Shanghai Jews: The Jewish Immigrant Legacy in Shanghai

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Shanghai is a city populated with the ghosts of history. Its mostly well-preserved architecture belies a mélange of international and local cultures, woven into a unique metropolis. The hulking powerhouses of the Bund tell of vast amounts of wealth that once funneled through Shanghai to major ports around the globe. The Garden Hotel shows the beauty of the former French Club, where wealthy foreigners once reveled. Old colonial influence is obvious in the distinctly non-Chinese brick buildings of the Hong Kou district — once the American, then the International, and finally the Japanese settlement. Interspersed throughout are rows of the red-facaded wooden structures which have housed the Shanghainese for over 150 years. With more history crammed into the past century than most modern cities can claim, many of Shanghai’s ghosts get buried under the rubble, including the legacy of the Jews in Shanghai. Though obscured under faded blankets of time, the rich history and numberless tales are easily uncovered by the curious.

The Ohel Moshe Synagogue is hidden at 62 Changyang Lu, near Haimen Lu, in Shanghai’s Yangpu District. Were it not for the small sign, one might pass right by the only Shanghai synagogue still open to the public. Of the four synagogues originally in Shanghai, only two now remain, and neither are regularly used for worship. The Ohel Rachel Synagogue, at 500 Shanxi Bei Lu, now a book depository, has been used in the last year for high holiday services by the expatriate Shanghai Jewish Community. The synagogue was hastily cleaned up and restored for the visit by US First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton in 1998. Mrs. Clinton presided over its re-opening. Negotiations are currently under way for the return of the Ohel Rachel Synagogue but have hit a snag: Orthodox and Hassidic Jews both lay claim to the synagogue, and the Shanghai municipal government finds itself in the embarrassing situation of not knowing to whom they ought return it.

The third floor of Ohel Moshe houses a small, two-room museum, administered by Wang Faliang. With his vast trove of first-hand knowledge, 81-year-old Mr. Wang isn’t so much a museum worker as a museum unto himself. And he is always ready for the visitors, no matter how infrequent.

It is no secret that the Jewish people share a deep connection with Chinese food, but Jewish history in Shanghai runs much deeper than culinary delights. The first Jews to arrive in Shanghai were of Sephardic (Mediterranean and Middle Eastern) descent. Names like Sassoon, Hardoon, Kardoorie, and Abraham have become synonymous with the excessive wealth often attributed to the turn of the century port. Beginning in the opium trade, Sephardic Jews like Victor Sassoon amassed large fortunes, further increased through trade, real estate, and horse racing ventures. Their legacies are the most apparent remnants of Shanghai’s Jewry, in the Peace Hotel that was Sassoon’s playhouse, in the grounds of the Shanghai Exhibition Center and the JC Mandarin Hotel which were the location of the former Hardoon residence, and in the Shanghai Youth Palace, once the Kardoorie residence.

Only a few of Shanghai’s Jews fell into such fortunate circumstances. During the early twentieth century, forced to flee from pogroms in Eastern Europe, then by Russia’s defeat in the Russo — Japanese War, and later by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, many Russian Jews emigrated to China. At first many settled in Harbin but, after the Japanese conquest of Manchuria, they moved southwards to Shanghai. Upon arriving, the wealthier Russian Jewish immigrants settled in Frenchtown, while the poorer found residence in the International Zone.

Their section of the International Zone became known as the Jewish ghetto and quickly blossomed into a thriving community as immigrants opened cafes and nightclubs, tailors and bakeries. “When I was young,” remembers Mr. Wang, “almost all bus drivers were Russian Jews. Especially the double-decker buses.”

Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 brought Shanghai a new influx of Jewish refugees, this time fleeing from Hitler’s designs of mass extermination. As a free port, Shanghai was the only city in the world not requiring an entrance visa. As the Thirties progressed, Jews funneled in from places like Germany, Austria, Poland, Italy, and the Baltics. Jewish refugees reached Shanghai by all routes and means, whether by boat from Italy or by train across Siberia to Vladivostok, from where they boarded spartan fishing boats to Kobe before arriving in Shanghai. Mr. Wang tells of the Japanese consul in Lithuania who signed thousands of transit visas, allowing passage via the Siberian railway, for many desperate Jewish refugees. The Japanese Government later discovered his actions and dismissed him from the post.

In 1932, when the Japanese invaded the former International Zone, the Chinese residents of the area fled to Frenchtown. This opened a slew of living space in the area, which was quickly filled out by the immigrants. Sensitive to the plight of their stateless brethren, the Shanghai’s wealthy Sephardim funded the construction of new residences in the Jewish ghetto. The refugees where nevertheless quite poor, forced to leave their belongings in Europe as they fled. Most houses lacked heat and sanitary facilities. “If [the immigrants] wanted to take a bath, they had to go to the Chinese stores for hot water in thermoses and kettles,” notes Mr. Wang.

Unaccustomed to such poor conditions, many of the refugees died from poverty, disease, and cold. During the war, the Gestapo sent agents half way around the world in an unsuccessful attempt to coax the Japanese into murdering the Jewish refugees, notably excluding from these plans the Jews of Russian and Sephardic descent who arrived before Hitler’s rise to power. As the Japanese finally occupied the whole of Shanghai, the Chinese trickled back into the Jewish ghetto, and the Jews and Chinese lived side by side, each empathizing with the plight of the other. In July of 1945, one month before the end of the war, the Jewish section — or “Little Berlin,” as it came to be called — was bombed by the United States Air Force targeting Japanese weapons depots. The Jewish hospital accepted all wounded in the area, Chinese and Jews alike. According to Mr. Wang, “We two peoples both have a long history and culture, but we suffered the same.”

Conditions improved after World War II. Those who could not afford to move to Hong Kong found jobs with the United Nations or the US Air Force, their English skills much in demand. During the post-War period and into the early 1960’s, largely with the help of American Jewish families, Shanghai’s Jewish population emigrated to America, Israel, Canada, and South America.

The legacy of Shanghai’s Jewish refugee culture has faded, but its echoes can still be heard faintly ringing in the alleyways. The market on Chushan Lu., today your typically chaotic Chinese street market, once claimed several kosher butchers. Mr. Wang comments that the Jews ate a lot of fish. A building on Changyang Lu facing the market, was the old Jewish hospital. Further down Chushan Lu was the Jewish business center, where the immigrants congregated in cafes like the “Cafe Atlantic” and “Horn’s Delikatessen,” whose faded signs can still be seen at 127 and 159 Haimen Lu. 59 Chushan Lu was the childhood ghetto residence of W. Michael Blumenthal, Secretary of the Treasury during Jimmy Carter’s administration. Houshan Park, at 118 Houshan Lu, contains a small memorial to Shanghai’s Jewish refugees, dedicated by the Chinese Government during Israeli Prime Minister Rabin’s visit to Shanghai several years ago.

As far as tourism goes, only a little of Shanghai’s former Jewish culture still remains, and it takes a bit of imagination to visualize the streets of the Jewish ghetto as they once were. A stroll among the streets of the former Jewish district, however, can yield a unique insight into the symbiosis of two distinct yet rich and beautiful cultures that cannot be found elsewhere in the world.

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