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Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai

by Aviva Shabi

excerpted from an article in the Israeli paper, Yediot Aharonot, 1992.

Jacob Alkow, Hollywood producer and roving reporter, who came to Shanghai in 1937 as representative of a California citrus fruit company, wrote about the life of foreign residents in Shanghai during that period. Alkow, who later immigrated to Israel, had been in close contact with some of the wealthiest families of the Jewish community.

When he arrived in Shanghai, Alkow presented himself first to the Abraham family. Reuben (Ruby) Abraham was the son of the Rabbi David Ezra Joshua Abraham, head of the Shanghai Baghdadian Jewish Community, and related by marriage to the Sassoon family. In the Abraham family garden, Chinese gardeners carefully tended plants of the "four kinds". Every morning, from six to eight o'clock, Ruby and his three sons studied Talmud with the grandfather. They read Hebrew and were familiar with the literature of the Middle Ages. They were not, however, acquainted with modern Hebrew literature, and he brought them the works of Bialik, Fichman and Shofman.

Rivka Toueg (formerly Toeg) was born in Shanghai during the golden era of the Jewish community. Her father had arrived in Shanghai as a young clerk in the Sassoon Company, prospered quickly and became one of the new millionaires of Shanghai. The Toegs resided in the International Settlement in a four story house with all the uncles and aunts. They owned stables, a block of buildings in the centre of town and a wood factory on the river front.

They lived a colonial life in every sense of the word. The children took ballet lessons and listened to classical music. At home they spoke English, except for the grandmother who only spoke Iraqi Judaeo Arabic. Each child had a personal nursemaid, and Chinese 'boys' served meals at table. On the Sabbath they studied Torah in the synagogue and Sundays were spent sailing on the river, picnicking, or at the race track.

"I remember that until I was twelve years old I never took a bath by myself," she recounts. "I didn't know how to rinse a cup. I had a nursemaid who was closer to me than my own mother. The servants lived below, in the courtyard behind the house. They loved us, but when the Communists came they began to see this pattern of servants and masters as exploitation."

In 1937, after war and much bloodshed, the Japanese gained control over the Chinese section of Shanghai. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugees fled from the destroyed Hongkew quarter and crowded into the city suburbs. The first stream of Jewish refugees soon began arriving from Europe. By that time there already was a large community of Russian Jews who had fled their country after the Revolution in 1917 and came to Shanghai via Harbin and Tientsin.

The stream of Jewish refugees increased after Kristallnacht and became a flood in 1939. By 1941 about nineteen thousand refugees from Germany, Austria, and Poland had arrived in Shanghai. They came by boat from the ports of Italy to Bombay and to Shanghai.

The wealthy Baghdadians of the community were active in the rescue project and founded the "European Refugee Committee." Jacob Alkow was its honorary president. Alkow raised an initial sum of about a quarter of a million dollars from a small group of wealthy people: Kadoorie, Sassoon, Hardoon, Ezra, Abraham. They established clinics and soup kitchens, and Horace Kadoorie built a school for the refugee children. When the stream of refugees increased still more, a demand to stop the flow of immigration began because the entire burden fell on the local community.

In July, 1939, when eighteen thousand refugees, were already squeezed into Shanghai, the first aid from abroad arrived through the American "Joint" (Joint Distribution Committee).

In September of that year World War II broke out and the gates were locked.

The question "Why did the Japanese allow the entrance of Jews into Shanghai?" is still a mystery. The discussions with the Japanese were conducted face to face by Victor Sassoon and Eli Kadoorie. There is no written documentation as to what was agreed upon then. But from certain hints Alkow understood, the Jews had negotiated a business deal with the Japanese who were interested in maintaining normal economic and commercial activities in Shanghai. Only late, in 1943, did the Japanese, under Nazi pressure, issue an order compelling all of the refugees who had arrived after 1937 to confine themselves to the closed quarter of Hongkew.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, all the foreign residents who were Allied nationals were moved into prison camps built in the outskirts of Shanghai. The Baghdadian community was severed in half. Most of the wealthier families who were British nationals were imprisoned until the end of the war. Those of Iraqi nationality, sometimes members of the same family, were left at home and allowed to continue with their daily lives. The Japanese confiscated the palatial mansions, the private art collections, the stock exchange and the factories. The Cathay Hotel was used to house Japanese officers, the Sassoon office buildings were turned into the Japanese propaganda centre.



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