews of Shanghai during the turn of the 20th Century.

Building 4

Interior of the Peace Hotel

Peace hotel 2


His tour starts with an apology that we aren’t meeting on the 8th Floor of the Peace Hotel, as he used to do with tour groups before the hotel was renovated several years ago. He also apologizes that he is no longer able to bring his groups into the lobby of the hotel to see its clearly Art Deco style because the hotel management no longer permits him to do so, but he encourages each of us to go in individually and have a quick look before the tour begins. After we do so, he walks us several hundred yards to the Bund, the river walkway of Shanghai, where we sit down together, and Dvir begins to tell the story of Shanghai Jewry.



Dvir begins by explaining that the hotel we just visited was built by the Sassoon family of England, in the 1920’s, and with this begins the narration. The history of Shanghai can be divided into 3 migrations of Jews beginning in the 1840’s , when a Jewish merchant from Baghdad, Iraq named Eliahu David (E.D.) Sassoon came to Shanghai from Bombay via London. The British colonial government that controlled India was also in control of several Chinese ports as the result of a treaty signed between Britain and China that ended the Opium Wars in 1845. (British trade in China had resulted in British ships returning empty to China as a result of Chinese protectionist policies; the British knew the Chinese used opium and so decided to grow it in British-controlled India and to import it to China on those empty ships. The opium was, of course, addictive, and the Chinese saw its negative effect on the populace; nevertheless the British, with little else to import in their otherwise empty ships, insisted on continuing to ship the opium to China. The Chinese then banned the import of opium, and the English used the ban on opium as an excuse to launch a war over free trade, a war that the Chinese lost.) Sassoon came to China and began exporting goods to England and importing goods to China. As his business grew he brought family members and other close trusted associates from England and India to help him run and expand his business, and soon he became very wealthy. Shanghai at this time was just a small, undeveloped port at the time, and as Sassoon became wealthier he began to acquire land along the river front and along the road that became main street of Shanghai’s downtown business district, Nanjing Road. And at the same time Sassoon was carrying on commerce in Shanghai, more and more Baghdadi Jews were arriving as well – notably the Kadoori family as well as others whose names I don’t recall – to conduct commercial enterprises in Shanghai. Taken as a group, this collection of Jews of Baghdad, Iraq origin became a formidable, if not a controlling influence, on the growth and expansion of Shanghai.

The second wave of Jewish immigration came from Russia in the closing years of the 19th century and through the 1920’s, as Russian Jews sought to escape first, the Tsars and the pogroms and then, the Russian Revolution. This influx brought a much poorer class of immigrant, and tens of thousands of them, and these immigrants moved into a poor area of old Shanghai in the Dalian district, crowding into the equivalent of tenements, with multiple families sharing a single dwelling unit.

Russian homes

Why did these immigrants come, specifically, to Shanghai? They came to Shanghai because Shanghai was a free port. This means that no passport or other papers were required for entry. All you needed to do to get in was to show up at the port, step off the ship, and you were “landed”. they were able to travel across Russia……………………………………………

The Russian immigrants began to establish themselves as poorer members of Shanghai life, as peddlers, shoemakers, shopkeepers, etc. However, they established a community with institutions such as soup kitchens and a synagogue, and with the financial help of wealthy Jewish benefactors such as the Sassoons, they were able to survive.

This was an alleyway into the old section that once was occupied by Russian Jews. A woman sews on the street which probably was similar to what the Russian Jews did to make a living.




Proof that this was once a Jewish home. See the second street, notice the first door on your right?? That is this door.

Star of David

The third and final wave of Jewish immigration that hit Shanghai in the late 1930’s until the mid-1940’s was the result of the coming and the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe. After Jews were prevented by the Nazis from using their passports to leave Europe, some lucky Jews were able to obtain Free Passage documents from foreign embassies that gave them the legal right to exist under the protection of these foreign governments. In this regard two Righteous Gentiles, both almost unknown, must be mentioned. _________ Sugihara, who served as the Japanese Consul in Kovno, Lithuania, issued something like 2,500 Free Passage documents to Jews within a period of 2 months (and the Free Passage documents were apparently good for families, not just for individuals), until he was recalled for his activities (the Germans had pressured their Japanese allies, who had invaded China and now controlled Shanghai, to round up all Jews who had come to Shanghai after 1933 into what effectively were ghettos – interestingly, the earlier Russian refugees were not included in this round-up and hence served as a life-line to the Nazi-era Jews who had made it to Shanghai). Another such Righteous Gentile was a Dr. Ho, whose activities are virtually unknown, but who also served as a Consular official outside China and who, it is estimated, saved thousands of Jews in much the same way. His recall by the Chinese government was followed by his dismissal and by being reduced to penury. He left China before the Communist takeover in 1949, made his way to America and died in the USA as an American citizen. (His daughter Man Lee Ho lives today in San Francisco.)


Why did these Holocaust escapees come to Shanghai? For one reason only: practically speaking, they had no other alternatives. In 1943 a meeting between nations was held in France, known as the Evian Conference, the had convened to discuss the situation of Jewish Refugees. Although there was a lot of talk, virtually no country – with the notable exception of the Dominican Republic – was prepared to admit Jewish refugees. However, as there was no direct transportation to the Dominican Republic, it would be necessary for the refugees to first arrive in America and transfer from there to the Dominican Republic. The government of FDR refused to allow this transfer, so for all practical purposes the Dominican Republic remained closed to Jews as the result of American policy. The refugees were left, therefore, with only Shanghai as an option. Why Shanghai? Because it was a free port – one of only several in the world at the time (Casablanca and Trieste were the others).

The WWII Jewish refugees to Shanghai had been teachers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. – an educated and cultured group, and affluent in their home countries. In Shanghai they descended from affluence to poverty in, literally, a matter of a few hours. They had paid for passage to Shanghai on commercial ships, had their last breakfasts on board ship together with all the other paying passengers; then the ship landed in Shanghai, and they were met by other Jews who had preceded them, taken to the Jewish area of the city and proceeded to live in what can only be described as slum dwellings. Nevertheless, these European refugees struggled, with a degree of success, to preserve some of the trappings of their former lives. They established cake and coffee shops, rooftop restaurants, movie houses, etc. in an attempt to maintain a sense of their identities. They also established a Jewish hospital in Shanghai for refugees and schools for their children. Again, prominent Jewish families of Iraqi origin supported their efforts, especially with respect to children, so that the lives of the refugee children were actually easier and more hygienic than that of their refugee parents.


The JDC House

Jewish Organization house

The WWII refugees never thought of Shanghai as their “home”; it was, for all of them, merely a stop along the way to wait out the war. WWII ended, and fighting between the Chinese ensued to determine whether China would become a democracy or a socialist country. As it became increasingly clear that the Communists would win the struggle, Jews and other foreigners began to exit Shanghai (and the rest of China). By 1949, when Mao Zedong and the Communists came into control of China, nationalizing all real estate in the county, virtually all the Jews of Shanghai had left. In the mid-1990’s Jews began to return to Shanghai for business reasons; today in 2012 there are about 3,000 Jews in Shanghai, although Judaism is not one of China’s five recognized religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam). This means that while Jews are permitted to congregate in private homes and other private facilities to hold prayers, they are not permitted to build houses of worship.

The most striking thing about China that we learned from Dvir is that the one word that best encapsulates what modern China is all about is “business”. If something makes money, the Chinese government views it as good; if it loses money, it is replaced by something that makes money. An excellent example of this is what is called in Shanghai the “Jewish War Refugees Museum”. This is simply the name the government has given to the former “Ohel Moshe” Synagogue, a small synagogue that was built around the 1920’s to serve the Russian immigrants to Shanghai. The synagogue had fallen into disuse and had been closed until the Chinese government thought that it might be good for business to create a site that would draw tourists. So they built another couple of small buildings around the original synagogue building and put in a small “museum” consisting of blown-up photographs and texts from other previously published books about Shanghai Jewish refugees, a small bookstore and a ticket-sales booth, and told the refugee story according to the government’s angle, which is that China openly and warmly welcomed all the Jewish refugees into Shanghai. While this sounds good, the fact is that during none of the time between the 1840’s and 1949 did the Chinese control Shanghai. While the Chinese did not put roadblocks into the path of Jewish refugee immigration, they did nothing to assist it – all the help refugees received came from Jews themselves.

In China and Chinese culture, it appears that “face” matters – creating a positive impression, saving face, etc. The facade is always more important than the actual content. For the 2008 Beijing Olympics the Chinese planted millions upon millions of trees to “beautify” the country. The front facade of run-down buildings got a face-lift via a coat of new paint, but only on the front of the building, not the exposed sides of the building, and certainly nothing was renovated on the inside. The Chinese merely put lipstick on the pig. As we walked around Shanghai we saw ample evidence of this as now-4-year-old “facelifts” are beginning to peel and fall off the buildings .

With Ohel Moshe, which is no longer a functioning synagogue but more like an exhibition hall of what the synagogue originally looked like (including an ark, a reader’s lectern, and ark and lectern curtains, all with the expected Hebrew dedicatory inscriptions but no Torah and possibly a Mezuzah on the door – at least the Mezuzah case), the “reconstruction” was done clearly because it has become a source of “Jewish tourism” revenue for the government.

Synagogue info

Synagogue 3


One response »

  1. Very interesting post. My mother and grandmother were also Russian refugees in Shanghai, tho they were not Jewish but Russian Orthodox. They fled there around 1926, while my mother was still a baby. Life was bad enough in Russia that lots of people were looking for refuge elsewhere. Life was very hard there for all refugees. In those days there was no government support or programs or handouts like we see today. Everyone had to do for themselves. But as you noted, people of like cultures pulled together as family and took care of one another. My mother grew up in Shanghai and didn’t leave until the end of WWII, after meeting and marrying my Dad, and American naval officer. Tho my mom and grandmother are now gone, I still keep with an “aunt” in NV who lived with my mother and gm in Shanghai. She is three years older than my mother. They were lifelong best friends. She is very old but has a sharp mind and fills in all the details for me.

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