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Talk by Renée Dangoor in October 1990 at Ta’ali, London

Scattered far and wide throughout the world today are the remnants of what was once a community entitled by every known definition to be called “unique”.

It will never reassemble. There will never be another like it. It took a hundred years to come into being, less than five to break it up. Shanghai used to be called “Paris of the Orient”. For a city of its size and importance, Shanghai had the most alluring small-town atmosphere, friendly and intimate. It was an example to the world of how people of sixty-three nations, of diverse colour and creed, could live and do business together.

For 70 years Jews in Shanghai were all of Baghdad origin. The Jew had a good reputation among the Chinese. Between 1917 and 1925 5,000 Jews came from Russia and Siberia, and in the 1930’s, 20,000 German and Austrian Jews arrived. When all the doors of the world were closed to them, only Shanghai allowed them in, even without a passport.

The Baghdadian Jews, among them the Sassoons, were the most prosperous, as they came to China for business reasons, and not as refugees; but the others soon succeeded.

The three distinct communities, Sephardi, Russian and German each had its own committee, synagogues and rabbis, but they shared hospitals and other amenities.

From the beginning, Shanghai was as open to Jews as to anyone else; and from the beginning, Jews came. One of the first Jewish companies to be established there as early as the 1840’s, was David Sassoon and Sons Limited, which set up a Shanghai branch of its already successful Bombay trading and banking company. Elias Sassoon, who came originally from Iraq, was soon joined by other Sephardi (Middle Eastern) Jews - the Abrahams, Hardoons, Kadoories and others, and most of these families, in time, took British citizenship. In pre-war Shanghai, the Sephardim represented wealth and power out of all proportion to their numbers. Silas Hardoon, for example, had the unique distinction of being appointed to both governing councils - the international and French - at the same time; the company run by Sir Victor Sassoon, a slim, greying, dignified millionaire known as “The J. P. Morgan of the Orient”, owned Shanghai real estate valued at nearly nine million pounds sterling. The president and more than a third of the 99 members of the Shanghai Stock Exchange were Sephardi Jews. Yet, in the 30’s there were only 700 Sephardim in Shanghai.

From around the turn of the century, an expanding community of Ashkenazi Jews, mostly from Russia, joined the Sephardim. They came to Shanghai in waves after each of the successive upheavals of the tsar’s empire. The final contingent arrived from Manchuria in the early1930’s, driven out by the Japanese. By the time Japan took control of the Chinese area of shanghai in 1937, the Russian Ashkenazim numbered about 4,000. Some, particularly the earlier arrivals, had been successful. They, or their children, were now part of the comfortable middle-class foreign communities in the settlement or the French Concession. Others were still trying to pull themselves up from the bottom. Almost invariably, the least affluent lived in an area called Hongkew, a riverside district also heavily populated by Japanese. This was a commercial area, not grand international commerce as on the Bund, but local trading; farmers’ markets, hat shops, pickle shops, and Chinese and Japanese department stores. The cost of living in Hongkew was a third less than in other parts of the settlement.

During the mid-1930’s, the Ashkenazi community of Shanghai was swelled by increasing numbers of refugees from Germany and Austria. These early emigrés were far more financially secure than those who fled later. They had the time to organise their departure – either by ship, or through Northern China to Shanghai. Unlike those who followed later, these refugees, some fifteen hundred by the end of 1938, had been allowed to take a certain amount of money with them, and generally they had not been relieved of all their personal possessions at the German border. They were, therefore, better prepared economically and psychologically to survive the devastating change from Central Europe to the heart of the Orient. Both waves of refugees settled in Hongkew at least at first.

Of eleven hundred Polish Jews who arrived in the late summer of 1941 no more than a handful had to spend any time in a Shanghai “heim”, where as many as 200 had to live in a room. Not that where they did live, was so much better. Within a few weeks, the Mir Yeshiva was set up for living and learning, in and around the beautiful Beth Aharon Synagogue in Hongkew. But for the rest, aside from a few dozen, like The Amshenover rabbe, who had been welcomed into the pleasant French Concession, housing meant half a floor or less in one of the 12 by 30 foot houses that lined the close dank lanes of Hongkew. But they didn’t care. The 1,100 Polish refugees worked themselves into the Shanghai economy as best they could as waiters, second-hand dealers, tailors and so on.

Among the Russian Jews of Shanghai. Yiddish, that magnificently expressive language made up of German, Hebrew, Russian and miscellaneous bits of half a dozen other East European tongues – had been spoken only at home. Suddenly the words came out in public. Yiddish newspapers and magazines appeared. Yiddish theatre was suddenly right there in their midst. Even on radio for a brief period every day, one could hear Yiddish newscasts and music commentary. With the arrival of he Poles, “to be a Jew in Shanghai” took on new meaning.

Some months before Pearl Harbour, in the late summer of 1941, Heinrich Himmler’s plan for the total annihilation of the entire Jewish people had been openly adopted as Nazi policy. In every country where Jews were found, they were to be sifted out of the general population and exterminated. In July 1942, proposals in hand, Meisinger boarded a submarine for Tokyo Bay for the trip to Shanghai. When he arrived at the Japanese Consulate, he made this recommendation.

“There are now in Shanghai, over 17,000 Jews who have chosen to leave the fatherland. In January of this year, the Germany government very wisely deprived these traitors of their citizenship. They are enemies of the German state and potential saboteurs against you, our ally. For the good or our alliance, we strongly feel that the entire Jewish plague must be eradicated from Shanghai. You need not worry about the mechanics, we will handle all the details. You will merely reap the rewards of your labours: you will inherit everything the Jews presently own and control.”

They planned to round them up from their Synagogues on the Jewish New Year, which was on the evening of September 1st.

The Vice-Consul of Japan Mr Shibata couldn’t take his eyes off Meisenger, who described several “experiments” that had been devised at Bergen-Belsen. Shibata was a bright fellow, and he was shocked. He was familiar with the position of the refugees, and how that position had deteriorated. But this? Where was the justification for anything like this?

He went to see one of the men he most admired in Shanghai – Reuben Abraham (my mother’s cousin). “Mr Abraham”, he finally blurted out, “we have to talk, I can’t give you any details, but the Jews in Shanghai are in he greatest danger. Please, we must have a meeting soon, tonight, tomorrow at the latest.” Abraham said, “Tonight and tomorrow are the Sabbath, you know. The Sabbath is a day of holiness, a day of rest.”

“Mr Abraham, this is not a social gathering. It is a matter of life and death for all the Jews here.” Mr Abraham only shook his head. “It’s more than the Jew protecting the Sabbath, Mr Shibata; the Sabbath protects the Jew.”

Mr Shibata felt he had to do something. He knocked on the door of Mr Ellis Hayim, who was less strict in his observance of the Sabbath.

Early the following day seven men, representing the Sephardi group (Ellis Hayim and Michael Speelman), the Russian (Boris Topas and Joseph Bitker), and the German Jews (Dr Kardegg, Fritz Kaufman and Robert Peritz) met. As Shibata described the details of Meisenger’s meeting, the atmosphere of the room grew heavier. The Jews were united in terror.

They decided to send someone higher-up to the Foreign Ministry representative. To make a long story short, the “Kempeitai” chief, when he heard what had been suggested, reacted with fury. Who had said such a thing? Where had he got his information? Terrified, the man implicated the Jewish leaders. Within 48 hours, the vice-consul Shibata and those seven men, were arrested, and put into Bridge House Prison. The terrible treatment they suffered is written in the book, The Fugu Plan, by Martin Tokayer and Mary Savertz. After weeks of beatings, Shibata was deported in shame back to Tokyo, under the threat of immediate execution if he so much as set foot in China in the next 50 years. The seven community leaders were punished severely, but they were not executed. Before being freed, each was subjected to a stern lecture by the prison sergeant. “How could you believe such nonsense, that we Japanese would harm you? We are your friends. We have always treated you well. Now go – do not spread any more false rumours. And tell your co-religionists that no harm will come to them from the Japanese.” And none did. Shibata had been unwise in his initial reaction to Meisinger’s proposals. Slaughtering the Jews of Shanghai did not bear scrutinising by Tokyo. Meisinger’s dream was doomed. Even to accommodate her ally, the Japanese government was unwilling to engage in a “final solution”.

The Japanese did not carry out a pogrom – instead they created the first Jewish ghetto in Asia.

In 1942, my late father, Mr Maurice Dangoor, was elected President of the Sephardi Community, and all through the war he had to give the Japanese monthly statements of income and expenditure. He was called from time to time to various departments and subjected to searching questions about the Community. The Russian Jews remained free to do business, as Russia entered the war only a short time before the end of the war.

Josef Tekoah’s father was President of the Ashkenazi Community. He, Joseph, became the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, and then Chancellor of the Ben Gurion University. He died in 1992. Just before the war about 250 Polish Jews belonging to the “Mirer Yeshiva” arrived in Shanghai. It was one of the most important Yeshibas in Poland. They all studied the Talmud the whole day and 60 or 70 of them could recite the Babylonian Talmud by heart.

The Sephardi Community gave them a Synagogue “The Beth Aharon” for their studies. After the war this Yeshiba went to settle in America.

The Joint Distribution of America sent monthly help to all German Jews. The USA Government allowed the Joint to send through Switzerland US $30,000 monthly. Another American Orthodox Society sent monthly help to the Yeshiba.

The German Jews were helped splendidly by the Joint. They had their Communal Kitchen, Hospital, Maternity Hospital and Synagogue. Just before the war Mr Horace Kadoorie, son of Sir Elly Kadoorie, collected money, mostly from the Sephardis, and built a school in Hongkew for 600 children, which at the same time became a Communal Centre for Games, Concerts and many other Communal activities. Unfortunately he died recently, so did his brother, Sir Laurence Kadoorie.

After 1910 the Baghdadi Community was officially organised as the Shanghai Jewish Community Association.

Early in the 20th century magnificent Synagogues were built. The Ohel Rachel Synagogue, by Sir Jacob Sassoon, named after his wife Lady Rachel, of Bombay, (the aunt of Mr Percy Gourgey). My husband and I visited it in May 1989, just before the serious trouble in China. It is now an Education Centre for the Chinese, and we were in touch with a Chinese Professor, who was trying to ask the authorities to put a plaque, saying that it was formerly a Jewish Synagogue. The other Synagogue was the Beit Aharon, built by Sllas Hardoon. The Ezra and Hardoon families started the Shanghai Jewish School shortly after 1900, and influential Jews founded the Shanghai Jewish Club.

I have heard it written that the Sassoons were so well-known at that time that their name was used by the Chinese for all the Jews. As in a story recounted by Evelyn Waugh of a Chinese servant explaining Good Friday to a friend. “Number One Sassoon gets nailed to a cross, and other Sassoons get angry.”

The Sephardi Jews concentrated in Shanghai after the Community dwindled in Hong Kong because of its lessened commercial importance. They were a clannish lot, they mixed little with the Russian Jews, although the latter were not slow to adapt themselves to the new situation, and quickly learned English, thus communication with other Jews became easier. But the children of both communities attended the Jewish school, which was conducted by Sephardim, many of them Indian born but Iraqi in origin, with a mixed staff of Englishmen and Jews, the language of instruction being English.

The Synagogue was the centre of Jewish life in the earlier days. The Beit Aharon Synagogue was named after the multi-millionaire Silas Hardoon who had provided the funds. In his rise to wealth in Shanghai, Hardoon was remarkable. Originally coming to Shanghai as a manager of one of the many Sassoon offices there, Hardoon did business on his own on the side, and later broke away. He concentrated on real estate and in those early days of the 20th century he bought plot after plot of land in what was to become prime property in down-town Shanghai.

This strange personality was something of a recluse and he lived only for his business. For years Hardoon had little to do with other Jews. He attended Synagogue regularly but gave little to the communal chest. In his middle age he married a Chinese woman, but there were no children. Before he built the Synagogue, he had adopted 11 children, some of them Jewish. Hardoon died in the 1930’s and was then estimated to be worth around $60 million, a fantastic sum at that time.

When my husband and I visited Shanghai in May 1989, just before the Tinnamen Square Massacre, there were only peaceful demonstrations taking place.

For me it was a search for my roots – the homes we lived in, our school, and the French Club. But I found I was a stranger in my own home town. For me Shanghai is a city of “Gones”. Gone is its reputation as the “Paris of the Orient”, although now there are foreigners who are bringing their skills, and capitalist vitality. Gone are the bright lights of night life. Shanghai is still a bustling, busy, crowded metropolis.

Standing out among the buildings is the Peace Hotel, formerly the Cathay Hotel, for many pre-war years Shanghai’s finest hotel, with its elegant stores, great dining-rooms and ballrooms. It belonged to Sir Victor Sassoon.

In 1946, after the war had ended, with the Chinese Communists sweeping the country, the Jews of Shanghai prepared to leave, some to Israel, and many to America.

After we returned back from Shanghai in May 1989 we received a letter from a Chinese Professor, who was very keen to accompany us after he heard my family had lived next door to the one he was now in. (Each room has been occupied by one family, as I am sure is still the case now).

This is what he wrote:
“Shortly after you left Shanghai in 1946 all the six houses in the terrace came into the possession of the Bank of Chinese Products, under the control of Mme. Chiang Kai-Chek’s brother. In 1949, when the old regime was overthrown, the People’s Bank of China took the houses over and let them to its employees.”

Recently I happened to find a very interesting book in the city library entitled China Hong Kong List which lists almost all the streets, houses and owners in Shanghai since 1935.

During the Second World War there were as many as 18,000 Jews in Shanghai, most of whom came from Europe to escape the Fascist persecution. After the war they began to leave for the U.S. and America. By 1949, when China was liberated, the number of Jews that lived in the city dropped to 10,000. In the following years, with the help of the Government, about 9,700 emigrated to Israel, and by 1957 there were only one hundred left. The number further diminished to ten in 1976 and to zero in the early eighties. Among those that lived in Shanghai, many were very outstanding persons, such as Ferdinand Adler, master violinist in the Municipal Council Orchestra, Alfred Wittenberg, a distinguished professor of music, Max Warsch, a famous vocalist and leading singer of the Synagogue chorus. Things here are returning to normal.” Professor YuanJia Mou - 1989

I would like to add that since we were of Iraqi nationality, we were not interned and only had to wear pink arm bands. This was because the Germans recognised Rashid Ali as the legitimate Government of Iraq, and so we were not considered real enemies. The British residents were all interned.

On a lighter note - An American tourist went to a restaurant in Shanghai, and asked the waiter “Are there any Chinese Jews?” The waiter said, “I will go and find out.” He came back and said “Sorry Sir, we only have Tomato juice and Orange juice.”

A Japanese officer asked my father, “Tell me please, why do the Germans hate the Jews so much?” My father replied, “because we are of Asian origin”. That remark wasn’t lost on the officer.