China & the Jews

Posted on April 30th, 2014 by

We are less than a month away from the eighth annual Herbert H and Irma B Risch Program on Immigration.  This year’s program, to be held at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation at 2 p.m. on May 18, features Rabbi Marvin Tokayer.  Rabbi Tokayer will be speaking on the topic of the Shanghai refugees, the remarkable Jewish community that not only survived WWII but also flourished in the years that followed (former Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal among them).   The selection of this year’s program was influenced by JMM’s current exhibition, Project Mah Jongg, and its focus on cultural connections between Jewish Americans and Chinese traditions.

Mark Your Calendar!

Mark Your Calendar!

The connections between Jews and China are far older than most people think.  The merchant trade of the Silk Road brought the first Jews to this part of the world by the time of the 8th century Tang Dynasty.  When Marco Polo arrives in Beijing in the late 1200s he finds an active community of Jewish traders.  Kaifeng contained perhaps the largest and most enduring Chinese Jewish population, preserving kashreit and shabbat well into the 1700s.

Jews of K’ai-Fun-Foo (Kaifeng Subprefecture), China. Image via wikipedia.

In the modern era China has been a place of refuge for Jews on more than one occasion.  When the Inquisition reached Goa, India in 1560, the demand was made that Portuguese marranos and “New Christians” return to Portugal and the punishments meted out to the unfaithful.  A group of Portuguese marranos went further east to Macao instead.  “Captain” Bartolomeu Vaz Landeiro was among the most notable of these refugees. Taking on a role that combined piracy and diplomacy, Landeiro became an agent for the local Chinese authorities in their dealings with the European powers.  Without any sense of irony, his Chinese neighbors would call Landeiro, “The King of the Portuguese.”

Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, painting by Moshe Maimon. Image via wikipedia.

Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, painting by Moshe Maimon. Image via wikipedia.

In 1844, it was the opium trade that brought Elias David Sassoon, son of the treasurer of Baghdad, to China.  Initially setting up shop in Hong Kong, Sassoon becomes the first Jewish member of the international colony in Shanghai in 1850.  The big break for the Sassoons is the American Civil War.  Suddenly, Chinese cotton becomes an important international commodity and Elias David Sassoon its most prominent dealer.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Image via wikipedia.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Image via wikipedia.

In the early 1900s, Jews fleeing pogroms in Western Russia, managed to make it across the Trans-Siberian Railway to settle in Harbin, China.

And perhaps the most interesting Jewish emigre to China is Morris Cohen (known more commonly as “Two Gun Cohen”).  Cohen was a British born pickpocket, pugilist and con artist (as a boy, in a scene right out of American Hustle  Cohen is employed by glazier, breaking  windows to bring in business).  After leaving reform school in England, Cohen headed to Saskatchewan, Canada where he was hired on as a farmhand and taught to shoot with a gun in both hands.  He made an unlikely friendship with a Chinese restaurant owner in Saskatoon whom he saved from an armed robbery.  This brought him into the inner circle of Cantonese Canadians who were supporting Sun Yatsen independence movement against the child emperor PuYi (think Last Emperor of China).  He eventually became a body guard for Sun Yatsen and his family and later a “Brigadier General” under Chiang Kai Shek.

Image via.

Image via.

If these stories pique your interest, I have two resources to suggest:

1) There is a terrific on line magazine called Asian Jewish Life at www.asianjewishlife.org.  You will find much more detail on “Two-Gun Cohen” in one of their archival issues – this one to be exact!

2) In addition to his lecture in May, Rabbi Tokayer runs a series of highly-rated kosher tours of Jewish history in Asia.  His next China-Japan tour is in July.  You can find more information at www.jewisheyes.com.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here. 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




JMM Insights April 2014

Posted on April 18th, 2014 by

Above the Sea

Each year the Jewish Museum of Maryland offer a major presentation on immigration made possible through the generous support of Frank and Helen Risch.  Frank’s parents, Herbert H. and Irma B. Risch, sought refuge in Baltimore in 1937, fleeing the storm of Nazi persecution.

In the first seven years of this program, we have focused on the experience of emigration and exile in America, offering performances, stories and lectures on immigrant populations from the great wave of Eastern European Jews of the late 1890s to the most recent arrivals from around the globe.  This year we are offering insights into another way station of refuge, thousands of miles from our shores.  Shanghai, whose name literally means “above the sea” was high ground for thousands of Jews escaping from the same forces that brought the Risch family to Baltimore.

Mark Your Calendar!

Mark Your Calendar!

Helping us explore this topic is an exceptional expert, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer. Rabbi Tokayer previously served as United States Air Force Chaplain in Japan. Upon his discharge he returned to Tokyo to serve for eight years as rabbi for the Jewish community of Japan. In addition to numerous Japanese-language books and contributions to the Encyclopedia Judaica, Rabbi Tokayer is the author of The Fugu Plan, and co-author of the newly published Pepper, Silk and Ivory: Amazing Stories about Jews and the Far East.

Additions for the "to be read" pile!

Additions for the “to be read” pile!

Rabbi Tokayer has entitled his talk:  “From Poverty to Culture: The Refugee Community in Shanghai During World War ll.” This will be a powerful evocation of how the 20,000 Jews of Shanghai struggled against impossible odds to not only survive, but thrive in this unexpected refuge. The program will be held Sunday, May 18th at 2:00pm and will take place at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, located 7401 Park Heights Ave, Baltimore, MD 21208.  The program is free to the public – so be sure to invite all your friends!

To coincide with the Risch Memorial Program we are putting together a small lobby display using materials from our collections, which will be on view during the month of May.   It turns out that Baltimore and the Jewish Museum of Maryland both have some strong connections to the Jews of Shanghai. You may have noticed the photograph used in this year’s Risch Memorial Program publicity, which pictures a couple sitting in a rickshaw. We would like to introduce you to that couple: Wilheim Kurz and Selma (Hirschfeld) Kurz. Wilheim and Selma were both Holocaust survivors. They met as refugees and theirs was the first Jewish wedding in the Shanghai Jewish colony!  They moved to Baltimore in 1947 and Wilheim was kind enough to bequeath his Jewish materials (including photographs and archival documents) to the Museum. We are hard at work transcribing an oral history done with Wilheim in 1979 and look forward to sharing more of Wilheim and Selma’s story with you as it is revealed.

Wilheim and Selma Kurz, 2004.43.4.

Wilheim and Selma Kurz, 2004.43.4.

We know there are more legacies of the Jewish Colony in Shanghai out there! We’ve identified at least two other individuals associated with the city who now reside in the metro area.  We encourage you to contact us with your stories and your materials. And if you know anyone who lived in Shanghai, we would love to invite them to the program – please send us their contact information. If you have any information to share, contact Trillion Attwood at tattwood@jewishmuseummd.org /410-732-6400 x215.

Shanghai Ghetto in 1943

Shanghai Ghetto in 1943

If you’re interested in learning more about the Jewish Colony of Shanghai, there is actually a pretty good start at Wikipedia, but we know our JMM explorers will want to go further. If you are seeking a list of the numerous books and memoirs about the experience, including Rabbi Tokayer’s The Fugu Plan, you can find a great collected list here at the The Shanghai Jewish Tours website. If you happen to be traveling, you might want to stop by China’s Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum – last year they sent their “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941)” exhibit on a three city tour of the US.  There’s even a Chinese animated family film (and graphic novel) called A Jewish Girl in Shanghai – and you can rent a streaming copy here. 

Check the JMM website for an upcoming blog post on Jewish-Chinese connections and if you are looking for the lighter side of that connection – find a foursome and visit (or revisit) Project Mah Jongg.

 

 

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland