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Shanghai Jews as seen by Chinese

Jewish People in Shanghai for 138 years

From : 'China Bus' 12.11.98

Translated from Chinese by Huang

Since 1844, when the second son of the first Jewish Sassoon's family builder, Elias David Sassoon entered Shanghai to expand the market. The history of Jewish people immigrating to Shanghai was more than a century. The total immigrants were more than 30,000, including 20,000 from Europe during the second world war, because of the high pressure of the mad policy of destroying Jews by Hitler. Those Jews had no way out so they chose to emigrate to Shanghai because that was the only refuge where there was no need for a visa. With the support of Jews all over the world, and the help of the Chinese people and with their struggle, they survived from the tiger's mouth during the whole war.

Shanghai developed as a city since 200 years ago. But it is sad, that since the beginning, she was covered by the colour of colony or Semi-colony. In June 1842, Shanghai was bombarded and occupied by the British ship 'Nimigis'. But, 95% of Jewish people entered Shanghai because of WWII. They came to Shanghai only for going into exile. Since W.W.II, almost all the Jews in the world knew Shanghai, and there was an isolated place for Jews in Hongkou district, Shanghai.

In July 1998, President Clinton of the US visited China. It was arranged that he visits the East Pearl Tower in Pudong - the new developing district. But Clinton preferred rather to see the 'Mosi's Synagogue' located in No:62 Changyang Street Hongkou district. The 'Mosi's' Synagogue was built in 1927 by a Russian Jew, it was one of the four big Jewish Synagogues at that time. Today, this red small building is an office of Hongkou district management. As the special history of the house, the second floor is made into a small museum of Jewish people in Shanghai. The pictures on the wall tell people why Jewish people had taken Shanghai as their 'second home town'.

There were three lots of Jews who immigrated to Shanghai. The first lot arrived since 1844, mainly from Baghdad, Spain, Portugal and India. they were called 'Sephardim'. They were not so many, only about 700 until 1920. Most of the 'Sephardim' were rich. As Shanghai was 'the Far East trading centre', and the 'elysium of adventurer,' who came to Shanghai seeking business and development. Most of those people lived near the shopping centre of the city. Very soon after they arrived to Shanghai, their outstanding business ability showed. The remarkable examples are the Sassoons, Hardouns and Kadoories whose business grew very rapidly and they got very strong economic base in a very short time.

Hardoun was the king of property of Nanjing Street - the most busy shopping centre in Shanghai; the Shanghai Exhibition centre was the private park of the Hardouns. Sassoon was the Chairman of Shanghai Jewish financial groups - The Heping Hotel today - was their office building. And today's Shanghai Children Palace was Kadoory's private house, (Marble Hall).

The Sephardim were respectable Jewish people. They played a very important role in Shanghai's city building, religion, social and economics; they also gave a great deal of help to the Jews who were kicked out by the Germans during W.W.II. However, it is not that every Sephardi was rich, some of them were staff, 40% of the staffs of Shanghai Stock Exchange were Sephardi Jews at that time. The second lot was mainly Russian blood lineage Jews. In 1906, as North Russians killed the Jews and the revolution, many Jews escaped from Russia to China one after the other. Many of them first stayed in Harbin - North City of China. In 1931, the Japanese occupied the three North provinces of China, tried to build up a Man Zhou country. The president of 'Man Zhou Real Way' Zhanchuan presented a plan to Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to invite 50,000 German Jews to 'Manzhou.' Later, when a son of a rich Jewish businessman was kidnapped and killed, 70% of those Jews left Harbin for Shanghai. This issue broke the hope of building an insulation area of Jews in Harbin. Until 1939, the Russian Jews were about 5,000 in Shanghai. They were mostly ordinary people, few were soldiers or prisoners who escaped from the Hibolia exile. Their economic condition was lower than the Sephardi, mainly working in restaurants, coffee houses, bread houses, fashion shops and book shops. Also, some of them engineers, lawyers or musicians. In the 30's quite a lot of bus drivers were Jews. But few were not decent, who dealt with drug smuggling and had brothels. Part of the Russian Jews became middle class through hard struggling.

The third lot was called 'Ashkenasim'. They came from Germany, Austria, Poland and other European countries since 1933 to 1941, since Hitler came to power. They were about 20,000 people. The moving was in three high tides. The first high tide happened in 1933 to 1934, several thousand were mostly well-educated. Many of them were doctors, musicians and professors. They mainly lived around Xiafei Street (today's Huaihai Street) where there was French concession. As it was unhurried moving, they brought a lot of money with them, so they could start business immediately. Some dealt with small enterprises, some became doctors, some painters and some attended the city's band.

The second high tide was in August 1938 to August 1939 when 10,000 Jews came mainly from Austria and Germany. They escaped very quickly because of the famous 'Crystal Night.' They even had no time to pack, no chance of arranging a visa, with very simple parcel so they could catch up the ship from Italy to Shanghai in a hurry. They reached Shanghai after 4 weeks of hardship. The last high-tide happened in 1939, a few thousand Jews escaped from Poland as Germany attacked there. Same as the second lot, they also did not bring many things with them and some brought one or two suitcases. The Jews who came from the last two high tide mainly lived in comparatively poor place - 'Hongkou' district.

The well-known 'Crystal Night' happened on the 10 November 1938. In France a young Polish Jew named Herschel Grgasspan, became mad when he heard that his family was forced to move to the wild area in the border of Germany and Poland. He bought a gun, went to the German Embassy to kill the Ambassador. By mistake, he killed the third grade secretary Ernst von Rath.

On hearing the news, the Germans took it as an excuse, so the promoted minister, Yoseph Goebbels, announced the news of spontaneously punishing the Jews. Only on that night and the second day, at the German's instigation, a mob of about a thousand robbed and destroyed more than 7,000 shops and fired and damaged 191 Synagogues.

On 12 November, two days later, the government official ordered punishing all Jews because they had killed von Rath. The order was: 1. To punish all Jews by making them pay 1,000 million marks as a fine for wanting to emigrate, and that proof of payment of the fine had to be shown before approval was granted. 2. They themselves must pay for the damage of their losses, even though insurance had been paid. 3. Announcing a series of orders that the Jewish enterprise became 'alien', so that Jews would be expelled from Germany's economy.

On the other hand, the head of the Gestapo, Himmler, gave an order to catch 20,000 rich Jews and send them into the concentration camp. In this way, they forced their families to pay a high price to buy their freedom.

Before 10 November 1938, although a lot of Jews emigrated to other countries because they could not bear any more persecution of the Nazis, most Jews did not wish to leave the country for all sorts of reasons. But on that day, when they heard that they did not belong anymore to the country they loved, everyone felt losing their head with fright, especially when they heard that the Germans sent a great number of Jews into the camps and killed them with poison gas, then burnt their bodies in the furnace. Everyone became too impatient to leave their home town. At that time, all visa offices were full of Jewish applicants; to them each earlier date of departing meant more possibility for surviving.

However, at that time, more and more countries refused to accept Jewish people, except Palestine and Dominica. At last, the only hope left for the Jews is to go to Shanghai which is 7,000 miles away. At that time, the public concession of Shanghai was the only place in the world where no visa was needed. Then, thousands of Jews gushed into Shanghai one after another. 'Welcome to Shanghai! From now on, you are not anymore a German, Austrian, Czechoslovakian or Romanian. You are only Jews. The Jews around the world have already prepared a home for you here.' This is the very familiar address by the representative of the economic relief committee.

With the help from the Sassoons, Hardouns, Kadoories and all the other Jews in Shanghai and with the help from Shanghai people, the Jews who came to Shanghai earlier organised receptions in Shanghai. Hardoun's River Building by the Suzhou River was a big reception stations. Whenever the exiled Jews reached Shanghai, they first went to do the 'check in' in that reception station. They were arranged to live according to their economic ability, health condition and age. Those who had a better economic ability mainly lived around Huaihai Street, Fushou Street and Nanking Street. Those who had lower economic ability lived in Hongkou District. Those old, ill and poor refugees were arranged to live in 5 reception centres.

In the following several years, depending on their intelligence and business talent, Jews created miracles in those districts. The appearance of many streets became completely renovated along Hongkou - North of Suzhou River. The Tangshan, Gongping, Changzhi, Huoshan and other streets became similar to European type; Zhoushan Road became the business centre of 'Little Vienna' type.

In other districts, Jews also built up successfully several hundreds of enterprises. According to local statistics, until 18 February 1943, 307 enterprises were forced to close and move to the insulation camp by the Japanese Army. Those enterprises included 68 fabric stores, 50 coffee houses and restaurants, 26 economy shops, 24 groceries, 19 tailor shops, 14 book shops, 12 porcelain shops, 9 drug stores and factories, 9 electrical appliance shops, 8 leather shops, 7 jewellery shops and 61 other shops including shoe shops, photo studios, rubber factories etc. Those were only part of all the enterprises built up by Jewish people.

As some of the exiled Jews were teachers, editors, reporters, writers, painters, musicians and sportsmen, they became active as they settled down. They opened schools, organised playing teams, built up the moving library and they even started the band and football teams. It is worthwhile to mention that even under such hard conditions, the Jews unexpectedly published tens of newspapers and magazines.

Most of the Jews believed in religion. After they arrived to Shanghai, the Jews built up Synagogues. There were four more comparatively famous Synagogues, such as 'Jews Synagogue,' 'Moses Synagogue' etc. The 'Moses Synagogue' was located at 62 Changyang Road. It was the activity centre of Jews in the 2nd World War. Lots of Jews liked to pray there.

In 1942, the Germans adopted the 'Thorough Finishing' policy. Germans continuously pressured the Japanese to follow their example and finish the Jews in Shanghai.

In the Japanese/Russian War of 1904 to 1905, a well-known American Jewish banker used to loan a large amount of money to help the Japanese navy and also the army's loss in the battle front, those Jews could be used as a bargaining chip, or they could make use of Jews to influence President Roosevelt.

The Japanese adopted a comparatively 'soft' policy - to build up the first Jews 'insulation area' in Asia, and to guard it strictly.

In February 1943, through Shanghai's broadcasting and newspaper, the Japanese announced that bulletin of establishing an 'insulation area for Jews.' According to the bulletin, since the date of issue until the 18 May, all refugees who had no nationality and lived in Shanghai, had to move to the places fixed by the military police for security reasons.

Although the Japanese paid attention to the dictations, they did not use the word 'Jews' in the bulletin, but everyone new that they meant Jews. In the following three months, about 1,000 Jewish families handed over 811 apartments, totalling 2,766 rooms which were owned by Jews. 307 enterprises were forced to close. All those Jews moved into the 'insulation areaĠ which measured less that 2 sq. kms, and the houses there were small and dirty.

Since the Jews moved into the 'insulation area,' their living condition deteriorated rapidly. Some even had to go begging on the street. Some went to work in Chinese mill. There were 7 women registered for prostitution, and some women chose to cohabit to improve their living conditions. There were about 10 mothers who sold their own new born babies. Often it happened that the children of the refugees used to pick up rubbish vegetables or fruits in the market. During those days, because of hunger and disease, 300 Jews refugees died. The 'Foreigners' in Shanghai never had such hard times before.

The 'insulation area' lasted for 561 days. At last, it was cancelled because Nazi Germany lost and surrendered to the Russians and the Japanese army also surrendered without conditions in China battlefield. During W.W.II, there were 20,000 Jews exiled to Shanghai from Germany, Austria, Poland and few from Czechoslovakia and Hungary, plus earlier Sephardim Jews and Russian Jews, totalling 31,000 Jews lived in Shanghai.

Although the exiled Jews to Shanghai were in a very difficult situation, but through the help of charity organisations and Shanghai People, through their own effort, they overcame hard conditions and poverty, and survived. From 1939 to 1945, about 1,500 Jews died in Shanghai from poverty-stricken, hunger and diseases.

After W.W.II, the doors opened again for the Jews in the Middle East and Europe. The Jews who lived in Shanghai started to leave Shanghai for Israel, USA, Canada, Australia and other countries. Until 1948, there were about 10,000 Jews still living in Shanghai. Since October 1949, the Chinese government started sending back the Jews to return to their hometown. In 1957, there were about only 100 Jews left in Shanghai. During the 10 years of cultural Revolution - the great disaster, they went away silently. In 1976, there were only about 10 Jews in Shanghai. The last Jewish old lady who was married to a Chinese, died in 1982. Hence, the 138 years' history of Jewish community in Shanghai closed.


Other articles related to Shanghai :

Gathering of Shanghai Sephardic Community

S.F. Sephardi will share Shanghai Ties

Shanghai Restores a lost Synagogue



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