Tuesday, December 5, 2006


Having lost my guidebook some two weeks back, I wondered how I would find my story on Jewish Shanghai. Yet sitting on the train from Lhasa to Shanghai, the story found me. As I sat sipping tea in the dining car, a security guard on the train handed me a mini-guide to Shanghai, complete with a section on Shanghai¹s Jewish past. Sometimes the story finds you, and God always grants you what you need.

The Shanghai Jewish community has a long and storied history, beginning with the immigration of Sephardic Jews from the Middle East in the mid-19th century. Iraqi Jewish families like the Sassoons and the Kadoories amassed fortunes and built business empires as Shanghai began its meteoric rise. Victor Sassoon made millions in the opium trade, then even more in Shanghai real estate. At one point, Victor Sassoon owned more than 1900 buildings in Shanghai. His other love was horses, and he once quipped, “There is only one race greater than the Jews, and that’s the derby.”

At the turn of the century, Ashkenazi Jews began flooding Shanghai from Russia. Three waves of Russian Jewish immigration followed periods of rising anti-Semitism in Russia: the first in 1904, followed the Russo-Japanese war, the second occurred in 1906 with the outbreak of pogroms, and finally in 1917, the third wave came as a result of the Russian civil war.

With the influx of Ashkenazi Jews to the Hongkou neighborhood, the area was nicknamed “little Vienna.” The area teemed with Jewish-owned shops and kosher delicatessens. Numerous synagogues were built, including the Ohel Moishe synagogue that still exists today as a small museum for Shanghai’s Jewish past.
In the lead-up to World War II, Shanghai became a refuge for many Jews fleeing Europe. When doors were closing to the European Jewish refugees, Shanghai¹s colonial status as a free port allowed it to welcome the displaced Jews. Shanghai was one of the few remaining places that did not require papers or a visa for entry. From 1939 to 1941, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews immigrated to Shanghai to escape Nazi persecution.
With the coming of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, the Japanese authorities designated the Jewish as “stateless refugees”and confined their residence and businesses to a somewhat benign ghetto in the Hongkou neighborhood. The ghetto was wall-less but guarded. Meanwhile, the already established Shanghai Jewish community was able to move freely throughout the city to provide provisions for the refugees. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that aided the refugees in many parts of the world, aided the Jewish refugees in Shanghai as well.

With the end of World War II, and the rise of Communist China, almost all of the Shanghai Jewish community immigrated to America, Canada, Australia and Israel. Traces of the community can still be found in the Hongkou neighborhood, with its European-style tenement houses. In the back alleys of Hongkou, traces of the Jewish community can be found in the form of a door grill shaped like a Magen David and nail holes where mezuzot used to hang. In the heart of the neighborhood is the Huoshan Park; there is a small memorial, written in Chinese, English and Hebrew, to the “stateless refugees” who found haven in Shanghai.

Visiting the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, I was met by Mr. Wang, the diminutive Chinese caretaker of the synagogue. Mr. Wang, today an octogenarian, grew up in the neighborhood, side-by-side with the Jewish families. Mr. Wang shows visitors a video about the Jews of Shanghai, and takes them on a brief tour of the old synagogue and answers any questions that visitors might have about the Jewish community of Shanghai. He expressed a fond recollection of the Jewish community in the area, and noted that both people suffered persecution: the Jews under the Nazis and the Chinese under the Japanese.

Today, the Shanghai Jewish community is the largest in China, numbering around 1,500. It is comprised of a smattering of Jews from all over the world. Shanghai’s role as a center of international trade and investment brings numerous businesspeople to its shores. Meanwhile, Chabad Shanghai runs a Jewish center, complete with kosher cafe, children’s school and weekly Shabbat services. They also have a kosher take-out service that will deliver kosher meals to hotels and offices. There is even a Jewish Shanghai tour, offered by Dvir Bar-Gal (

www.shanghai-jews.com). Bar-Gal is an Israeli living in Shanghai, and gives a very thorough tour of Shanghai’s Jewish history. The history of the Jewish community of Shanghai is a storied one; meanwhile the story of the present Jewish community is being written as fast as the skyline grows.

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