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


Esther Isaac
15 July, 2013



By Esther Isaac


My Heritage and life in China are intertwined as one and has remained a part of me throughout my life. Both my maternal and paternal families are of Baghdadian origin. They left Baghdad the country of their birth in the late 1890’s, because of the many difficulties and pogroms during that period and decided to leave for Bombay, India. They remained there  for a short period and then continued their journey on to the Far East, landing in Shanghai, China.


My Story, I was born and raised in Shanghai, China, the youngest of three sisters.  My eldest sister Flori Enid Isaac Cohen presently lives in Israel.  My second sister Rahma Isaac Rejwan resides in Toronto. My father, Jason Joseph Isaac was born in Hila a little town on the outskirts of Baghdad (where the Prophet Ezekiel is buried – his tomb is a place of Jewish pilgrimage). My father is the son of Hacham Yosef Isaac and Farha Nissim Isaac.  My mother Mozelle Toeg was born in Baghdad to Farha Shalom Toeg and Hacham Aboodi Toeg, whose family lived in Baghdad for centuries, as did many of our ancestors, dating back to the period of the Babylonian exile.


The first actual recorded name of the Toeg family is that of Hacham Mordechai Toeg, which takes us back about ten generations. The name Toeg, as we were given to understand, is another version of Tweick, which comes from the word "Torque" (a necklace of twisted metal), the golden chain of high office, given to one of our distinguished ancestors by the ruling Sultan or Caliph of Baghdad.  Exciting as this may sound; I personally am impressed and proud of the more humble side of our family history, which was so rich in good deeds.


My mother had two older brothers, Aslan Toeg and Isaac Hayim Toeg.  The family moved from Baghdad to Bombay, and it was Isaac Hayim who first ventured from Bombay to the Far East in the early 1900’s, and he brought over the rest of the family at a later date.


My father''s family also travelled to Shanghai in the early nineteen hundreds. His uncle Eliyahu Itzhak, known as Hacham Eliyahu Hazan served for several years as the Hazan of both the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hongkong, and the Ohel Rachel Synagogue in Shanghai, located on Seymour Road. The Ohel Rachel was built in 1920 by Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon, in memory of his wife Rachel. In 1935 upon retiring, Hacham Eliyahu travelled to Israel where he was one of the founders of the Sephardic Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem.  He was also a teacher of the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Rav Ovadia Yosef.








The early history of the modern Jews in China is closely related to the history of the Sassoon family, also known as the ‘Rothschilds’ of the East. It commences in the middle of the 19th Century, when the Treaty Ports were declared open to foreign trade. David Sassoon, who settled in Bombay, India in 1832, established a firm dealing mainly in cotton, tea and silk. In the pre-Treaty Port days, he traded with Canton in South China, but when the Treaty Ports opened up, he decided to expand and extend the interests of his growing empire by sending his sons to establish branches in China. Thus Elias David Sassoon came to China in 1844 and founded branches of the David Sassoon Company in Shanghai, Canton and Hongkong.  He was an extremely successful businessman, who furthered the Sassoon interests in China. In 1867 he left his father''s firm and opened up his own branch in Shanghai and Hongkong, under the name of E.D. Sassoon & Company, which in the Far East came to be considered as a synonym for mercantile and banking power.


The Sassoon’s in the 19th Century were extremely religious and encouraged young Jewish men to enter their employ. These youths received the necessary training and experience at the Sassoon offices in Bombay. Those who displayed business acumen were sent to China as clerks, or managers. Thus the first nucleus of Jews in Shanghai was either Sassoons, or those in their employ. It furthermore meant that the descendants of Sassoons and former Sassoon employees, constituted a large section of the former Sephardic Community of Shanghai.


In 1857 the Jewish Community of Shanghai came into official existence, in a special general meeting of the members of the new synagogue known as Beth-El. Sometime later leading members of the community, headed by D.E.J. Abraham and S.J. Solomon, founded the Sheerith Israel Synagogue for the more strictly orthodox members of the community. David Sassoon also presented a cemetery to the local Jewish congregation, located on Mohawk Road, which was used until 1919.


By this time various Jewish employees of the Sassoon undertakings, like Mr. S.A. Hardoon, branched out establishing their own firms. In 1927 Silas Hardoon presented another beautiful synagogue to the community of Shanghai – the Beth Aharon Synagogue.


The Sephardic Jews came to Shanghai when it was still an undeveloped city on the banks of the Whangpoo River. This city was selected because of its geographical position, as the natural outlet for Central China. With great foresight they bought land at unbelievably low prices, established banking and commercial undertakings, and by the beginning of the 20th Century, became business leaders of the Eastern metropolis.








The Sassoon and Hardoon interests were extremely important in the field of realty. The interests of the Hayim family began to play an important role in the Public Utilities sector, whilst the Kadoorie interest, besides maintaining their hold on the world famous Malaysian rubber, continued to expand in other directions.


The Sephardic Jewish Community during these two decades grew both in importance and in numbers.  Some of the prominent leaders of the community, aside from the Sassoon, Kadoorie and Hardoon families, there were several other prominent families, to name a few: David E.J. Abraham, who married a member of the Sassoon family, the Hayims, Aaron Moses who married Flora Sassoon, Maurice Dangoor who married Sybil Moses, in addition to the Shahmoon, Sofer, Toeg, Ezekiel, Cohen, Jacob, Levy, Hillaly, Benjamin, and Reuben families. The list goes on with each and every family leaving their mark on the saga of the Sephardic Jewry in Shanghai – each having an interesting tale of their own.


The luxury in which these very wealthy families lived is a fairy tale - sprawling mansions, with huge lawns, tennis courts and countless servants and governesses for their children. One of the most renowned homes is that of the Kadoorie family, known as Marble Hall, because the interior ballrooms and beautiful state rooms were built mostly of marble. This was a mansion beyond description with vast acres of lush lawns. On the outside it resembled the White House; it was a palatial building as grand a home as any to be found in Europe. As a young girl I remember visiting this home with all its glory and splendor.


These families were members of the most elite clubs in Shanghai, and owned stables with their own horses – My Uncle Isaac Hayim Toeg owned a race horse that went by the name of Camanche. They went on paper hunts and played polo matches. Most of them also owned luxurious summer homes and houseboats. My Uncle had a houseboat named Flora, and sometimes sailed to Hangchow with family members and close friends. During summer they travelled on ships of the famous Empress Line to Japan, holidaying in the popular mountain resort of Rokosan, as well as the cities of Kobe and Osaka among others. My family travelled on the Empress Line to Japan practically every summer.


The new generation of Sephardic youth born in Shanghai in the early 1920''s and 1930''s, formed an amateur dramatic club, producing many plays. They had their own musical band known as the ‘Calef’ Band of Shanghai.  The young men also formed their own football team called ‘The White Stars’ football team and played in various matches with other local teams.









It is of the utmost importance to stress that in spite of all the wealth attained, and the comforts in which we all lived; we never for a moment forgot those less fortunate. The deeds of charity by our community were countless to all in need, not only for members of the Sephardic Community, but also for those of other Jewish communities in Shanghai.


My uncle, Isaac Hayim Toeg, was one of the young men brought to Shanghai in the employ of the Sassoon family.  He arrived in Shanghai from Bombay in 1908, together with his mother Farha and his sister Mozelle (my mother). His father Aboody and brother Aslan followed soon after with the rest of the family.  Some years later he left E.D. Sassoon & Co., and with others, set himself up as a broker in the Shanghai Stock Exchange. It was through his smart business acumen and speculations in the stock market, that he became very wealthy.  He then formed his own company – Builders and Traders Ltd., an import-export firm, and a few years later, together with his nephews Ezekiel and Ezra, sons of his older brother Aslan, established his company Woodcraft Works Limited dealing, primarily in lumber, parquet floors, doors, etc.


Both my mother and uncle were married in 1930.  My uncle Isaac Hayim married Grace Toeg (his brother''s eldest daughter) and my mother married Jason Isaac.  The family always remained very united, and during the early years of World War II, lived together in the large four-storey Toeg residence, situated on 430 Seymour Road, close  to the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, and the Shanghai Jewish School, also on the same street.


With my uncle''s four children, Flora, Rebecca, Joseph and Aslan, we had an eventful childhood, being that the Toeg home was the center of the Sephardic Jewish Community and relief operations during the years of World War II, as well during the period after the takeover of Shanghai by the Communists in the Spring of 1949.


Shanghai had many schools, The Shanghai Public School for Girls, The Shanghai Public School for Boys, The Thomas Hanbury School, and The Shanghai Cathedral School, all with a very high standard of education, under the British Matriculation system.


We took the life we lived for granted and imagined it would go on forever. But the turn of events is what shapes history, and all of our lives were affected by it. With the start of World War II, a new chapter was about to begin for rich and poor alike – the struggle for survival.









During those difficult years we can all be proud of a Sephardic Community that remained united in the face of all odds, staunchly preserving its religious practices and never faltering, no matter the danger.


Going back for a moment to 1937, the year the Sino-Japanese war broke out, the Japanese conquered Manchuria and the conflict spread during the years to follow. By 1939 they had reached the gates of Shanghai, and even though there was a great of deal of chaos in the city, the International District of Shanghai was respected as such, and remained intact.


When Hitler''s Nazi regimes began its persecution of the Jews of Europe, close to twenty five thousand Jews were granted visas by the Chinese authorities and were able to find refuge in Shanghai, most of them having arrived between 1938 and 1939.  At that time there were about 43,000 foreigners in Shanghai, out of which about 6000 were Jews.  A monumental effort had to be made to absorb that great a number of people.


The Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities, who had a great history of their own, joined hands in a mission to save the lives of our brethren who had endured the unendurable, and to lend them a helping hand in every way possible.  Donations and help flooded in from all directions. Soup-kitchens were started and food was prepared and cooked by both communities in huge canteens for all the newcomers until such time they were able to make their own way.


The horrors of Europe were a nightmare that stunned our Jewish communities beyond belief.  Many in the community took in children in order to ease their trauma and to give them a comfortable life until such time their parents were able to once again care for them.  I recall the Abraham family taking in a young boy by the name Egon, and the Toegs took in a young girl called Cecile; my mother adopted a boy name Hans and a little girl. The Kadoorie family provided a synagogue and school for the new comers, known as the Kadoorie Synagogue and Kadoorie School, located in the Hongkew area of Shanghai.



In 1941 Japan entered the war and attacked Pearl Harbour. This was the beginning of the war in the Pacific region.  When Japan joined the Germans in the war against the Allies restrictions were placed on the population. At the insistence of Germany the Jews who arrived from Europe were confined to Hongkew, and were not permitted to leave the area without a permit.








Shanghai was subjected to bombing raids by Allied warplanes. The international section of the city was no longer respected and all British, American and other Allied citizens were considered enemy nationals and were interned in Japanese Prisoner of War camps. Around this period all foreign schools were closed, synagogues taken over, and food was rationed. Our world had turned upside down.


Amongst those interned in Japanese prisoner of war camps were many leaders and members of the Sephardic Jewish Community, as well as some members of my family, since they were granted British citizenship whilst living in Bombay, India.  They suffered the same fate as all other British, American and Australian nationals. The rest of us who had Iraqian, Greek or other foreign passports had to wear armbands with a different color for each country, indicating that they were considered enemy subjects but to a lesser degree. The concern for our people interned in these camps was great. No one really knew what the Japanese were capable of and those interned endured great hardships.


My mother Mozelle, who headed the Jewish Women''s Benevolent Society, and Maurice Dangoor, who was at that time President of the Sephardic Jewish Community, together approached the Japanese authorities in order to request permission to send Kosher food parcels to all Jews interned in the various camps. Permission was granted and the Toeg home was turned into a relief centre for both those Jews who were interned, as well as for other less fortunate members of our community who faced hardships and could not make ends meet.  


The library of the Ohel Rachel Synagogue was preserved in the Toeg home, as well as some of our precious Sefer Torah scrolls. When our dearly beloved David E.J. Abraham passed away in the POW camp where he was interned, through great efforts permission was granted for a Jewish burial and his body was brought to the Toeg residence for religious rites before burial.


It should be mentioned that each time one had to visit the Japanese Headquarters for whatever purpose; it was at the risk of their own lives, being that these official offices were the targets of Allied bombing raids.  The air raids took place at all times of the day or night. When sirens blared, (the more sirens, the larger the raid), bombs fell at random, whilst anti-aircraft guns peppered into the sky. Yet danger never seemed to deter the members of our community who placed duty before themselves.


On August 15, 1945, the first news arrived that Japan had surrendered to America. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though tragically taking a great toll on the civilian population of Japan, finally brought the Pacific War to an end. Prior to that event it was rumored that all other foreign enemy nationals, such as us, Greek nationals, and others, were also to be interned. Thank God we were spared that fate.






Soon after American and British forces landed in Shanghai, and all prisoners were freed from the POW camps. China was once again under the control of the Nationalist Government regime of President Chiang-Kai-Shek.  For a short while Shanghai prospered and life went back to normal.


However, a new episode soon took its place in history, once again shattering our lives, and became a dreaded reality.  The Chinese Red Army under Chairman Mao Tse Tung now openly began their fight against the Nationalist regime in China, advancing from the North. Fighting intensified and the effects soon began to be felt in Shanghai. 


Foreigners, and mainly the Russians who knew too well the impact of Communism, began to leave from Shanghai, as well as from other cities in China. Many from the Sephardic community also left Shanghai for America, England, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.  In 1948, after the creation of the State of Israel, the desire to immigrate to our homeland was great. There were always strong ties between China Jewry and the Jewish homeland known then as Palestine. Young men and women from both communities were very active in the Betar Youth movement, and left China to join the fight against the Arabs for Israel''s Independence.


There were still some of us, however who decided to remain in Shanghai and who were present when the Chinese Red Army advanced on the city in May 1949.  As the fighting intensified we could hear the sound of heavy artillery and gunfire growing closer with each day. One evening it suddenly seemed that all hell had broken loose. Shanghai rocked with explosions. The ground shook beneath us and the night sky was ablaze for as far as the eyes could see. It seemed like the world was coming to an end. No one knew what was happening, and it was not until the next morning that we discovered that the arsenals in Shanghai had been intentionally blown up by the Nationalist regime so as not to let it fall into the hands of the Communists. Two days later the army of Mao Tse Tung entered Shanghai with hardly any resistance from the Nationalist army.  Only sporadic firing was heard as the city fell into the hands of the Chinese Communists.


While we came through physically unscathed, we were unaware that this was the beginning of the end of our Community, and that of all other foreign communities in Shanghai, the majority of whom left Shanghai in 1948-49, prior to the Communist takeover. Amongst the first to leave were the Russian Jewry, since having come to China from the Soviet Union, they knew only too well the true meaning of Communism. They had lived through it and had managed to escape. To believe as we did at first that this was merely a local change of regime, which would not have any major impact on the lives of foreigners, British and American alike, was extremely naive and a complete misconception.





The devastating power of Communism had been grossly underestimated. The systematic imposing of endless new laws and restrictions strangulated businesses and those businesses that could not survive were methodically taken over.   Many lost all they had.


We were amongst the very few foreigners who remained in Shanghai till the mid 1950’s.  After most of our family had left Shanghai, my mother made every effort to protect the interests of all concerned at great risk. Unfortunately, it was all in vain. During the last few years of our stay under Chinese Communist rule, the horrors I observed with my own eyes and the oppression to which we ourselves were subjected is a nightmare I can never forget.


By late 1949 there was a drastic decrease in the foreign population of Shanghai. The Shanghai Jewish School held its last graduation ceremony. There were only six students left in the graduating class, among whom, were my sister Rahma and my cousins Flora and Rebecca Toeg. This prestigious school, which was run by the Sephardic Jewish Community, and once had an enrolment of about 600 Jewish students who proudly wore their blue and white uniforms with the emblem of the Star of David was soon to close its doors.


The early 1950''s were the final chapter for our community in Shanghai. On January 23, 1951, the wedding of my eldest sister Flori to Isaiah Myer Cohen took place at the beautiful Ohel Rachel Synagogue. Theirs was the very last wedding to take place at this synagogue.  Because of the strict restrictions imposed at that time, permission had to be requested from the Communist authorities for any gathering of more than 12 people. No function of any kind was allowed to take place without the presence of the Communist police.  Hence armed police stood guard both during the wedding ceremony in the Synagogue and at the reception, which took place in the main auditorium of the Shanghai Jewish School.


Soon after in 1951 the Jewish School closed its doors for the last time, and the closure of the Ohel Rachel Synagogue followed in early 1952.  My sister Rahma and I, as well as Moses Cohen, my sister''s brother-in-law, and other members of the Sephardic community, were present on that sad day when the last of our Sefer Torah scrolls was removed from the Holy Ark in the synagogue, and a huge picture of Chairman Mao Tse Tung was then hung over it. The members of the Sephardic Jewish Community who observed this tragic moment in our history, stood by in stunned silence, completely numb.  There was not a pair of dry eyes. This was indeed the end of a Golden Era!










I left Shanghai in the spring of 1952, traveling alone as a young teenager to join members of our family already in Israel.  My mother, who was not yet permitted by the Chinese authorities to leave Shanghai, insisted that I go ahead as there was reason to believe my safety may be in jeopardy. It was a three-day journey by train from Shanghai to Canton in the South of China. This is another harrowing experience I recall so vividly to this day.


There were a few foreigners aboard the train and each of us was locked in our own compartment with armed guards parading back and forth in the corridor. Communist propaganda blared from loudspeakers day and night throughout the journey. Upon arrival in Canton we were taken to a hotel for an overnight stay, where we were once again locked in our rooms.


The next morning we were driven to the border crossing between Canton and Hongkong. A little narrow bridge divided the two sides. At one end stood the Chinese Communist guards, at the other end the British army. Before being allowed to proceed across the bridge, our documents and exit permits were checked once again. To our horror, some people were turned back by the Chinese guards. As soon as I was given the signal to go ahead, I walked trembling across the bridge, from oppression to freedom!  


In recent years, upon my return to Israel in 1994, I succeeded in organizing the Sephardic Division of the Igud Yotsei Sin – Association of Former Residents of China. This division consists of former members of the Sephardic Jewish Community of Shanghai presently living in Israel, the USA, England, Canada, Australia and South America; and emphasis was placed on research and documentation of our history.


The Sephardic Jewish Community of Shanghai played an important and prominent role in the history of China Jewry.  We owe it to our parents and grandparents to preserve our history, so rich in deeds and values. We also owe it to our children and grandchildren so that they should be aware and proud of their heritage.


Since those days I have traveled extensively and have lived in several countries, but never have I forgotten my roots, and I will always cherish the very special memories of my life in Shanghai, China.


In summarizing I want to add a few words of my visit to Shanghai a couple of years ago with my sister Flori,  and several of our children and grandchildren. A memorable trip down memory lane.  As we touched down in Shanghai I was so excited and emotional at the reality that I had finally returned to the country of my birth, to the people and land I loved so dearly.  I could not believe my eyes at the remarkable changes that had been carried out.  Shanghai now has large freeways, countless high rises; beautiful new buildings, and especially unrecognizable was Pudong, which in my time was nothing but flat land. Today with its tall TV Tower, new hotels, tall apartment blocks and more was an amazing sight.  Most important to us was the fact that we were able to find our home on 430 Seymour Road (now Shanxi Rd), where seventeen Chinese families now lived. They obligingly showed us around and wanted to hear our story. I still remember my Shanghainese and we were able to converse and they were happy to hear our tale.


Before leaving for Shanghai we sent in a request to the Chinese authorities asking for permission to visit the Ohel Rachel Synagogue on Seymour Road. We informed them that we wanted to show the family where my sister was married in 1951, we sent photos and copy of a newspaper article of the wedding – in short we were granted permission – the visit there was an extremely emotional one for each one of us – we described our history to our children and grandchildren, how we used to go there every Saturday with our family, on the High Holidays and on all the Jewish holidays. It is difficult to describe what we experienced that day upon entering the Ark and blessing the one Torah Scroll, thinking of the days of old when this Ark contained so very many beautiful scrolls in Gold and Silver cases and some covered in velvet.


We spent the rest of our time touring around the city, visiting our Schools, the Lyceum theatre, the ex-French concession, the Ste. Mary’s Hospital where we were born. All in all we had a fabulous visit ‘Home’!         

                                                                                                                        May 2013