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Jewish History in Shanghai

posted Jun 25, 2010, 11:26 PM by Unknown user



There are 3 distinct chapters of Jewish history in Shanghai, all taking place from 1850-1950.  


The first Jewish group to leave a mark were Iraqi Jews.  After the Opium Wars in China (between Britian and China) that ended around 1840, there was a large market for opium trade.  David Sassoon, the leader of a family from Baghdad, moved to Bombay, dealing with cotton.  In 1845 he sent his second son, Elias David Sassoon, to take advantage of the opium trade.  As Elias' business grew, he brought in more Iraqi orthodox Jews to help with the financing, and eventually the number swelled to about 1,000.  One of these was Eli Khadouri, whose family ended becoming mega-millionairs, owning the Penninsula hotel branch and the largest electricity company in Hong Kong today.  They are also famous philanthropists, having 2 Khadouri schools in Israel and more around the world, especially in Far East Asia. 


Another worker for Sassoon was Silus Chardoon.  Chardoon was a very large but poor man when he started working for Sassoon.  Because of his size, he began working as a rent collector.  As China was run through many under the table deals, he began making connections, and within 40 years became the richest person in the Far East, mainly as a real estate owner.  He basically developed Nanjing Road, which is the major artery of Shanghai, at one point owning 40% of the land along it.  He had 19 children.  When the cultural revolution in China came about in 1949, the Communist government took all of his families land and redistributed it to the people, which ended Chardoon's fortune.  However, many of the major buildings - including the very famous Peace Hotel and many other landmarks still present today, were developed by Chardoon.  


The second Jewish group to leave their mark were from Russia.  As anti-semitism and progroms against Jews around 1900 (under the czar) intensified, it became unpleasant for Jews to be in Russia.  Many Jews that served in the military, many of whom for 25 years of service fighting for Russia against Japan in the Far East, never returned to Russia. Many of these Jews went to Beijing (including, for example, Ehud Olmerts family), but in 1920, as Shanghai's reputation for an economic hub grew, they mostly left for Shanghai.  The Russian Jews, having a different culture and lower economic status than the Iraqi Jews, did not mix - like rice and noodles.  The approximately 5,000 Russian Jews did, however, develop their own European style culture - including restaurants, theatres, etc. - in Shanghai.   


In the 1930's conditions in Europe became intensely bad for Jews, at its pinnacle Kristellnacht (the night of broken glass).  At the time, the Japanese and Chinese fought, and Japan controlled much of China, including Shanghai.  Still, as Shanghai had many influences, it was one of the only open-port cities in the world, where people could just come without visas or passports.  Between 1840 and 1920, Shanghai grew to become the 4th largest city in the world and the financial center of Asia, much of it due to the open-port philosophy.  One interesting aspect of this policy was that many former criminals, as a result, came to Shanghai, which led to many gangs, prostitution, etc., eventually calling Shanghai the "whore" of the orient for this reason.  


Around the world, Jews had no place to go.  The famous Evian conference that dealt with Jewish refugees, for example, did little to help Jews escape.  Shanghai, therefore, offered a unique opportunity for those that could get there.  2 very notable, but today still relatively unknown, righteous gentiles deserve a great deal of credit for their good deeds.  


First, Sugi Hara, a Japanese consulate in Lithuania, allowed Jews from Poland to go through Lithuania, then on to Russia, and finally to China.  About 2,000 family permits (for a total of 4,000-5,000 people) were allowed through to China as a result of Sugi Hara.  This includes one entire congregation of 380 orthodox Jews that picked up together and relocated.  They prayed at Bet Aharon Synagogue in Shanghai, which was built by the Iraqi Jew, Sassoon, and still exists today.  Eventually, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, these permits stopped and Jewish immigration through this channel was closed off.  


Another very notable righteous gentile, and perhaps the one responsible for saving more Jews than any other, was Dr. Feng Shun Ho.  He worked at the Chinese consulate in Vienna, and gave about 10,000 Jews visas to go through Vienna on boats, through the Suez Canal that eventually reached Shanghai.  Most of Dr. Ho's permits came in 1938-1939, after Kristellnacht.  For several reasons Dr. Ho was not recognized as a righteous gentile until the late 1990's, when Yad Vashem gave him his official status. This was for several reasons.  First, he issued the visas in secret, and often did not even meet the people for whom he issued them.  Next, he signed and did all the paperwork in Chinese, so Jews were never able to read the Visas.  Finally, he was a very humble man, and the extent of his efforts were only realized and publicized in the early 1990s, right before he died, by his daughter, who was living in San Francisco with him.  Until this day, there isn't one memorial dedicated to Dr. Ho, though there are small displays about him in several museums around the world. 


Conditions for Jews in Shanghai were not so great.  In 1937, the gestapo sent Colonel Joseph Meisinger, the "butcher from Warsaw", to implement the final solution in Shanghai.  He came up with several plotts to destroy the Jews in China, such as isolating them on an island then performing experiments on them and gassing them.  However, the Japanese (who ruled China at the time) did not have anti-semitic attitudes.  The Germans did, however, exert their influence (as an ally of Japan) and eventually did succeed in influencing them to put the Jews in a ghetto in Shanghai.  Unlike Europe, the Jewish ghetto was mixed, with 20,000 Jews now forced to live in the same quarters with 100,000 Chinese.  Instead of walls there were checkposts, and many Jews were able to come and go for trade.  In fact, a Japanese soldier, who had a Napoleonic personality and was famous for standing on his chair and hitting those who asked for permits to exit, was in charge at the time.  Still, the ghettos were very unsanitary, and out of the 20,000 Jews living there throughout WW2, 2,000 were killed by diseases and malnutrition.  Jews were supported financially by several of the wealthy Iraqi Jews (who did not have to live in the ghettos because it only applied to immigrants that came after 1937), as well as the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee), that actually ran a soup-kitchen that fed nearly 8,000 Jewish ghetto residents every day.  


Today, although some parts of the ghetto are destroyed, as China even recently has built new roads through there, in part to add access to the main financial center of Shanghai as well as to prepare for the 2010 expo, people can still walk around and see the ghetto.  Michal Blumenthel, the US Secretary of the Treasury under Jimmy Carter (from 1977-79) grew up in the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai, among others.  Even today, there are Chinese people living in the ghetto who remember the Jewish children giving them chocolates.  


On July 17th 1945, two weeks before Hiroshima and the end of WW2, US airplanes mistakenly dropped a bomb on the ghetto, killing 32 Jews.  They were aiming for a Japanese prison which was located nearby.  These people killed almost survived WW2 and the holocaust, making their deaths all the more tragic.  After WW2, many Jews who were affluent before WW2 but suffered for many years in the ghetto, left Shanghai.  Many of them left to Australia and America, particularly as Communism took hold in 1949.  


There were 4 Jewish cemetaries in Shanghai, however all 4 were destroyed by 1998 - not intentionally.  One became a factory, another a futuristic hotel, a third a muslim cemetary, and a 4th a park.  Today, Dvir, the man that gave us the tour, is busy with a project collecting the old Jewish headstones and trying to reassemble them in a memorial for Jews that lived and died in Shanghai.  He has collected over 85 headstones over the past 8 years, and is busy fighting the government trying to find a location in Shanghai for the memorial.  Currently they are at a frustrating impasse.