A Brief History of Jewish Shanghai

The Star of David at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees' Museum

This description of the history of Jewish life in Shanghai is part of a series describing Sandy Cardin’s recent travels to China. You can read part one here and part two here.

The city of Shanghai was a small, insignificant place until the mid-1800’s when the Chinese lost the Opium War in 1842 and, as part of the Nanjing Treaty with Britain, agreed to let the British establish five ports for international trade, one of which was Shanghai.

As it turns out, what was good for the British was good for the Jews. Among the first of those to take advantage of what was known as the British Concession was a Baghdadi Jewish family headed by David Sassoon. The Sassoons went from Baghdad to India, then to Hong Kong (where David served on the founding provisional committee of what is today one of the largest banks in the world, the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Company or HSBC).

The history of Jewish Shanghai is really a three-act play that begins with the arrival of the Sassoons (the “Rothschilds of the Orient”) in the 1840’s. Shrewd traders and excellent businesspeople, the Sassoons soon became very wealthy, as did many of those who came to work for them, as well as other Iraqi Jews who decamped to Shanghai from Baghdad. This first wave of Sephardi Jews played the same kind of role in Shanghai that the early German Jews played in the United States.

The second act takes place around 1900 during the period of the terrible pogroms in Russia. Many Jews from that region fled for their lives into Siberia and ultimately made their way down to Shanghai. (Some settled in other places, like Harbin and Tientsin.) Estimates of the number of Russian Jews who came to China during this period run as high as 20,000, most of whom settled in Shanghai.

The third act takes place in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s at the time of the Holocaust. Since Shanghai was an open port city that had no entry requirements or restrictions, it was one of the very few places on earth in which Jews fleeing from the Nazis could seek refuge.

Large numbers of Jews made it out thanks to two “Righteous Gentiles” – a Japanese vice-consul in Lithuania named Chiune Sugihara and a Chinese diplomat in Vienna whose name was Dr. Feng Shan Ho. Dr. Ho saved thousands of Jews by granting them travel documents, and Mr. Sugihara is perhaps best known for helping to relocate the entire Mir Yeshiva – approximately 400 hundred rabbis, students and their families – from Lithuania to Shanghai.

Life for the Jews in Shanghai during World War II was very hard. Many of the refugees were educated, middle- and upper-class professionals who left a life of means and arrived in Shanghai with whatever they could bring in two suitcases. Even after the Japanese acceded to the wishes of their Nazi allies to put all Jews of Shanghai in a ghetto, these proud people struggled to maintain their dignity by dressing in their good clothes and continuing their cultural pursuits like music and theater.

When V-J Day arrived following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the vast majority of the Jews emigrated as quickly as possible, often with both a sense of relief for the hard life they were leaving behind and with a sense of appreciation for the land that provided them refuge.

Today, not much is left of the Jewish community. At its highest point, the Jewish community of Shanghai numbered around 30,000 people; currently 5,000 Jews live in the city.

My tour took me to “Little Vienna” – the Shanghai equivalent of the Lower East side of New York, where I saw cramped quarters and vestiges of mezzuzim on several doorways – and the Tilanqiao Historic Area (the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” or, in other words, Jews). We also saw the apartment on Huoshan Road from which the JDC functioned and the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue, now the site of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

The tour ended with my guide, Dvir Ben-Gal, a former journalist, showing a video in which he described his effort to recover headstones from a number of Jewish cemeteries that no longer exist. The stones are scattered far and wide, and being used as retaining walls, sidewalks and washboards. His quest to reclaim as many headstones as possible (he has secured more than 100 in the past 9 years) and build a memorial is as inspiring as it is challenging (so far, the Chinese government has not been willing to grant him a permit to achieve his goal), a present-day reminder of the bittersweet experience of the Jews of Shanghai.

A special thanks to Dvir Ben-Gal for contributing to the information and reporting that went into this post.

Sandy Cardin is President of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.