Shanghai’s Jews

The city of Shanghai was home to some 20,000 Jews in the years  during and immediately following World War II. (Provided)
The city of Shanghai was home to some 20,000 Jews in the years during and immediately following World War II. (Provided)

The Jewish refugee history of Shanghai will be the topic of choice at the eighth annual Herbert H. and Irma B. Risch Memorial Program on Immigration on Sunday, May 18.

“We always think West,” said Rabbi Marvin Tokayer. “We don’t think of Jews being in Bombay or Shanghai.”

Tokayer, who spent two years living in Tokyo and leading the Jewish community east of Siberia, will be the featured presenter at the program. In the years since he returned to the United States in the 1970s, educating people about the Jewish history in Asia has been a major part of his life.

The first wave of Jewish immigration into Shanghai began in the late 1840s, when the country’s eastern coast opened to foreign traders, according to Chabad’s Shanghai Jewish Center. By 1938, the city had become a refuge for Jews escaping war-torn Europe.

“Shanghai was the pits,” said Tokayer. Penniless Jewish refugees came to the run-down metropolis by the thousands. A loophole that allowed immigrants to enter the city without a visa resulted in some 20,000 European Jews taking refuge in Shanghai from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, when the growing popularity of Communism resulted in emigration of Jews to places like Israel, Australia and the United States.

Frank Risch, who founded the program in partnership with the Jewish Museum of Maryland as a tribute in his parents’ memory, first met Tokayer when he and his wife took part in a tour of parts of Asia through the Jewish Museum. The juxtaposition of the terrible reputation of the Japanese military during World War II and the Japanese people’s willingness to take in Europe’s Jewish refugees fascinated him from the very start.

“It’s a tremendous story,” said Risch. “Most people just have no idea.”

While past programs have spread the focus to tales of immigration from all walks of life, this year’s focus is far more specific, dealing with the path of the Jews who were able to escape Europe for the East.

It’s about “how did you get here and what did you have to do to get here?” he said.

Though Risch’s family did not head east from Europe, escaping, instead, to America in 1938, he has a special fondness for this year’s program.

Risch’s own parents were members of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and his cousin, Martha Weiman, is the congregation’s current president.

“We’re very excited,” he said. Though Risch and his wife now live in Texas, they journey back to Baltimore every year from the program. This year’s, he said, promises to be especially interesting.

“We’re all descended from an immigrant experience,” he said. “Most of our knowledge as American Jews tends to focus on Eastern Europe and Western Europe and the various ways of immigration to the United States. Very few of us have been focused on the Asian experience and [Tokayer] has really made that his life’s work.”

Tokayer describes his time in Japan as a great learning experience. While anti-Semitism has been a problem woven throughout much of Jewish history, places like China, India and Japan have been all but immune to it.

The relationship between the Jewish community and the local community in most parts of Asia, he said, is a “mutually respected relationship.”

“We’re blinded by the West,” said Tokayer. But “the future is in China, India, Japan, Vietnam.”

He continued: “We have to learn from our history.”

Program Details
The Eighth Annual Herbert H. and Irma B. Risch Memorial Program on Immigration will take place on Sunday, May 18, at 2 p.m. at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave. Admission is free.


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