The Jewish History of Shanghai
Click here for tours of Jewish Shanghai
Scroll down for Shanghai's amazing Jewish history.
The First Wave of Jewish Migration to Shanghai (1843-1920)
In the same treaty that ceded Hong Kong Island to the British as reparations for the Opium War (1839-1842), Shanghai and four other Treaty Ports along China's eastern coast opened to foreign traders. History records the first Jew to pass through Shanghai was a British soldier in 1841; however, the first Jewish settlers did not begin to arrive in Shanghai until 1848.
The First Wave of Jewish migration to Shanghai is marked by the arrival of Sephardic Jews from Baghdad and Bombay. The most successful of these-the Sassoons and Hardoons - built many of the city's greatest business empires, and many of the city's landmark buildings including Sassoon House, the Metropole Hotel, Grosvenor House, the Embankment Building, Hamilton House and Cathay Mansions.
In the 1870s, the Baghdadi community rented space for religious worship, and in 1887 organized the Beth EI Synagogue, predecessor to the Ohel Rachel Synagogue.
The Ohel Rachel Synagogue (Established 1920)
The Ohel Rachel Synagogue marked the culminating achievement of Shanghai's First Wave of Jewish immigrants. It was built to accommodate the community of Baghdadi Jews (which at its peak numbered 700), opened in March 1920, and was consecrated by Rabbi W. Hirsch for worship on January 23, 1921.
An imposing building, the Ohel Rachel Synagogue held up to 700 people in its cavernous sanctuary. Marble pillars flanked a walk-in ark (which once held 30 Torah scrolls) and wide balconies overlooked the sanctuary. The site hosted the Shanghai Jewish School (the 1932 building still stands on the left of the courtyard), a playground, library and mikveh. It was located on Seymour Road (now 500 North Shaanxi Road) and styled after the Spanish and Portuguese Bevis Marks (1701) and Lauderdale Road Synagogues (1896) in London.
Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon, a Baghdadi Jew, endowed the Synagogue in loving memory of his wife, Lady Rachel. When Sir Jacob died a few months prior to the Synagogue's completion, the Jewish community decided to dedicate it to Sir Jacob and his wife. Sir Jacob had also endowed Hong Kong's Ohel Leah Synagogue, dedicated to his mother, consecrated in 1900.
Today and for the future, the Ohel Rachel Synagogue remains the most significant symbol of the crucial Jewish role in Shanghai's history. Ohel Rachel was the first of seven synagogues built in Shanghai, and only one of two still standing Today. The other, the Ohel Moshe Synagogue located in the Hongkou district, hosts a museum dedicated to the history of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai.
The Second Wave (1920-1937)
The Second Wave was marked by the migration of thousands of Russian Jews first to Northeast China, and later to Shanghai. This period also saw a substantial increase in the wealth of the Baghdadi Jewish community, who organized charitable works for their Russian brethren.
Shanghai boomed in the 1920s, as did the Baghdadi and Ashkenazi communities, which had grown to a population of approximately 1,700. Through their activities in real estate and the stock exchange, these Jews played an active and important role in the development of Shanghai. The community maintained three synagogues, two Baghdadi and one Ashkenazi, a school, two cemeteries, a hospital, club, bakeries, meat shops, and much more.
Fleeing pogroms and revolutions in Russia, Russian Jews traveled via Siberia to cities in North-east China such as Harbin, Tianjin and Dalian. But it was not until the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 that Russian Jews moved to Shanghai in great numbers. Numbering 4,500 at their peak in the 1930s, Russian Jews were relatively poor compared to their Baghdadi counterparts. Some took jobs as small merchants, opened coffee shops, or were musicians who left a lasting mark on local Shanghainese society.
In 1928, the Russian Jews invited Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi, a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to lead their community. Much loved and respected for his untiring efforts and devotion on behalf of all Shanghai Jewry, Rabbi Ashkenazi led the community until his departure to New York in 1949.
The Third Wave (1938-1952)
During World War II, the city of Shanghai provided refuge to a third wave of Jews escaping from persecution in Europe. During this era, there was a great contrast between the stateless refugees who fled from war-torn Europe and the established Jewish entrepreneurs who were prospering in Shanghai. Now, the Sephardic and Russian business communities worked together to organize food, shelter and clothing for the European refugees.
From 1938 on, some 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria escaped to Shanghai, the only place in the world that did not require a visa to enter. Among them was Michael Blumenthal, who later became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter Administration, and the late Shaul Eisenberg, who founded and ran the Eisenberg Group of Compalnies in Israel.
Between 1939 and 1940, approximately 2,000 Polish Jews escaped to Shanghai, avoiding certain death. Among these, all the teachers and students of the Mir Ygshiva, some 400 in number, miraculously survived and continued their studies in the Beth Aharon Synagogue, the only place of worship with space enough to hold the entire Yeshiva. They escaped Poland through Vilna, obtained transit visas to Japan from Sugihara Chiune, the Japanese consul in Kovno, and finally made their way to Shanghai.
The Japanese invaded China in 1937, and later occupied the area around Shanghai. From December 1941 to 1945, the Japanese interned the population of Shanghai Jews who were citizens of Allied countries. "Stateless refugees" from Germany, Austria, or Poland were relocated to a ghetto in Hongkou ("Hong Kew"), while those from neutral countries like Iraq and Russia were left alone. Despite these difficult conditions, the Jewish community adapted to retain its culture, tradition and social lifestyle.
By the end of the war, Shanghai was home to approximately 24,000 Jews. After the end of the war in 1945 and with the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the community dwindled, with many Jews emigrating to Israel, the United States, Australia and Hong Kong.