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.
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.
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.
In August 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai, 4,000 British men, women and children were evacuated to Hong Kong by order of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Some 200 British and Iraqi Jews were amongst the evacuees. Iraqi Jews had a confused and complicated status in China, where most sought British protection. As Maisie Meyer has shown, the British policy of naturalization was inconsistent and largely dependent on economic, social and humanitarian considerations including the status, wealth and position of Iraqi Jews (in the 1920s and 1930s around one third of Shanghai Sephardim were recognized as British subjects).
The British government’s evacuation selection process, as well as shipping priorities and funding for specific evacuee groups, demonstrated its narrow understanding of British identity as influenced by religion and race, as well as the legal privilege attached to British status. The 1937 British refugee crisis also parallels the evacuation of British women and children from Hong Kong to Australia in the summer of 1941, which was also executed along racial lines. During my visit to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee archive in New York, I came across the following article which recounts the impact of the bombing raids on the Jewish community and their dispersal across Asia – including to Hong Kong.
Shanghai in the Shadows (October 1937)
Jews are bearing their full measure of suffering in war-torn Shanghai, where they are faced with a truly desperate situation. Refugee members of the community whose homes were in the Northern District have seen there possessions reduced to ashes, and others fear that looters have been busy in their absence. These people are now without means of subsistence or employment, for most of them owned shops, cafes and small factories, and among them are German Jews, now refugees twice over, they were just beginning to establish themselves in Shanghai when the new upheaval overwhelmed them.
The refugees are receiving aid from the local ‘Shelter House’ which is doing excellent work, and from other organisations, or have been taken in by friends, but their position is an unhappy one, for the community has been very hard hit by the present crisis. However, together with funds collected in Shanghai, there have been contributions from Jews in Kobe, Manila and elsewhere.
Apart from the refugees, other Jews who left for Shanghai for a brief summer vacation to Tsingtao Dairen, Japan or Kuling are stranded, as ships bringing as few people as possible to Shanghai and they write frantically for permission from the authorities to return, both of which are very difficult to obtain. A third group consists of Jews who left for Hong Kong. Approximately 200 hundreds Jews availed themselves of the opportunity afforded by the British authorities and were evacuated to Hong Kong, where they are being cared for as far as possible by the local Jewish community. However, the island is overcrowded, and many inconveniences have to be borne.
During the air-raids over the Settlement on August 14 and 23, six Jews were killed and several injured. Among the injured was a Jewess newly arrived from Kalgan who expected to find safety in Shanghai. On Yom Kippur, the evening service was conducted to the accompaniment of an air-raid, with a crescendo of loud and successive explosions, and the whine of aeroplane engines as an undertone. It was with heartfelt emotion and earnestness that prayers were offered up for a new year of peace among nations.
 Meyer, Maisie, From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai (Lanham, 2003), 194 – 195