There are signs of a Jewish presence in China from about the 8th century on. Jewish traders traveled the Silk Route and some spent significant time in China. Others married and settled down there. The synagogue in Kaifeng was built in 1163 and from then on there was a Jewish community there.
Sephardi Jews from Bagdad started arriving in Shanghai at the end of the 19th century. Among them were the Kadoorie family, the Hardoon family, and the Sassoon family. These wealthy businessmen rose to the top of the Shanghai society of the time and established communal institutions and built notable buildings, among them the famous Cathay Hotel, now known as the Peace Hotel. It still stands with pride along with other European styled buildings on the Bund, Shanghai’s waterfront on the Huangpu River.
In the beginning of the 1900s, Jews began arriving from Russia. The two groups of Jews did not mix, but all established schools and newspapers and and restaurants, of course, synagogues. Their communal life was rich.
When life became dangerous in Russia and Eastern Europe, Jews began flowing into China. Between 1937 and 1939, over 20,00 Jews flowed into Shanghai. At the height of World War II, Shanghai housed between 18 and 20 thousand Jews. They lived in a ghetto area called Hongkou and the Chinese, who themselves were under attack by the Japanese, protected the Jews. After the war, and with the establishment of the State of Israel, virtually all of the Jews left Shanghai.
Today, in Shanghai, there are still some locations where that experience is remembered.
In gratitude for their treatment of the Jews during World War II, the Chinese received contributions from Israeli companies and the State of Israel to build a community center in the park.
Across from the park is the building that was used by the Joint (JDC) which provided social services to the people in the ghetto.
Here is one of the roads where the Jews lived during that time. Each building house several families. Life was not easy.
There is an excellent documentary about the Shanghai ghetto that shows how bad life was and how the Chinese and the Jews helped each other in times of privation. Information about the film can be found here.
The Ohel Moishe Synagogue has been restored. It is no longer in use because there is no longer a Jewish population in this area of the city. However, the synagogue building itself is used as a museum and behind it, two more buildings have been constructed that show a phenomenal picture of Jewish life in Shanghai, highlighting several families’ stories. Visiting there is very moving and quite a relief from most museums that talk about Jews’ experiences during World War II.
You can read more about the Jews in Shanghai at this site.
Currently, Chabad has three locations in Shanghai with three rabbis working to enrich the lives of Jewish residents and visitors to Shanghai. Their wonderful monthly magazine is on line here.
Come join us in China! There’s so much more to learn and to see.