Shanghai  a city for Jews in China

Shanghai holds a particular place in the lives of many Australian Jews. For some it was their family home for generations; for others it was part of their lives in China; for most it was a place of refuge in flight from the horrors of the Holocaust.


Jews had been part of Chinese life since early in the Christian era. Jewish traders from Mesopotamia plied the Silk Road across Asia, with a major settlement identified at Kaifeng in Henan early in the second Christian Millennium. That community was in the final stages of disintegration, its synagogue destroyed in civil unrest in the 1840s, when the next Jewish community was established in Shanghai. David Sassoon, a Baghdadi merchant based in Bombay, opened a trading house (exporting silver and tea, importing opium and textiles) in 1845, bringing in many of his Sephardic co-religionists. They formed the basis for the famous Jewish families of the city  Kadourie, Ezra, Abrahams, Hardoun  and those who served in the religious institutions they established  such as the great Ohel Rachel and the Beth Aharon. The Sephardic Jews followed the rites of the Babylonian tradition, maintaining links with the Jewish centres of Baghdad.


By the late 1890s a new community appeared in Shanghai. Russian Jews had started to come into northern China when Tsarist Russia gained a concession for its Chinese Eastern Railway, from Manchouli on the Siberian border to Dairen on the Pacific coast. The concession created a Russian colony with extra-territorial rights, its central city growing out of the former fishing village of Harbin. Some of the Russian Jews who went to Harbin and the other CER towns such as Heilar, moved south to Shanghai. The CER was a safe haven  for Jews  where the restrictions imposed on them by the Pale of Settlement in Russia did not apply. In addition it attracted many of the Jewish Russian soldiers demobbed after the defeat of the Russians by the Japanese in 1905.  These soldiers brought their families from the west, and were joined by some of the Siberian Jewish families from cities like Vladivostok in the wake of rising anti-Semitism in Russia.


While Jews were not allowed to work for the Railway itself, they provided much of the civil infrastructure  food and drink, hotels (the famous Hotel Moderne built by Caspé) and banks.  They also worked as engineers, doctors, teachers and dentists. By the early 1930s there were about 15,000 Jews among the 100,000 Russians in Harbin. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 was followed by the Soviet sale of the CER to the Manchukuo puppet government in 1935. The invasion created significant changes for Jews  there were a series of kidnapping and murders, by gangs of Chinese criminals linked to the Japanese secret police and White Russian fascists.  The Jews began to leave Harbin at that time  some for the international settlement at Tientsin, but mostly heading for Shanghai. Many however took up the Soviet invitation to go back to the new Russia. These Harbintsy , as they came to be called, were targeted by Stalin after 1937, with many being executed as Japanese spies .


By the late 1930s there were over 6000 Russian Jews in Shanghai, outnumbering the 1200 or so Sephardis. There were many more White Russians  Jews and non-Jews meeting and interacting in many organizations. For Russian Jews, there was the Shanghai Jewish Club in Bubbling Well Road, and for many, the Shanghai Soviet Club. They also built their own Ashkenazi rite synagogues  such as the Ohel Moishe in Hongkew, a suburb of Shanghai, and in Rue de la Tour in the French Concession.


The initial stage of Nazi anti-Semitism in Germany (and after 1937 in Austria) focussed on the expulsion of Jews from the Reich. As the world closed its doors to the refugees, and Britain blocked emigration to Palestine, Shanghai, a place of free entry, became one of the few places that offered haven. The expulsion of Jews (facilitated by Adolf Eichmann s office in Vienna) towards Shanghai also became increasingly difficult as 1939 opened. The international Shanghai Municipal Council, dominated by British and American commercial interests, sought to halt the inflow of refugees. The leaders of the Jewish community  Sephardic, Russian and other European, set up a Committee to assist the refugees  though they too were concerned about the numbers arriving in the city.


A bizarre debate developed, with the British seeking Japanese military support (Japan by then controlled the Chinese city and Hongkew) to forbid the entry of the refugees, and turn them back. The Nazis pressed the Japanese to keep Shanghai open, while the Italians also urged the Japanese not to halt the lucrative trade in refugees who mostly used Italian shipping lines from Genoa. The European war closed off the sea option in September 1939.  By 1942 the Final Solution ended any hope of escape  though Jews were still making the journey from Vienna via Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow to Manchouli and Dairen until the outbreak of war between the USSR and Germany in mid 1941.  By the end of 1941 when the Pacific War broke out there were about 18,000 Reich refugees in Shanghai.


The final refugee group to arrive in Shanghai took two years to make the trek across Asia from Poland. In the first few weeks of September 1939 some 300,000 of the Jews living in western Poland fled east towards the Soviet occupied territory. Some of these headed north for then independent Lithuania, and found temporary refuge in the city of Vilna/Vilnius, then a Polish city with a large Jewish population. In mid 1940 the Soviets invaded Lithuania, and many Jews sought to escape again. In a twist of fate, the Japanese consul Sugihara Chiune, who had come from Harbin, agreed to provide Japanese transit visas for those with entry permits  to countries like Haiti or Curacao. In early 1941 some 4000 Jews left Lithuania across Siberia. They included the whole of the Yeshiva from Mir, plus many urban Polish Jewish families. From Vladivostok they sailed to Japan where they were looked after by the Eastern Jewcom, with support from the US based Jewish JOINT Committee.  The Japanese expelled the thousand or so who could not get visas for elsewhere, to Shanghai in late 1941.


When the Japanese took control of Shanghai on December 8 1941 there probably about  26,000 Jews in the city  from the wealthy Sephardic families, to the nearly starving refugees in the slums of Hongkew. The Japanese dealt with each group rather differently.  The Japanese Army took over the International Settlement, leaving the French Concession more or less alone  by then France was under Vichy control and an ally of Germany. All allied nationals were rounded up, and interned in camps  a story told by Stephen Spielberg in his film of Empire of the Sun .


For the Sephardic Jews the next 40 months would split families and generate crises in the community. The Jews with British papers (e.g. born in Aden or Hong Kong) were deemed enemies , and interned. Their Shanghai-born relatives or those with other countries  papers were not touched. Danny Moalem, son of the Ohel Rachel shamas, was interned  yet Nissim Cunio, grandson of a former rabbi of the synagogue, was left free. Cunio was to be gaoled later in the War when he was caught by the Japanese trying to take food to his father in one of the camps. Life in the camps was frugal  with little to do, with less and less food available as the War worsened for the Japanese.


Russian Jews (mainly living in Hongkew if poorer, or inthe French Concession) remained outside the round-up of the allies , as Japan was not at war with the USSR, and had no desire to trigger conflict to its north. There was however considerable anti-Semitism in the Japanese controlled media, reflecting the influence of White Russian fascists. Families such as Rachel Kofman and her husband Vladimir, whose father had been one of those kidnapped and murdered in Harbin, continued with their lives. Some became involved in businesses related to the Japanese occupation. In some cases businesses owned by American or British companies continued under Japanese control. Efim Krouk, whose father had returned to the USSR from Harbin and perished there as a Harbintsy , continued to work for an American company, but under Japanese control.  He also established a bakery in Dalny Rd., in Hongkew.


The central European Jews lived mainly in the area of Hongkew, just across the Garden Bridge from the original International Settlement. The area had been badly damaged in the 1937 fighting between Japanese marines and Chinese soldiers  and rebuilt by work-gangs of the refugees during 1939 and 1940.  They found work in many ways  some in their own professions as doctors, dentists and even lawyers. Some, like Lisl Rosner, became teachers at the Kadourie-supported Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, which many of the Hongkew refugee children attended. Her father was a musician who was able to secure work as a member of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Fred Gunsberger, a refugee from Vienna who had escaped through Germany, Poland and the USSR to Manchuria, worked for a Japanese dairy company.


The small community of Polish Jews were supported in part by the Polish Government in Exile and the American JOINT Committee. The over 200 rabbinical students and rabbis of the Mir Yeshiva were given the use of the Beth Aharon Sephardic synagogue.  Polish residents  certificates were issued, and communal kitchens established.  Estera Weyland, a Sugihara survivor, took responsibility for running one of those kitchens, initially in the French Concession near the Jewish Hospital, and then in Hongkew in a tiny lane-house in Tongshan Rd. The family used to buy its bread from Krouk s bakery.


In late 1942 the Gestapo s Col. Meisinger arrived in Shanghai, bearing the orders from Berlin to ensure the Japanese helped organise the Final Solution for all the Jews in the city. Jewish leaders discovered his plan and worked with the Japanese consul Shibata to undermine his influence.  Ultimately the Japanese rejected the Nazi demands, but created instead a Designated Area in Hongkew in which all post 1937 refugees would be forced to live. This ghetto  became home to over twenty thousand Jews from mid 1943  most living in cramped and unhygienic conditions, squeezed into heims , or as families living in single rooms. Sephardic and Russian families provided support to the refugees, often inviting them to their homes for the Sabbath meal. The American JOINT committee also re-organised its facilities so that funds were provided through the Swiss Red Cross. As the War progressed these resources were squeezed; they were used to support a number of communal kitchens.


The Ghetto was controlled by Sgt Ghoya, a Japanese military police officer. He was renowned as a vicious and egotistical martinet, using his power to humiliate Jews seeking his permission to move in and out of the ghetto area. He described himself as King of the Jews . Many refugees report his practice of standing on a table (he was quite small statured) and slapping the faces of those applicants for passes who displeased him.


Within the ghetto life was crowded but intense. Chusan Road served as a central road with cafes and meeting places. Many of the refugees could barely afford to use these facilities; Liesl Rosner (Gerber) remembers being invited out by young men for tea or cake. Some had passes to leave the Area on a regular basis. Rosner worked as a Music Appreciation teacher at the Kadourie SJYA school, just outside the ghetto boundary. Esther Szekeres, a Hungarian refugee, had chosen to live in Hongkew with her husband George, though her Hungarian passport allowed her to be identified as an Axis citizen, and she was therefore free to move about the city. She was a book-keeper in the French Concession for a nightclub owner. Bolek Jakubowicz made the long daily trip across the city to the Shanghai Jewish Club in Rue Pichon in the French Concession, where he worked as the accountant to the mainly Russian board. The teenage Marcel Weyland daily rode his bike to the Shanghai Jewish School in Seymour Road, where he was soon a top student. Fred Gunsberger ran his Ward Rd small margarine factory, which supplied the stuff to some of the Viennese cake shops in Chusan Rd.


In March 1945 American bombs rained down on the ghetto, aiming for but missing an adjacent munitions plant. Dozens of refugees were killed. The Kadourie school was just due to let its children go home  but its air raid warden told them to stay put  and they survived. Halina Jakubowicz remembers being hurled through a window in the Tongshan Rd communal kitchen where she worked with her mother.


Most of the refugees remember the end of the War as a moment when they heard the Internationale being sung in the late night streets by Russians. In his camp Danny Moalem woke to find the place deserted by its Japanese guards. In the ghetto Japanese shops were left open. Ghoya was seized and beaten. Russian Jews heard of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and its declaration of War a week before the bombing of Hiroshima.


With the arrival of American troops in support of the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek, life changed again. Many of the Jews found work with the new occupying power  George Szekeres, a mathematician, was sent to count American planes taking off; Bolek Jakubowicz worked as an accountant for the main US Post Exchange (PX) at the Shanghai race course. However the most stunning consequence of the Americans was the newsreels of the liberation of the concentration and death camps of the Nazis. Over a period of weeks the Jews from Europe had to come to terms with the horror of that tragedy  yet around them the post war culture of America swamped the city. Gone with the Wind  and Fantasia  played at cinemas, while the Symphony continued to perform; on the walls of Hongkew long lists of Holocaust names were placed by the Red Cross and Jewish agencies.


In the French Concession the Russian Jews re-established their lives, and began to take stock of the changing political landscape. Communist victories were reported from the north and west. The Nationalists were corrupt, looting and extorting the city. The refugees looked for a way out. For those with relatives in Australia, that could be the goal, as few wished to return to Europe. Many others, particularly the members of the popular Betar movement, planned to go to Palestine. The Sephardic Jews found a new order and realised that the lives they had known for generations were gone  many of the wealthiest members had escaped and moved their businesses out of China.



Over the four years up to the Communist victory and takeover of Shanghai, most of the Jews made their arrangements to leave. George Szekeres found a job as mathematician at Adelaide University.  Fred Gunsberger joined his brother in Sydney. Esther Weyland and her family joined her daughter in Sydney. Liesl Rosner stayed with the school until 1949 before leaving for Australia just before the Communist victory. Rachel Kofman abandoned her couterier business, and came to Australia, where her husband went into the meat business at Wagga. Danny Moalem stayed on at Aurora University to complete his engineering degree, having to argue with the Communist regime for permission to emigrate. Efim and Nora Krouk stayed in Shanghai after the Communist takeover, their Soviet papers of no use to emigration. He continued to run the Chess Club and jokes that the Communists wouldn t let him go until he had trained up enough local players. The family moved to Israel in 1957 then Hong Kong, and finally to Australia in 1975.


The Australian government initially allowed Jews from Shanghai to join the refugees from the Holocaust, who were seeking to join family members in Australia. However strong community resistance led Arthur Calwell, the Immigration Minister, to close down that access, and few were allowed in after 1947.  Many of the Shanghai Jews who finally came to Australia first went to other countries.




The families identified in this story are the participants in the electronic documentary, The Menorah of Fang Bang Lu , which will be available on computers provided for visitors to the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition Crossroads: Shanghai and the Jews of China  (opening October 17), and will later be accessible on line as a website. In November the Powerhouse Museum will host an exhibition celebrating the life of Herta Imhof (neé Rosenzweig), a museum volunteer, who spent the war years in Shanghai. In December the National Maritime Museum opens a year long exhibition on some of the Jews from China who came to Australia and their contribution to their new country  including a detailed assessment of the government prejudice which blocked the exodus to Australia so many sought. In February 2002, the 4A Gallery  (Asian Australian Artists  Association) will show a series of photographs of China taken in the 1940s by a young Reich refugee, Horst Einsfelder.