Shanghai’s Jewish Past Rediscovered


shanghai-jewishrefugeesEver since Shanghai’s last Jewish resident, Max Liebowitz, passed away in 1982, not a single Jew lived in the Chinese city, which was very cosmopolitan before the Communist Revolution in 1949¬†and a refuge for Jews fleeing the Nazis.

The story of Yeshivas Mir is well known. In Shanghai the kehiloh is vaguely remembered as poor refugees, in contrast to the wealthy Jews from Baghdad.

To mark Expo 2010 a Le Monde reporter set out in search of the city’s Jewish past and found a few relics of the Jews’ long stay still remain. In the French Quarter, which was once home to many Jews, a Mogen Dovid can be seen on the doorway of homes here and there. In the Jewish ghetto the bulldozers left a handful of Viennese-style homes intact for now.

The city’s Jewish community hailed from many different locations and stayed for years. The first to arrive were from Bombay (now Mumbai), originally from Iraq, who came in the mid-19th century. By 1934 some 19,000 of the city’s 39,000 foreigners were Jewish, including 700 Sephardic Jews. Of the 99 members of the stock exchange, 38 were Jewish.

“The Sephardic Jews from Baghdad played a major role in commercial life, beyond their numbers,” writes the Le Monde reporter. The most famous of them was Victor Sassoon, a pilot in the British Air Force during World War I, who built the Cathay Hotel, which the Chinese communists renamed the Peace Hotel. American tourists visit the hotel as a Jewish site from a bygone world, though in reality it has no ties to Judaism.

Jews arrived in Shanghai in waves from British India in the 19th century and from czarist Russia in the early 20th century. Russian Jews fled from pogroms and from the Jewish colony set up by Czar Nikolai II in Manchuria. The czar deceived the Jews with pledges of freedom of worship, while his real aim was to settle Chinese territory with Russians. Later refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution arrived.

With the rise of the Nazis, 20,000 Jews from Eastern and Central Europe – including 2,000 chareidi Jews traveling with Yeshivas Mir – were granted entry into the port city without visas. They arrived empty-handed and had to live under trying conditions.

Dvir Bar-Gal, presented as an Israeli expert on Jewish Shanghai, described the gap between Bombay’s well-to-do Jews sitting in coffee shops while smoking cigarettes, and the refugees from Nazi Europe who had nothing to eat.

The Chinese recall the decision by the Japanese in 1943 to prohibit the Jews from leaving the Viennese Quarter in Hong Kong, which turned into a ghetto. The Japanese, allied with the Nazis, stood up to the Germans’ pressure to annihilate the Jewish residents, but they did tighten supervision of the ghetto upon entering the war.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese adopted a harsher stance toward Jews from every kehiloh. The Jews of Bombay were placed in camps as British subjects. Two thousand died as a result of the crowded conditions.

Among the handful of relics that remain of the only ghetto in Far East Asia is Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which was turned into a museum of Shanghai’s Jewish past.

{Deiah Veidibur/Noam Newscenter}


  1. The lead up to this post is rather interesting.
    I was in Shanghai for Shabbos last week and I can tell you that there are 5 minyanim every shabbos morning in Shanghai. (Including one recently [re]started in the pre war Ohel Rochel shul.) Most of the mispalelim are transient business or kashrus people, but quite a few are permanent enough to be called “residents” of the city.