In 1930’s Shanghai, many organisations came to the aid of newly arrived Jewish refugees.
The Hilsfond (“Hilsfond Fuer Deutsche Juden”) was the oldest of the local relief organisations. Established in 1914 by Germans, the Hilsfond took care of the first Jewish arrivals from Austria after the ‘Anschluss’ (the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938) and provided continuous support to the community.
Also known as the Komor Committee after its Hungarian secretary and administrator, Paul Komor, the International Committee for Granting Relief to European Refugees was established in 1938 and was administered by old-time Shanghailanders. In its early days, the Komor Committee collected monthly subscriptions to provide refugees with room and board, and assistance in finding jobs and financial support. They worked closely with the Shanghai Municipal Police to keep a central registry of all immigrants and issued passports, known as “Komorpasses”.
The Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees in Shanghai was the first communal endeavour between the Baghdadi and Russian Jewish communities, founded after a meeting in the offices of Sir Elly Kadoorie & Sons in 1938. Under the active leadership of Michael Speelman, it became known as the Speelman Committee. Seven sub-committees were formed in an attempt to streamline all existing agencies, including those dealing with housing, medical care, employment and finance.
The Council of the Jewish Community was founded in 1949 for the welfare of China Jewry. When the American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) closed its Shanghai office in 1951, the Council took over the administrative work in connection with the global repatriation and resettlement of Jews residing in China.
I’ve written extracts from the Council’s 1956 report below:
Economic Welfare and Relief
Shelter House and Free Meals
During 1956 the Shelter House harboured an average of 14 inmates and dispensed free meals to a daily average of about 23 persons; in the first six months of 1957 the average number of inmates was 13, while the average number of persons was about 13. The cost of supplying two meals daily to each person was approximately Yen 40.00 per month.
Mr. E Abraham had been acting as Shohet in an honorary capacity up to his departure in November 1956, and was succeeded by Mr. I. Udovich. Mr. & Mrs. G Gleizer acted as supervisors of the Shelter House and Kosher Kitchen.
Seward Road Camp (961 Tung Chang Chi Lu)
The Seward Road Camp is one of the many camps which housed European refugees during World War II. There were 11 inmates domiciled in the Camp during the period under review. The premises are owned by Messrs. E. D. Sassoon & Co., Ltd. Shanghai, and have been used free of charge by the indigent Jews for many years. Mr. H. Lewin supervises the Camp.
In order to alleviate the suffering of the mental and chronic cases two nurses are employed in the Shelter House to look after them as before. It must be mentioned that many critical cases have been averted due to the promptness of the United Hias Service in Hongkong in sending the required medicines to the sick. Dr. S. Hocs and Dr. G Rosenkevitch served as Medical Advisors for the Community with marked efficiency.
Religious and Cultural Activities
As mentioned in the last year’s report after the disposal of the Synagogue on Hsiang Yang Road, services have been regularly held in the new Synagogue at the Shanghai Jewish Centre. In spite of the diminishing number of Jews in Shanghai, attendance in the Synagogue has continued to be gratifying in the circumstances.
As in the preceding four years, Matzoth were baked locally and distributed free of charge to all needy Jews in Shanghai. As in the past, the highest grade of wheat flour was allotted by the Food Administration Bureau and sympathetic cooperation was rendered by the bakery were the Matzoth were prepared in accordance with Jewish rituals. Due to technical difficulties in Tientsin, 250lbs. of Matzoth were sent by train for gratuitous distribution among the Jews in that district.
Reading and Recreation Room
Since the closure and liquidation of the Shanghai Jewish Club on December 31 1955 the reading and recreation room has afforded books, periodicals and newspapers to the local Jews. The room has also been used for Hebrew Classes, Children’s parties and other activities.
The four Jewish cemeteries in Shanghai continued in the care of the Council. All graves and memorial stones are constantly kept in good condition under the able supervision of Mr. H. Lewin.
By July 1956, the centralised management of the properties and the internal affairs of both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic Communal Associations had merged into the Council’s office. The works in connection with the two communal associations have been handled by the Council staff. The legal entities of the Communal Associations have been preserved. In line with a general decree by the Government, land tax on properties owned by or managed by Jewish organisations has been altered to property tax which has been levied at 18% on rentals received since the fourth quarter of 1956.
As the number of remaining Jews in Shanghai gradually diminished, the manifold works of the Council had devolved upon the few members who have been serving selflessly for the welfare of the Jewish Community.
Mr. R.D. Abraham: Mr. R.D. Abraham resigned his membership of the Council on September 1 1956, but continued to give the benefit of his experience and advice up to the time of his departure from Shanghai in November 1956. Any attempt to evaluate his service to the Jewish Community within the limitation of this Report would be hopelessly inadequate. Following the noble tradition of his forebears, he left behind him a record of a life-long devotion to the interests of the community. Whole-heartedly and unobtrusively he identified himself with all aspects of our communal activities, so that every Jewish institution, Religious, Cultural, Social or otherwise bears the impress of his work. His long tenure of leadership as Chairman of the Council since its inception in 1949 will always remain a cherished memory. It was under his able captaincy that the Council was steered through difficult times and the care and welfare of our brethren in China enhanced. Every Jew who is or has been in China will remember R.D. Abraham with gratitude and affection.
Mr. Ezekiel Abraham: Equally noted for religious and charitable activities is Mr. E Abraham who served as Hon. Treasurer of the Council until his subsequent departure from Shanghai. During a long period of social work, he gave unstintingly of his time and energy in the cause of communal welfare, and his cheerful readiness to assist any one who applied to him had endeared him to all and has made his name synonymous with selfless service.
Mr. K.I. Kushner: Mr. K.I Kushner served as member of the Council and later succeeded Mr. E. Abraham as Hon. Treasurer. Though his service was brief, his work with marked distinction will be long remembered.
Mr. N.L Schifrin: Mr. N. Schifrin succeeded Mr. Kushner as Hon. Treasurer of the Council. In addition to the many works devolved upon him due to the departure of honorary members of the Council, Mr. Schifrin had inaugurated a Hebrew Class and taught the Jewish children with admirable fervency to see that those children were well-equipped Hebraically. Mr. Schifrin has rendered invaluable services to the community in many facets.
Staff: Mr. A.M Bagg continued in rendering invaluable service up till his departure in March 1957. The Council staff consists mainly of Chinese who have worked many years with the Jewish organisations and have performed their duties to the full satisfaction of the Council.
‘Shanghai … life itself … nothing more intensely living can be imagined … So much life, so carefully canalised, so rapidly and strongly flowing, the spectacle of it inspires something like terror’. – Aldous Huxley
‘Shanghai, this electric and lurid city, more exciting than any other in the world’.– J.G. Ballard
For almost 100 years, Shanghai had been home to a small, close-knit Sephardi community of Baghdadi Jews. The Sassoons were the first to establish themselves in Shanghai in 1850, and were successful traders. Others, such as the Kadoories, the Abrahams, Ezras and Hardoons, most of whom started out working for the Sassoons, soon prospered as successful businessmen in their own right. Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews arrived in the early 20th century from Russia following the anti-Jewish pogrom of 1905 (Kiev Pogrom) and later the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Following the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria fled to Shanghai, attracted by the city’s visa free status. The established Jewish communities of Shanghai immediately began fundraising activities to deal with the refugee’s most urgent needs. Horace Kadoorie founded the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association (SJYA) to provide a meal programme, medical supplies and employment bureau to meet the refugee’s most urgent needs. The SJYA School was opened in November 1939 at 100 Kinchow Road (today, Jingzhou Road) to supplement the overcrowded Shanghai Jewish School. The school was highly regarded due to its emphasis on sports, cultural and social activities, and its high calibre of teaching staff.
Over the last couple of days, I’ve been compiling a list of Hong Kong companies that employed Jewish refugees. As I discover more employers, several questions crop up: did they hire Jewish refugees because of their skills, or as a humanitarian gesture? What were the hiring practices of the time? To use Catherine Ladds’ term, how were refugees able to navigate and exploit the ‘imperial circuits’ used by mobile Europeans in China?
To answer these questions, I need to begin with the employers themselves. Here’s a little background on the companies I have found so far:
The Comptoir Anglo-Continental hired several Jewish refugees. This company is proving particularly elusive, although I believe it was a British bank.
Post-publishing note: I’ve since discovered that Hans Diestel, a Jewish refugee escaping the bombardment of Shanghai in 1937, was hired by The Comptoir Anglo-Continental in Hong Kong in around June 1938. He was also the Joint-Secretary of the Jewish Refugee Society. Could he have been responsible for hiring several Jewish refugees?
Gilmans & Co. was another firm that employed Jewish refugees. It’s listed in Solomon Bard’s Traders of Hong Kong: Some Foreign Merchant Houses, 1841 – 1899 (1993) as one of the oldest firms in China, founded by Richard James Gilman. In its early years, the company exported tea and silk and imported textiles, it also played an important role in the formation of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, today’s HSBC. Although the company floundered in China, it survived in Hong Kong and diversified into the motor car trade. Its legacy can be seen in Hong Kong’s street names: Gilman’s Bazaar and Gilman Street.
Post-publishing note: Paul Braga, friend and business associate of the Kadoories, was a senior manager at Gilmans in the 1930s. M.H. Rackusan, a member of the Ohel Leah Synagogue, also worked here. Could they have collaborated to hire Jewish refugees in the firm?
Carlowitz & Co. was the only German entity to employ Jewish refugees, although this is partly explained by the fact that many German companies did not return to Hong Kong after the First World War. The founder Richard von Carolwitz was born in Dresden. Carlowitz & Co. started life as a shipping and merchant house in Canton, and later branched out into insurance in the various treaty ports of China.
Whilst working through the World Jewish Congress (WJC) records at the American Jewish Archives, I became intrigued by letters written by Professor William (Wilhelm) Deman. Although Professor Deman did not transit through Hong Kong, his plight tells us much about the Kafkaesque difficulties faced by refugees in the immediate post-Holocaust and post-war world – when immigration barriers and quota restrictions remained firmly in place – as well as refugee decisions to leave Shanghai, contentions surrounding repatriation vs. resettlement, and finally, the schisms within the refugee community itself. I’m also interested in Professor Deman as a refugee humanitarian actor. He ran the Gregg School of Business in Shanghai, a valuable training centre for refugees, as well as the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association club, founded by Horace Kadoorie. From 1947 to 1949, Professor Deman was also the Secretary of the Association of Small Quota Committees, formed to agitate for the rights of so-called ‘small quota’ individuals from Austria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Lithuania and Turkey to enter the U.S.
First, a little background on the bureaucratic impasse faced by those from ‘small quota’ countries in Shanghai. President Truman’s directives on immigration in December 1945 gave two-thirds of quotas for all countries for one year to Germany under blanket corporate affidavits. This measure was good news for German Jews in Shanghai hoping to enter the U.S. Adversely, it also split families, for example a German-born woman married to an Austrian or Polish man could not emigrate to America as a couple. To illustrate the difficulties faced by ‘small quota’ individuals, the total number of quotas allotted to Shanghai for Poles, Czechs, Romanians and Hungarians for the year 1947 to 1948 amounted to only 220. As Marcia Ristaino has written, the Displaced Persons Act of June 1948 was a further blow for Shanghai’s refugees. It centred on clearing Austria, Germany and Italy of DPs, and consequently, Shanghai was forgotten.
Professor Deman wrote regularly to Kurt Grossman, the WJC representative in New York, on the issue of small quota emigration. His letters become increasingly desperate as the economic and political climate in China disintegrates, anti-foreign sentiment takes hold, and the Communists approach Shanghai. Deman’s letters also articulate the desires of some 1,314 refugees to emigrate to the States. They speak of a universal yearning to be reunited with surviving family members and describe how professional, middle aged refugees had learned English in Shanghai, meaning that both their familial and professional lives were tied to the United States. The letters also give a very raw insight into the psychological impact of waiting and of the ruin of lives lived with uncertainty.
The Association of Small Quota Committees emerges as a highly organised and resourceful organisation, demonstrating that refugees were not passive victims of circumstance but highly engaged with the changing tides of international politics and immigration legislation. Committee members write pleading letters to the head of the U.S. Visa Section, the State Department, and even President Truman. They are vocal and imaginative in devising strategies to enter the U.S. – opting for temporary evacuation to Japan, Hawaii or Cuba – and often reject suggestions from the WJC, including evacuation to Samar Island on the Philippines.The organisation also acts as a conduit of information for the WJC, who have no representatives on the ground in China (their China Section is made up of refugees), and the data they provide is used as the basis for WJC bulletins.
At the beginning of 1949, as the British, French and American governments evacuate their civilians from China, the situation becomes increasingly desperate and this sparks a schism within the refugee committee, a rebellion led by Professor Deman. He becomes disillusioned with futile hopes of resettlement and opts for repatriation. In February 1949, he sets sails on the S.S. Meigs to San Francisco, where he takes a sealed train to New York. Refugees are allowed to meet with friends and family for one hour on Ellis Island before taking a second ship to Italy where they continue their journeys.
Kurt Grossman writes an account of his 60-minute meeting with Professor Deman at Ellis Island. In many ways his eloquent prose captures the desperate plight of refugees across the globe:
‘May I say a word about the procedure which the United States authorities have applied in handling these transports. The Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco and then are taken under rigid supervision through the United States without allowing anybody to leave either the transport or Ellis Island. The relatives, among them brothers, sisters, and children, are permitted to see their kin for not quite one hour. The psychological effect must be a devastating one. The most depressing scenes take place. From Ellis Island the people can see the Statue of Liberty but the solemn words engraved therein remain just words and the promise they convey remains unfulfilled. Technically and according to regulations everything is in order, but from a human point of view, the treatment of the Jewish refugees coming from Shanghai is cruel. It is obvious that people who have not seen each other for ten years find 40 to 50 minutes inadequate. Departing from Ellis Island, after being with those refugees for one hour, leaves you with a lump in your throat.’