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

Musical Life in Shanghai Jewish Refugee Communities An Initial Report

By Tan Yating Shanghai Conservatory of Music
1 January, 1900

The earliest Jewish communities in Shanghai emerged in the mid-19th century, respectively consisting of the Oriental Jewish-British merchants (Sephardi) and Russian Jewish immigrants (Ashkenazi), mostly refugees after the Russian revolution in 1917.

Between 1939 and 1941, first German-Austrian, then Polish (including some other Eastern European) Jewish refugees (both Ashkenazi) fleeing the Nazi regime, exiled themselves to Shanghai. Thus the third and fourth Jewish communities in this city were formed.

After the Pacific War broke out in 1941, the Japanese occupant army forced 18,000 Jewish refugees into a small area in Hongkew, a poorer district of Northeast Shanghai. This ghetto became a realistic Jewish community. Though the living conditions were rather bad, their musical life persisted and became the refugees’ spiritual support. As a Jewish paper put it: “Among 18,000 Central European Jewish immigrants fleeing to Shanghai, not any other professional group like these artists, especially the musicians, earned their bread completely on their own ….. Even in exile, they will not lose the rich heritage of their motherland, developing a musical life from nearly nothing. There is no doubt the refugees’ most active contribution to Shanghai, “(from “Das Musikleben der Immigraten”).

This article is an initial report of the musical life of the Shanghai Jewish refugee community between 1939 and 1946, creating the three music culture of the Jewish refugees, i.e. Hebrew-Yiddish traditional music, Western popular music, and Western art music. The writer tries to reflect this musical life from three perspectives: How is music constructed historically, maintained socially, and created individually.

It was said that the first Central European refugees landing at Shanghai did not highly value Shanghai’s musical life: “In all streets and corners, both in the city’s foreign settlement and concessions, and in Hongkew, there were quite a few bars, coffee houses, dance halls, theatres, (just one for European drama), and only one concert hall - the Lyceum Theatre – for symphonic and serious music…. The musicians mostly consisted of Filipinos, Italians and Russians, who dominated Shanghai’s musical life…..Most Bars were for sailors, the coffee houses were frequented by businessmen, he theatres, lacking talent, were below the standard, and the symphony orchestra moderate. In fact, the musicians’ training was unsatisfactory; from (“Die Entwicklung des Musiklebens in der Emmigration von Jahre 1939 biz zur Beendigung der Parzifikkrieges”).


Hebrew-Yiddish Culture

Jewish traditional musical life could be seen in religious services, national festivals, concerts and various kinds of evening functions. The social institutions maintaining this musical life were mainly two: the Gemeinschaft Juedischer Kantoiren Shanghai (the Association of Shanghai Jewish Presenters), and the Shanghai Jewish Club.

The former organization, with about cantors, was established in 1940. Its purpose was the development of the cantors’ social and cultural interests. To give concerts and help with events of the community, a cantors’ choir was formed in 1941, with Jacob Kaufmann as its conductor. These cantors played a very important role in the refugees’ musical life. As their major task, they acted as cantors (“hazanim”, in Hebrew) in various synagogues. Many of them had been trained in Italian bel canto singing style. Besides in the Heime (refugee camps), they performed in Russian synagogues, e.g. the New Synagogue at Rue Tenant de la Tour in French Town and the Ohel Moshe Synagogue at Ward Road in Hongkew. The other places for services were theatres, such as the Broadway and the Eastern, the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School (SJYA, also called the Kadoorie School), and the Shanghai Jewish School (all but the last were in Hongkew).

The German Jews arriving between the end of 1938 and the winter of 1939 took part in the service of the local Sephardi and Ashkenazi synagogues.  They later sought independence by holding their own services in the Broadway Theatre. Feeling the service there too orthodox, the Liberal congregation of the German Jews broke off and held their own services in the Eastern Theatre. They conducted their service in the reform tradition of German Jews, since the 19th century, which identified itself with Christian service music, featuring the organ (in Shanghai, a harnonium instead) and a mixed choir (only with male voices, partly insisting on the Jewish tradition though  breaking with the  responsorial singing). As a poster in the Jewish  8 Uhr Abendblatt (8 Hour Evening Paper) showed, in a Liberal service for the 1940 Jewish New Year held at the Eastern Theatre a harmonium and a large mixed choir were used. The first half of the service, on the 2nd and 3rd October, was for the New Year sermon (Rosh Hashanah) and the second, on the 11th and 12th of the same month, for the sermon of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), changing the well-known Kol Nidre. Among the major performers were the preacher, the cantor, the choir conductor, the organist and the woman soloist. There the female’s singing in the service performance was unusual.

As for the last new-arrivals, the Polish Jewish refugees, more than half were Orthodox and Hasidic. They observed a very traditional service, as a Polish refugee recalled his experience in a New Year service:

“On New Year’s Eve the synagogue was decorated in a solemn atmosphere, and the cantor Podrakenek’s forceful voice and the congregation’s changing in unison lingered around the synagogue with echoes…. You can imagine the excitement of the people.  A woman in high spirits made a comparison that what the cantor had performed was more an opera than a service, which had surprised her. I was also greatly moved by the similarity to services I had known at home.” (Israel Kipen: A Life to Live, the quotation translated from a Chinese version).

The cantors and their choir sang at other festivals, services and ceremonies as well. They were good at Oriental Jewish songs, and mixed their voices beautifully. The synagogue male choir called Hasmir for the Liberal service conducted by Heinrich Markt and Martin Epstein was said to be the best in Shanghai at that time.

“Max Warschauer, active as a conductor, had bed=sides a good baritone, recognized not only in the concert hall but over many years as leading cantor of our community in the synagogue…. Warschauer’s successor in the cantorate was Josef Fruchter, a brilliant singer, a genuine knight of the high C, who in the concert hall under the sign of the genuine Verdi strettos came, sang and became victorious. Two powerful base baritones Ludwig Korseil and Hans Bergmann were a valuable support for our ensemble as Fritz Philippsborn, a basso and his colleague Louis Levine”.

(From:  “Cultural Life and Emigration,” Shanghai Almanac, 1946/1947).

The following recorded cantor performances are included amongst the materials the writer posseses:

A Passover musical service at Ward Road Heim with Hebrew and Yiddish songs for solo and choir, accompanied by the harmonium.

A Purim evening at the Thals Restaurant, Wayside Road, on 16//3/1941, with the performance of the Association of Precentors, also including dance and speech.

A service for exciled Jews at Chaoufouong Road Heim on 12/7/1940 by the synagogue choir – Hasmir.

A memorial service in memory of the 1771946 air raid victims at Alcock Road Heim on 167/1946.

Funeral services and related evenings at the Jewish cemeteries at Baikal Road, Columbia Road and Point Road.

A celebration for the Jerwish scientific Lehrhaus on 22/2/1942.

A performance in favour of the US Army at the Chinese theatre on 27/1/1946.

Besides services and particular occasions, the Association used to perform synagogue music and other Jewish music in some entertainment events and concerts. The venues seemed to me mostly the Alcock Heim and Shanghai Jewish School, occasionally the Broadway Theatre. These events were sponsored by the Jewish Community of Central European Jews, some shops (e.g. European Bakery), Institutes (e.g. Kitchen fund) and individuals. The programmes consisted of vocal music (solo, chorus and ensemble), sporadically with instrumental pieces by Jewish composers with a Jewish flavour yet in Western art music tradition (e.g. Bruch’s cello work Kol Nidre, Wieniawski’s violin concerto) or just by Western art music composers (e.g. Torelli, Bach, Handel, etc.). Most items were liturgical songs (e.g. Kiddush) or songs set to the Biblical Psalms and other Judaic Scriptures or adapted from Jewish and Yiddish folk music. There were also Hasidic songs, Jewish composed songs, and Yiddish theatre and operetta songs from the 1920’s and 1930’s (e.g. Raisins and Almonds). Nearly all the composers were born in the last century and created in Jewish tradition yet under the influence of Western art music, quite a few among them were cantors and choir conductors in European synagogues.

The following are better known:

Louis Lewndowski (1823-1894): excellent Jewish scholar and supporter of Judaic reform, who wrote and adapted a great deal of traditional music, compiled Jewish service music, and greatly influenced and popularized German Jewish synagogue  music. In his works German Romantic techniques and harmony were used.

Saloman Sulzer (1804-1891): One of the founders of modern Jewish service music and reformer of synagogue music. His reform was linked to Jewish cantillation. His works were in German Classical and Romantic style, with Schubert’s songs as his model.

Samuel Naumbourg (1816-1880): composer of the whole range of service music separately for cantor, choir and organ, who salvaged a great number of vanishing Jewish melodies.

Arno Nadel (1878-1943): collector and composer of much Jewish folk and service music.

Joseph Rosenblatt (1880-1943): one of the best-known synagogue cantors in the 20th century.

Other popular composers were:

S. Alman, M. Herschmann, S. Secunda, L. Kornitzer, A. Friedmann, J. Goldstein, Roskin, Pelssachowitsch, Weiser, Bakon, Wilkomirski, Rothstein, and also those in shanghai like the pianist/composer Hans Baer and Hasmir conductor/cantor Jacob Kaufmann.

As was the role of the Association of Precentors in the German-Austrian refugees’ musical life, so the equivalent in the Polish was the Shanghai Jewish Club, which also worked as a liaison between the two groups of refugees. Set up by the Russian Jews in 1932, the Club used to produce ballet, chorus, drama and concert. By the earli 1940’s, it had also become the site where Polish efugees performed Yiddish songs and plays, bringing some income to the Club and diversified its entertainments. It moved several times between the International Settlement And French Concession, first at Avenue Road, then to Moulmein Road, to Bubbling Well Road in the latter half of 1941, and finally to Route Pichon in 1947 – the present location of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.