Shànghǎi has two centuries of strong Jewish connections. Established Middle Eastern Sephardic Jewish families, such as the Hardoons, Ezras, Kadoories and Sassoons, built their fortunes in Shànghǎi (the Sassoons' fortune came largely from opium and the cotton trade), establishing at least seven synagogues and many Jewish hospitals and schools. It was Victor Sassoon who famously remarked: ‘There is only one race greater than the Jews and that’s the Derby.’
A second group of Jews, this time Ashkenazi, arrived via Siberia, Hā’ěrbīn and Tiānjīn from Russia after anti-Jewish pogroms in 1906. The biggest influx, however, came between 1933 and 1941, when 30,000 mostly Ashkenazi Jews arrived from Europe by boat from Italy or by train via Siberia. Many had been issued with visas to cross China by Ho Fengshan, Chinese consul general in Vienna, who was recently honoured as the ‘Chinese Schindler’.
Shànghǎi was one of the few safe havens for Jews fleeing the Holocaust in Europe, as it required neither a passport nor visa to stay. Gestapo agents followed the refugees and, in 1942, tried to persuade the Japanese to build death camps on Chongming Island. Instead, in 1943, the Japanese forced Jews to move into a ‘Designated Area for Stateless Refugees’ in Hóngkǒu.
The Jewish ghetto (stateless Russians didn’t have to live here) became home to Jews from all walks of life. It grew to shelter a synagogue, schools, a local paper, hospitals and enough cafes, rooftop gardens and restaurants to gain the epithet ‘Little Vienna’. Those Jews who held jobs in the French Concession had to secure passes from the Japanese, specifically the notoriously unpredictable and violent Mr Goya. Poorer refugees were forced to bunk down in cramped hostels known as Heime, and had to rely on the generosity of others. As the wealthy Anglophile Jewish trading families had left in 1941, the situation was tight. Still, the refugees heard of events in distant Europe and realised perhaps that they were the lucky ones.
Today there are a few remainders of Jewish life in Shànghǎi, such as the Ohel Moishe Synagogue and the former Jewish Club (1932) in the grounds of the Conservatory of Music, where concerts are still performed. The Ohel Rachel Synagogue was built by Jacob Elias Sassoon in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, it remains closed to the public. Nearby are the remains of the school founded on the grounds by Horace Kadoorie.