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A Buffalonian's Journey to Jewish Shanghai

by Harley Spiller


Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 33 and 34

Shanghai was one world that provided a safehouse for World War II refugees without papers. As a result, approximately thirty-two thousand Jews, known among themselves as 'Shanghailanders,' settled in this fascinating Chinese city. Like the names Schindler, Wallenberg and Sugihara, Shanghai has become synonymous with rescue and refuge during the fascist-dictated times when six million Jews perished and at least thirty-five million Chinese were killed and wounded.

In one thrilling case, all four hundred teachers and students of the famous European Mir Yeshiva were able to escape war and continue their studies in Shanghai. At one point, there were at least seven synagogues in Shanghai, but today very little evidence of this once vital community remains. There are Shanghai collections at Yivo, The Leo Baeck Institute, and the United Nations Archive, all in New York City; at Yad Vashem in Israel; and in only a few other places, such as the Ohel Moishe Synagogue in the Hangkou district of Northern Shanghai.

Begun in 1907 by Russian Jews led by Rabbi Lea Askenazi from Vladivostok, Temple, Ohel Moishe moved to its current location on Shanghai's Changyang Lu (formerly Ward Road) in 1927. The temple, at the physical center of a four-square kilometer ghetto, served as headquarters for the Zionist youth movement ‘Betar’ during the War.

Although after the war, the Chinese never required the Jews to leave, Rabbi Askenazi left town for the West in the 1950s; so did all the Jews in Shanghai. They emigrated to the United States, Israel and South America. Today the Chinese government has designated the Ohel Moishe building as a historical site and a new 'Jewish Refugee Memorial Hall of Shanghai' is being built next door.

The Ohel Moishe building has been preserved but no documents, Judaica, or original interior furnishings remain. There does exist a small room of artifacts used by the Jews of Shanghai, which were donated in recent years, including a breakfront, wooden chairs, tobacco tins, a bed, and a Singer sewing machine. It seems that the only object of Judaica on public view in Shanghai, a city of some ten million people, is a contemporary porcelain menorah in a personal collection of lanterns on display at Shanghai's Museum of Folk Art. The only other remaining synagogue building in Shanghai, Ohel Rachel, was refurbished, and by now should be open.

The host at Ohel Moishe is 82-year-old Mr. Fa Liang Wang, who lived alongside Jews before, during and after the War. He graciously allowed the Cofeld Museum to capture his oral history of the times. Twice Mr. Wang and his fellow Chinese ran from Japanese aggressors, alongside the Jews, to the French Concession, where the Axis dared not enter.

Wang spoke of August 1945: "have you heard? I heard the radio myself. At that time I was working for Japanese railway stations, the Emperor declared surrender," Mr. Wang recalled, with a heavy laugh. Mr. Wang and family still live in the house he bought a long time ago from his partners in a cafe in Shanghai's Frenchtown Jewish quarter, immigrant Russian Jewish gents named Freeman and Stein.

In ancient times the famous Silk Route was traversed by many Jews. Along the route was Kaifeng, in eastern China, a city which became a center for Jews, partly because Kaifeng boasted a rarity in China, the Persian Hotel, which accommodated foreigners. Even today, there are two kinds of Chinese hotels, one style for nationals and another for internationals. Kaifeng, an 11th century capital of the Sung dynasty, was the home of a small community (estimates of population range up to three hundred) of Jews who intermarried with Chinese. Today, there are no authentic Chinese Jews remaining in Shanghai or Kaifeng, but there are imposters who will gladly lead you through the historic sites.

The first Jews to live in Shanghai were Sephardic commercial venturers from Spain and Portugal. They arrived in the 1840's, via Middle Eastern places like Iraq, Cairo and Bombay. A second wave of Jewish immigration to Shanghai, mainly Ashkenazim from Russia, arrived at the turn of the century. The third and largest immigration consisted of Jews from Russia and Italy during 1933-41, dates all too well known.

Jews died in battle against Fascists in China before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1943, the Japanese wholly controlled Shanghai. On February 18th of that year, the Japanese, at the urging of Hitler, proclaimed a Designated Area for Stateless Refugees in Shanghai. Jews needed to obtain a passport to go anywhere outside this ghetto.

The Japanese leader in Shanghai was a man named Goya. He proclaimed himself 'King of the Jews,' and maintained offices next door to Ohel Moishe. Goya was fickle with his visa-granting power and was greatly feared by Jews and Chinese alike. Mr. Wang noted that Goya was severely beaten when the war ended, and added that the Germans have apologized for their wartime atrocities, but the Japanese have yet to offer any remorse.

It is important to note that Jews and Chinese suffered equally under Fascism, sharing both wealth and woe. One wartime incident provides an example of how the Jews and Chinese worked arm in arm.

In the waning months of World War II, a mis-targeted air raid by friendly U.S. forces struck the ghetto, killing many refugees and even more Chinese. The Jewish refugee hospital, Mr. Wang said, "next to the [Ohel Moishe] synagogue, just nearby, yes, they accepted all wounded people whether you were Chinese or Jews. They did not care, they did not care. Firstly, accept them and make treatment. Urgent treatment. So we Chinese most appreciated their help. Difficult time, difficult time, yes. So both people suffered during the war." The Jews and Chinese worked together in wartime.

Sun Yat Sen's Aide de Campe was Morris 'Two Gun' Cohen. He and Madame Sun Yat Sen and her sister Madame Chiang Kai Shek made political statements on behalf of Jews and were known to visit the Jewish-run Fiaker's cafe restaurant.

Despite deplorable wartime conditions, a Jewish community flourished in Hangkou as well as in the wealthier French Concession, where famous families like the Sassoons and Khadooris set up homesteads. There were dozens of Jewish schools and hospitals, serving both Jews and Chinese. Even the Organization of Rehabilitation Through Training, more commonly known as ORT, was there providing diverse training for immigrants. Musical performances and lectures were regularly scheduled. Publishing thrived at many levels, from the children's paper The Totem, with the fabulous tagline, 'A Live Paper for Live Boys' to the Yiddish Almanack [sic] and the Shanghai Woche. The leading newspaper of the day was the Israel Messenger [sic], a daily. This proliferation of media helped people like Mr. Pan Guan compile The Jews in Shanghai, a pictorial history book which informs this article, as did the excellent tour led by Ai Ling, a student of Russian emigration to Israel, the Lonely Planet's Shanghai Guide, and Stanley Shapiro's Jews in Old China.

Dr. and Mrs. Albert Einstein visited Shanghai in the 1930's, and the wealthier half of the community boasted a Siberian Fur Store, ping pong teams, and annual 'Hanukah Balls.' The Palestine Company's Kosher store purveyed such items as 'geese, hens and ducks smoked and stuffed, brisket, tongue, and the back of dried carp.' Another fish called 'Nelma' was served, along with 'herring, salats and marinads, salted tomatoes,' even 'tallow larded and melted from the fat tail of sheep, at moderate prices.' Russian Jews drove the double-decker buses and taught in schools attended by both Jews and Chinese.

Many well known Jews lived in Shanghai. Peter Finklestein was born in Berlin in 1937, moved to Shanghai with his parents to escape the war, and re-settled in Brooklyn in 1953. He is better known as 1960s pop artist-icon Peter Max. His wife, Mary Balkan, is a Buffalonian. Another famous Shanghai Jew is Michael Weiner Blumenthal, the former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, whose signature can be seen on U.S. paper money, 1977 - 1979. More recently, during Nixon's presidency, Henry Kissinger conducted a good deal of diplomatic business in Shanghai and his autographed picture is displayed in the revolving Blue Heaven Restaurant atop Jing Jiang Tower. Another reminder of Jewish presence in Shanghai is the Hebrew, Chinese and English monument in tiny Huoshan Park which commemorates the former Hangkou ghetto. It was placed recently, in celebration of a visit by Yitzhak Rabin.

Today, Shanghai people are very proud of their role during the war. While visiting a re-creation of an old Shanghai street, an elderly Chinese gentleman paused to discuss the contents of a store window. We chatted for a while and when I said I was 'ju ta' (which is Mandarin for 'Jewish') he joyously shook my hand. The Deputy Chief Administrator and other staff and students at the Secretary-General Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, located at the Shanghai Municipal Center for International Studies, China's most important research center for Jewish, Israeli and Russian studies, were happy to meet with me. One Chinese professor said when he was a young boy in 1958, he had half-Jewish neighbors. When asked 'what’s your memory of them,' he replied, 'everyday they sew.'

I thought to myself, Chinese sew daily, too, and flashed on my Russian great-uncle Nat. He and his family came to the U.S. at the turn of the century, and like many Chinese immigrants, ran a laundry, in Rye, New York. Also, I am told that my grandfather jingled a bell from his horse and wagon to announce his availability for work. Chinese workers all over Shanghai practice this self-same advertising technique today. There has apparently always been a good deal of commonality between the neighboring Russian Jews and Chinese Buddhists.

In recent years, business has brought Jews back to Shanghai and today three hundred Jews live there, led by Rabbi Greenberg who maintains a website you can visit at: http://www.chinajewish.org and an e-mail address, at RabbiShalom@yahoo.com. He welcomes all Jewish guests and travelers to join their Chabad Lubavitch Shabbat services, strictly kosher meals, and ongoing activities.

There is no kosher restaurant in Shanghai but Rabbi Greenberg personally imports all the Kosher necessities and occasionally hosts Friday night dinners for the community at the Portman Ritz Carlton Hotel near Beijing Road. It is a few miles from the Bund, Shanghai's most famous and elegant street, named from the Hindi word for 'an embankment to prevent flooding.'

Although not Kosher, Jews can feel close to home in the Central Asian city of Xinjiang, another stop on the Silk Route, which is represented with a small neighborhood in Shanghai where one can sample their specialized cuisine. It consists of many spicy lamb dishes with healthy doses of cumin, wide rice noodles and wheat noodles, dumplings, and several unique breads, including a large bialy-type wheel with the same dotted markings as matzah, as well as what many historians recognize as the very first example of the bagel!

ZINJIANG MUSSULMAN ASHKANSAS at 57 Zhejiang Zhonglu in Shanghai's old town, sits the best of the many Uyghur restaurants. Shanghai's numerous late night soup stalls also proffer fried, puffy, round croutons that seem to be the same as Jewish mandlen (soup nuts), except they are often stuffed with pork, shrimp, and green chives before being dropped in boiling broth.

Jews and Chinese are two of the oldest civilizations in the world who have helped each other untold times over the centuries. A new Shanghai tourist brochure 'warmly welcomes Jewish friends all over the world, especially former Jewish refugees in Shanghai, to the Hangkou district to look round to visit old places, and to look for their roots so as to improve the traditional friendship between the Chinese and Jewish people one generation after another.'

Buffalo's Temple Beth Zion is indeed fortunate to have The Cofeld Museum which has made its history available to the congregation and the general public while simultaneously preserving its heritage for future generations. This is not the case in Shanghai's Ohel Moishe synagogue which does not have a single piece of historical Judaica in its collection. Mr. Wang, who is trying to build a collection, inquired, 'Oh, may I ask do you have some forms or documents or papers or pictures or articles or friends or anything else about Shanghai Jews? Any copies, or even just photocopies?' We laughed when I told him I had come to Shanghai to ask the same question.
Harley Spiller is a museum professional living in New York City who maintains the world's largest collection of Chinese menus. He was born and raised in Eggertsville and is forever 'talking proud.'

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