Font Size:
Site Colors:
S - Skip navigation
1 - Home page
4 - Search
Accessibility Statement

A History of the Jews in Shanghai

Steve Hochstadt
1 January, 1900

I        Jews in Colonial Shanghai

One of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world, Shanghai in the late 19th and early 20th century was an international banking city and the gun-running capital of Asia, a center for trade in textiles and opium, an open port where law was subordinated to profit. 


After the British navy defeated Chinese forces in the Opium War of 1842, two large sections of central Shanghai became autonomous foreign entities: the International Settlement dominated by British and American business interests and governed by the Shanghai Municipal Council, and the French Concession run by the French government through its Consul General.


The extraterritorial governments controlled police, customs, and judicial matters in the two settlements. Shanghai became a capitalist paradise. Western businessmen controlled downtown Shanghai, with its great banks, port facilities, hotels, and warehouses. The Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC) was elected by the tiny proportion of foreigners who owned substantial property. Extremes of wealth and poverty jostled in the crowded streets.


Some of the earliest British subjects in Shanghai were Jews who originated in the Middle East. A few of these Baghdadi families became enormously wealthy and joined the financial elite in Shanghai, including the Sassoons, Kadoories, and Hardoons. In the early 20th century, poorer Baghdadi Jewish families fled from conscription in the Ottoman Turkish army. By the 1930s the Baghdadi community numbered nearly 1000. They congregated in the Ohel Rachel synagogue, built in 1920, and sent their children to the Shanghai Jewish School.


The other Jewish community in Shanghai had come from Russia, refugees from Tsarist anti-Semitism, and then from revolutionary upheaval and Stalinist terror. They were more numerous, numbering about 5000, but not as well off as the Baghdadi Jews. The Ohel Moishe synagogue, opened in 1907 in Hongkou, served this Ashkenazi community. 


During the early 20th century, the Japanese became the largest foreign colony in the city. The Japanese military occupied Manchuria in 1931-1932, and then battled the Chinese army in Shanghai for several months in 1937, destroying large parts of the Hongkou district. Fighting continued until February 1938, by which time the Japanese were the dominant military power in Shanghai. They controlled customs, post, and telegraph, and they took over police powers in Hongkou, officially part of the International Settlement. They demanded more voice in the SMC and its police forces, but did nothing to challenge the extraterritorial privileges within the International Settlement. 


II       Refugees from the Nazis

During the first five years of Nazi persecution, from 1933 to 1938, about 130,000 of the 525,000 Jews living in Germany left the country. Through the end of 1937, however, only about 300 Jewish refugees had arrived in Shanghai. Michael Blumenthal, who later became Secretary of the Treasury under President Jimmy Carter, had this to say about the choices refugees faced:


It was sort of a hierarchy of things.  If you went to the United States, that was a good thing.  If you went to England that was a good thing.  If you went to another European country, it was fine, to Holland, to France, all that was good.  If you went to New Zealand and to Australia and then to Canada, that was good.  There were countries that were considered to be okay.  Brazil was okay, Argentina and Uruguay were okay, maybe Chile.  There were countries that were considered to be not so okay, Paraguay and Bolivia, because they were considered to be primitive countries in which it was difficult to make a living, where a European wouldn’t be happy.  Dominican Republic, Panama, certain Central American countries were considered to be semi-desperation countries you went to.  And the worst place was Shanghai.


The level of desperation of German Jews was not yet great enough to overcome their disinterest in moving to China.


On 12 March, the German armed forces marched into Austria, and the Austrian population responded to this Anschluss with an orgy of violence against Jews, especially in Vienna. In June, the Evian Conference of 32 nations ended without taking any action to increase opportunities for Jews to emigrate. No nation welcomed Jewish refugees; anti-Semitism was a worldwide disease.


Then, on November 9 and 10, 1938, the so-called Kristallnacht, a carefully organized national pogrom attacked Jewish synagogues, businesses and people. Thirty thousand men were taken to Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald. With great difficulty family members discovered that a ticket out of the country could get their men out of concentration camp. The illusion that Jews could somehow manage to find an accommodation with the Nazis government was destroyed by the end of 1938. German Jews left the country in 1939 at four times the rate of the years before 1938. The combination of desperation to flee and the lack of desirable places to go suddenly made Shanghai an acceptable choice for thousands of Jews in the Third Reich.


Remarkably, a few foreign diplomats stationed in Europe offered extraordinary assistance in the face of their own government’s policies. Chinese Consul-General Ho Feng-Shan, stationed in Vienna since 1937, issued thousands of Chinese visas to Jews, who lined up at his office in 1938 and 1939. These documents were not needed to enter China, but were very useful in getting the Nazis to issue passports, in convincing third countries to allow entry, or in buying tickets out of Germany.