In the 1930s, the Jewish community of Hong Kong was small but diverse. Although the core of the community was made up of wealthy Jewish merchants from Baghdad, known as ‘Baghdadi Jews’, there was also a small contingent of Ashkenazi Jews who had escaped pogroms and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, as well as Russian Jews formerly from Harbin, Manchuria. Many left Harbin for Hong Kong after the Japanese occupation in 1932. They were joined by European Jews (mainly German and Austrian) in 1938 when Hitler’s persecution of the Jews intensified.
As shown by the ‘List of Subscribers’ document (above), the Baghdadi community dominated Jewish life in Hong Kong. They were both its religious and social leaders and enjoyed close ties with the British ruling classes. Baghdadi families such as the Josephs, Kadoories, Gubbays, Abrahams and Raymonds were often closely related through family or business connections. The Sassoons are listed as the donors of the Synagogue, although by 1939 they no longer lived in Hong Kong. Subscribers such as Monia Talan (Russian), Harry Oscar Odell (Russian) and Dr. Siegfried Szarfstein Ramler (Polish) betray a small but significant non-Baghdadi presence.
During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (1941 – 1945), Jewish residents were either interned as civilians, fought and died as part of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC), or were at liberty because of their German nationality (Germany being an ally of Japan). Jewish soldiers who died defending Hong Kong included Hebert Samuel (German of Polish origin), the statistician at CLP, and Samuel Liborwich (British) of the Middlesex Regiment.