Shanghai, a port city in the Kiangsu province in Eastern China, opened to foreign trade in 1843. A flourishing foreign community developed there, including Jews of various nationalities. They were mostly Sephardim from Baghdad, Bombay (now Mumbai), and Cairo, including such well-known families as Sassoon, Kadoorie, Hardoon, Ezra, Shamoon, and Baroukh. There were three synagogues in Shanghai and, between 1904 and 1939, 12 Jewish magazines in English, German, and Russian were founded there. The leading one was Israel’s Messenger, a Zionist monthly established in 1904 by N.E.B. Ezra and published until his death in 1936. A Hebrew newspaper was also published as early as 1904.
Elly Kadoorie was recruited to work for Sassoons and invested in hotels, land, and utilities, building the infrastructure for Shanghai as it became the “Paris of the East.” He built a mansion where he entertained celebrities like Charles Lindbergh and his hotels became a destination for the rich and famous.
Sun Yat-sen, the Republic of China’s first president, wrote to Kadoorie that the Jews were a “wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world.” Kadoorie, an ardent Zionist, helped persuade him to endorse the Balfour Declaration. “Like the Jews,” Jonathan Kaufman observed, “the Chinese knew what it meant to be powerless and lose control over their homeland.”
Before World War I the Jewish population numbered around 700, with 400 Sephardim of Baghdad origin, 250 Europeans, and 50 Americans. Most of them were engaged in commerce, while a few were in the diplomatic service and in medicine or teaching. Their number was substantially increased to around 25,000 by Ashkenazi émigrés from Russia fleeing from the 1917 Revolution.
Between 1932 and 1941, approximately 18,000 refugees from Nazi Germany and German occupied countries found out they could enter the free port of Shanghai without visas. Lubavitch Hasidim, as well as remnants of the Mir and Slobodka Lithuanian yeshivot (Jewish religious schools), were among those who found refuge in Shanghai.
Of these Jewish refugees, 14,000 lived in the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees,” located in Tilanquiao Square, along with other refugees from all over the world. The Tilanquiao historic area is still very much alive today, and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum provides important insights into the area’s Jewish past. The museum offers daily free tours every 45 minutes. [Watch a video of Jews thanking Shanghai.]
The Japanese closed Shanghai to further immigration in December 1941. After the outbreak of the war in the Pacific, Japan deported most of the Jews living in Japan or in transit to other countries to the miserable Hongkew district of Shanghai and kept them in unsanitary semi-internment camps under Japanese occupation forces. Elly Kadoorie was also imprisoned and died in captivity in 1944.
They had great difficulty in finding employment, and most of their property was confiscated under one pretext or another. Substantial aid was given locally, especially by Sir Victor Sassoon, Horace Kadoorie, and Paul Komor. Additional funds came from abroad Almost all of them left Shanghai after World War II, largely with American help, moving to the United States, Britain, Australia and other communities.
After 1948, 1,070 Jews from China immigrated to Israel, with 504 leaving between 1948 and 1951. A few elderly people remained to live out their days under the Chinese Communists. The Kadoories, who had built a fortune in Shanghai between the world wars, lost almost everything when the communists took over in 1949 and expelled foreigners. The family moved to British-ruled Hong Kong where they started over. The Sassoons were also forced to flee.
Between 1904 and 1939, three synagogues were built in Shanghai. The Ohel Moshe Synagogue was built by Russian Jews in the 1920’s and has been integrated as a part of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. During World War II the synagogue served as a meeting place for the Jewish community. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited the synagogue in 1994, and took time to thank the people of Shanghai for their humanitarian actions during the war. In 2007, the synagogue was remodeled based on the original 1928 design, which is displayed on the first floor. The second floor includes videos and a database to search for Jewish refugees, and the third floor hosts an exhibit titled “German Nazi Death Camps – Auschwitz.”
The permanent exhibit houses more than 140 high-quality photographs and a multi-screen projection area showing a short film about the refugees who lived in the area. A new museum exhibit opened in August 2015, including historical materials and testimony from refugees who took shelter in Shanghai. The permanent exhibit, Jewish Refugees and Shanghai, has travelled all over the globe to places including Berlin, Hamburg, Haifa, Jerusalem, and the United States.
Construction began in 2015 on a replica of the White Horse Inn, a popular gathering place for the Jewish community that was destroyed in 2009. Ron Klinger, the grandson of the café’s co-founder, who grew up in the cafe, said: “The White Horse was like cafe, bar and nightclub. It was very popular, a place of refuge for Jews who had escaped the Nazis.” The cafe is located next to the museum.
Plans are also being made to open a memorial park that will serve to replace the four Jewish cemeteries in Shanghai that were damaged or destroyed over the years.
Following President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, and the opening of the country to the West, the Kadoories returned to Shanghai and built the Peninsula Hotel.
Apart from J.J. Sulaiman’s Kunteres Seder ha-Dorot (1921), the main period of Hebrew printing in Shanghai was during World War II and immediately after (1940–46), when remnants of Lithuanian yeshivot (Mir, Slobodka), as well as Lubavitch Ḥasidim, found refuge in Shanghai and printed – mostly photostatically – rabbinic, ethical, and ḥasidic works in limited editions for their own use. To the 80 items enumerated by Z. Harkavy (in Ha-Sefer, no. 9, 1961, 52–3; Hashlamot le-Mafte’aḥ ha-Mafteḥot (by S. Shunami, 1966), 3–4) have to be added – at least – the above work by J.J. Sulaiman and S. Elberg’s Akedat Treblinka (Yid., 1946). Hebrew newspapers were printed in Shanghai as early as 1904.
A. Ginsbourg, Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (Shanghai, 1940); A. Sopher, Chinese Jews (Shanghai, 1926); H. Dicker, Wanderers and Settlers in the Far East (1962), index; YIVO, Catalogue of the Exhibition
Jewish Life in Shanghai (1948); A. Mars, in: JSOS, 31 (1969), 286–91.
Sources: Shanghai Municipal Tourist Administration, “The Jews in Shanghai” (December 2012);
Shanghai Jewish Center;
Shanghai, Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Jonathan Kaufman, “A Jewish Dynasty in a Changing China,” Wall Street Journal, (May 28, 2020)