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Having lost my guidebook two weeks back, I was wondering how I would find my story on Jewish Shanghai. Then, sitting on the train from Lhasa, Tibet, to Shanghai, the story found me. As I sat sipping tea in the dining car, a security guard handed me a mini-guide to Shanghai, complete with a section on Shanghai's Jewish past. Sometimes the story finds you, and God always grants you what you need.
The Shanghai Jewish community has a long and storied history, beginning with the immigration of Sephardi Jews from the Middle East in the mid-19th century. Iraqi Jewish families like the Sassoons and the Kadoories built business empires as Shanghai began its meteoric rise. Victor Sassoon made millions in the opium trade, and then even more in Shanghai real estate. At one point, he owned more than 1,900 buildings in the city. His other love was horses. He once quipped, "There is only one race greater than the Jews, and that's the Derby."
At the turn of the century, Ashkenazi Jews began flooding into Shanghai from Russia. Three waves of immigration followed: in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese war; in 1906, with the outbreak of pogroms; and in 1917, as a result of the Russian Civil War.
With the influx of Ashkenazim, the Hongkou neighborhood, nicknamed "Little Vienna," teemed with Jewish-owned shops and kosher delicatessens. Numerous schuls were built, including the Ohel Moishe synagogue, which functions today as a small museum on Shanghai's Jewish past.
In the lead-up to World War II, Shanghai became a refuge for those fleeing Europe. While doors the world over were closing to European Jews, Shanghai's status as a free port allowed it to welcome the refugees. Shanghai was one of the few places that did not require papers or a visa for entry. From 1939 to 1941, 20,000 to 30,000 Jews immigrated to Shanghai to escape Nazi persecution.
When the Japanese occupied Shanghai, they designated the new Jewish residents as "stateless refugees" and confined them to a somewhat benign ghetto in the Hongkou neighborhood. The ghetto was wall-less but guarded. The veteran Jewish community was able to move freely through the city to provide provisions for the refugees. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee aided the refugees as well.
With the end of WWII and the rise of Communist China, almost all of the Shanghai's Jews immigrated to America, Canada, Australia or Israel. Traces of the community can still be found in the Hongkou neighborhood, with its European-style tenement houses. In the back alleys, there are still nail holes where mezuzot used to hang and a door grill shaped like a Magen David. In Huoshan Park, in the heart of the neighborhood, there is a small memorial, in Chinese, English and Hebrew, to the stateless refugees who found haven in Shanghai.
Visiting the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, I was met by its caretaker, Mr. Wang. Now in his 80s, he grew up in the neighborhood, side-by-side with the Jewish families. Wang shows visitors a video about the Jews of Shanghai, takes them on a brief tour of the schul and answers their questions. He recalled the Jewish community fondly and noted that both peoples had suffered persecution: the Jews under the Nazis and the Chinese under the Japanese.
Today, the Shanghai Jewish community is the largest in China, numbering around 1,500, coming from all over the world. Shanghai's role as a center of international trade and investment brings numerous businesspeople to its shores. Chabad Shanghai runs a Jewish center, complete with kosher cafe, school and weekly Shabbat services. They also have a service that delivers kosher meals to hotels and offices.
There is even a Jewish Shanghai tour, offered by Dvir Bar-Gal (www.shanghai-jews.com). Bar-Gal is an Israeli living in Shanghai, and gives a very thorough tour. The story of the today's Jewish community is being written as fast as the skyline grows.
Paul Rockower served as the Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest in Houston from 2003 until 2006. He is currently on a six month trek around the world. You can read more of his misadventures at his blog: http://levantine18.blogspot.com and see pictures at http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18.