The Sassoon Family

The Sassoons pioneered Baghdadi Jewish migration to the Far East. Hailing from Baghdad, Iraq, the Sassoons were Chief Bankers to the Pashas. Following increasing persecution of the Jewish community in Baghdad, the Sassoons fled to Bombay where patriarch David Sassoon opened his modest trading house (which later became David Sassoon & Sons) in 1832. In 1844 David’s son Elias Sassoon arrived in Canton as the first Jewish merchant to work in the factories, and in 1850 made Shanghai his personal base. Within five years the Sassoons had a solid footing along the whole China coast. E.D. Sassoon & Co., Elias Sassoon’s business, was opened in Hong Kong in 1867. The Sassoon family set up institutions in China and Hong Kong to preserve Baghdadi Jewish traditions.

Sir Victor Sassoon

Victor Sassoon (1881 – 1961) was the grandson of Elias Sassoon, and known as the ‘J.P. Morgan of the Orient’. During Victor’s tenure, E.D. Sassoon & Co. was primarily involved in banking and property and owned some of the best property sites in Shanghai. Sir Victor was heavily involved in philanthropy, notably helping Jewish refugees who had escaped Nazi persecution in Shanghai.

For more information on the Sassoon Family and other Baghdadis in Shanghai, I highly recommend Maisie Meyer’s latest book ‘Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews, A Collection of Biographical Reflections’, which can be purchased here. You can also check out her website which has extracts of select biographies here.


Refugee Aid

Committee for the Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai

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 Jews of China

Jews of Kaifeng, late 19th or early 20th century, c. Wikipedia

Although there has been a Jewish presence in Hong Kong since the mid-nineteenth century, Jews were travelling, trading and inter-marrying in China much before this time. Scholars debate the exact arrival of Jews to Kaifeng – estimated between the Tang Dynasty to the Northern Song Dynasty. Kaifeng was then a cosmopolitan city on a branch of the silk road, and the capital of the North Song Dynasty. A small community of Jews from India and Persia arrived in the city to trade and built a synagogue in 1163. They were welcomed by the emperor and permitted to become citizens of the capital. Over the course of time, Chinese and Jews intermarried. Despite their isolation from the Jewish Diaspora, Kaifeng Jews kept their traditions and customs alive for centuries, although increasing inter-marriage and assimilation began to erode these traditions. Eventually, worship services discontinued and in the 1850s impoverished families were impelled to sell some of their Torah Scrolls. Traces of a Jewish presence can still be found in Kaifeng today.

For more information on the current situation in Kaifeng, see the following articles:

The Sino-Judaic Institute, Crisis in Kaifeng

The New York Times, Chinese Jews of Ancient Lineage Huddle under Pressure