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Picture; A group of people at an event in Shanghai

Once upon a time, vibrant Jewish community appeared on the banks of Huangpu River in the old Shanghai, for a brief flash in the history. They thrived in China’s largest treaty port and unlike much of the world, nearly all the Jews survived the war in Shanghai.

Why Shanghai ?

There are quite a few historical facts you probably never knew!

1.According to Pan Guang – the head of the Center for Jewish studies and professor from The Shanghai Academy of Social Service – “ The Jews and China were always good friends. There's a real cultural connection between the Chinese and the Jews. The Chinese have been called the Jews of Asia, you know. Both emphasize family and education. And both build cultures, the oldest in the world. Both peoples also live in many places, but the people never change.”

2.Jewish history in China dates to at least the 8th century, when West Asian traders roamed the Silk Road. A Jewish settlement was established in the city of Kaifeng (now Henan province) where a synagogue was built in 1163 and thousands of Jews worshiped openly.

Picture; Former Synagogue in Kaifeng

Kaifeng today boasts some Hebrew writing on tombstones, but no living link to its Jewish past (although some residents claim Jewish blood). By the 20th century, the community in Kaifeng was eclipsed by cities like Harbin, Ningbo and Tianjin, which all had sizable Jewish settlements. Yet, none could rival Shanghai.

  3. A book by Herman Dicker  ‘Wanderers and Settlers in the Far East’  details three distinct periods of Jewish immigration to Shanghai:

I. In the 1800s, Jewish businessmen arrived from West Asia, mainly Baghdad. Among them were the Sassoons and the Kadoories, the latter one of Hong Kong's wealthiest families.

Picture source: Shanghai Social Diary; David Sassoon with sons
Picture source: The Peninsula Hotels - A journey through the Kadoorie Family

They financed some of Shanghai's finest colonial architecture, including the magnificent Children's Palace (formerly the Kadoorie estate, Marble Hall), the Art Deco Peace Hotel (then the Cathay Hotel – the pride of Victor Sassoon) and Shanghai Mansions.

Picture source:Wikimedia Commons; Children's Palace in Changning
Picture source:Wikimedia Commons; Shanghai Mansions in 20 North Suzhou Road

Sassoon’s building was used to process and illegally house at times, hundreds of refugees. In 1932, the Shanghai Stock Exchange listed almost 100 members; nearly 40% were Sephardic Jews. They joined the city's finest clubs, a privilege denied Jews even in liberal parts of Europe and America.As a measure of their security in Shanghai, flamboyant Victor Sassoon reportedly boasted, "There is only one race greater than the Jews, and that is the Derby."

II. In the early 1900s came the second wave of immigration that brought Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms (campaigns of repression) and, later, the Russian Revolution. Most settled in northern China. By 1910, Harbin had 1,500 Jews, but the number grew to 13,000 by 1929.

Picture source: The Jewish Community of China; A synagogue in Harbin

Many moved south to Shanghai after the Japanese took Manchuria in the early 1930s. The Russians did not mix much with Shanghai's Jewish elite. Russian Jews ran their own stores and restaurants, read Russian newspapers and enjoyed their own music and theater. Many settled in the French quarter, where they founded the Jewish Music Club (now the Shanghai Music Conservatory). There were conflicts, especially over religious issues, but the Jews were no different than Shanghai's tens of thousands of other foreigners, whether British, American, French, German or Japanese. All kept to classes defined by ethnic and economic lines. Otherwise, rules were few in Shanghai, and opportunities endless. The community was self-contained. There were seven synagogues, four cemeteries and a club where performances were given by some of Europe's finest musicians. Children attended a Jewish school financed by Horace Kadoorie.

III. Late 1930s brought the third phase of migration. Here’s how it happened.

Before Nazi policy turned actively genocidal in the late 1930s, exile turned out to be a     solution to the ‘Jewish Problem’. German and Austrian Jews, deprived of their citizenship rights, property and employment were encouraged to emigrate to any country that would have them. Unfortunately, the options were few.

In 1938, 6-15 July, the US President – Franklin D. Roosevelt - called a conference at Évian-les-Bains, France, to discuss the Jewish refugee problem with delegates of 32 countries. The great powers unanimously decided to shut borders to all but a small selection of Jewish refugees.

Picture; Evian Conference

Miraculously, not so small light appeared in this tunnel of misery and yes – it came from the city by the sea.

How come?

Shanghai required neither visas nor police certificates. It did not ask for affidavits of health, nor proof of financial independence. There were no quotas. That’s because the city at that time was in a state of total mess and a political anomaly. Control was split between Republic of China, Japan and France, Britain and US – countries that operated ‘self – governing’ concessions, free from Chinese law or influence.

Picture source:; German Jews arriving in Shanghai

Thus, an estimated 20,000 of Jews – mostly Austrian, German, Lithuanian and Polish, poured into Shanghai by 1939. Thousands arrived in rags, with neither entry permits nor any means of support. Housing for latecomers was extremely sparse - hundreds languished in temporary shelters. It was a constant struggle, but the community took care of itself.

Picture source:Asian Jewish Life; the living conditions in Shanghai Ghetto

4. Although Shanghai didn’t require entry papers, it was impossible to get there without transit visa. Fortunately, two compassionate Asian diplomats dared to work covertly and contrary to their superiors’ orders and saved thousands of human beings


Those were the Japanese consul general in Kovno ( Kaunas), Lithuania – Chiune Sempo Sugihara and Ho-Feng Shan, the Nationalist Chinese consul general in Vienna. Sugihara issued about 4000 (some sources claim it was even 6000) transit visas and Ho about 5000.The latter gained a well deserved nickname ‘The Schindler of China as he’s the one who alerted European Jewry to the fact that Shanghai was a ‘free port,’ open to all comers.

Picture; Ho-Feng Shan
Picture source:Ho - Feng Shan quotes

5. Before and during World War II, some of Shanghai's richest men conspired to save tens of thousands of Jews. Exactly how many is not known, but some historians say Shanghai saved more Jews from the Nazi Holocaust than all Commonwealth countries combined. Among them were hundreds of religious scholars.

Picture source:scmp; Shanghai Ghetto
Picture; living conditions in Shanghai Ghetto

6. In December 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which brought the U.S. into World War Two. Soon after, Japanese troops invaded Shanghai’s international settlements and took full control of the city. The foreigners from Allied nations (during World War II the chief Allied powers were Great Britain, France, The Soviet Union , The United states and China) were sent to prison camps.

German and Austrian Jews, the largest group, were considered stateless refugees, and were confined to Hongkou ghetto in 1943 (an area which became known as Shanghai Ghetto). Athough there were no walls enclosing the ghetto, and Jews there were treated benignly in comparison to their European counterparts.There were deprivations, limited movements and checkpoints.

Picture source:nytimes; Shanghai Ghetto today

7.The Japanese occupation united Shanghai’s Chinese and Jewish population as it brought them   a common enemy. Author Daniel Kalla has described the Shanghai ghetto as a “testament to human perseverance and dignity”.

A Jewish girl and her Chinese friends in the Shanghai Ghetto, from the collection of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

8.The ghetto, along with the rest of Shanghai, was officially liberated on September 3, 1945 in a combined American-Chinese effort. Some Shanghai-born Jews were sent to third countries.

Israel evacuated several ships of Jews from Shanghai as Mao Zedong's Red Army crept closer in 1948. Several towns in Israel were settled entirely by Shanghai survivors.

Picture source:Times of Israel; Shanghai Jewish refugees leaving Shanghai for new settlements

9. Afterward, virtually all trace of Jewish life in Shanghai was wiped away. Schools and shops closed, and most synagogues were demolished by China's new rulers. Shanghai remained unobservant of its Jewish legacy for three decades. Then, a group of dedicated scholars joined forces to preserve the heritage. They created associations, with ambitious names like the Center of Israel and Jewish Studies of the Chinese Institute for Peace and Development Studies. Eventually, all of these. blended into the Center of Jewish Studies, headed by Pan Guang. A young history professor from the Shanghai Academy of Social Service. Pan is the spokesman on the subject and published the first book in English and Chinese about Shanghai’sJewish community .

10.In 2007 Shanghai opened its first Jewish History Museum  at the site of the former Ohel Moshe or Moishe Synagogue, in the Tilanqiao Historic Area of Hongkou district. The museum features documents, photographs, films, and personal items documenting the lives of some of the more than 20,000 Jewish residents of the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees – Shanghai Ghetto

Picture; Jewish History Museum
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