S.F. Sephardi will share Shanghai ties

San Francisco banker Matook Nissim had hardly talked of his pre-World War II past to his own children when Stanford's Hoover Institution asked him to give an oral history of his youth in China.

While his story could be told in sundry fashion by other Shanghai refugees living here, Nissim's account differs from most because he was a third-generation Shanghai resident. His family was part of a banking clan of Jews from India.

The original 19th-century clan prospered in the Far East after investing in the tea, real estate and later the opium trade. They built synagogues, hotels, roads and schools, Nissim said in an interview.

The region's Sephardim numbered close to 2,000 at their peak, according to Nissim. By the end of World War II, Shanghai was also home to 7,000 Russian Jews and 22,000 Jews from throughout Europe.

Nissim will join about 17 family members Thursday, Nov. 12 for the opening of the Hoover Institution exhibit. The display includes his family's papers and photos documenting the Sephardim's little-known history in Shanghai.

"I didn't feel qualified to talk about the era before now," said Nissim, who left China at age 26. After recently published histories of Shanghai's Jews raised much interest locally, the modest 75-year-old said he's ready to divulge his past.

Nissim's family history will be kept at the Hoover Institution along with biographies of other Jews from Shanghai. But his is one of only a few Sephardi accounts in the collection, according to Elena Danielson, head Hoover Institution archivist.

In the interview, Nissim recalled a happy childhood in prewar Shanghai. After graduation, the youth entered the banking and real estate business with the E.D. Sassoon Banking empire, which had originally relocated Nissim's grandfather from British-ruled India. Nissim's grandmother, also of Indian origin, was born in Shanghai.

Leaving India for the Far East was no stretch for the rootless family, whose ancestors had relocated to India from Baghdad. The Nissims belonged to a close-knit Orthodox community and attended the Sephardic Beth Aharon synagogue, where Nissim's father was secretary of the board.

It was at Beth Aharon that the community housed its first wave of war refugees, a group of 200 Jews from Lithuania's Vilna Ghetto, Nissim recalled. The Orthodox refugees arrived in Shanghai via Kobe, Japan. When their boat prepared to leave Kobe just before Shabbat, they were forced to buy it for $1, thereby rendering the craft a temporary home, rather than a conveyance. After sundown Saturday, they sold the ship back to the captain for $1.

Fifteen-year-old Nissim heard their story from a refugee who spoke English. It was one of many stories shared that first night in the sanctuary of Beth Aharon, where mattresses were provided for the Vilna refugees.

After unloading the mattresses, Nissim said, "Daddy, are we going home now?'

"And he said, `No. We're staying the night.' I said, `Why?' He told me, `Because they are just like us and we are just like them and we are all together so we will spend the night with them.'"

The exchange was prophetic as the Sephardic community helped to settle many more Ashkenazi refugees in the years to come. Sir Victor Sassoon of E.D. Sassoon Banking established a "thrift," where the newcomers could get blankets, shoes and other necessities. Although their customs were different, the yeshiva students frequented the Sephardic synagogues and schools.

Although the two communities lived together amicably, the language barrier prevented commingling.

Later, however, Nissim said he came to know some Ashkenazi youths when the entire Jewish community of Shanghai was held in a Yangchow detention camp for more than two years.

The Jews in Yangchow found out that Hitler, having learned of the camp's existence, sent an emissary to negotiate for the Jews' annihilation. The emissary even had a date for the killing, but the Japanese would not honor it.

According to Nissim, the Japanese had high regard for the intellectual sensibilities of the Jews. They also believed that Jews controlled the U.S. Congress and might be provoked by the mass killing of their brethren.

When the war ended, the Nissim family fortune was gone. Their home, used during the war to detain more than 100 Italian POWs, was trashed. Their real estate holdings were annexed by Mao Tse-tung's Communist empire. And E.D. Sassoon Banking had evaporated.

After several years of hand-to-mouth living, the Nissim family scattered to Hong Kong, London, Israel, France and the United States. Mattook Nissim worked a short while in Hong Kong and with the Magic Carpet Operation, which transported Yemenite Jews to Israel.

He immigrated to the United States in 1952. Since then, Nissim has been active in the San Francisco Jewish community through the boards of Sinai Memorial Chapel, Hebrew Free Loan Association and Magain David Sephardic Congregation. He was a co-founder of San Francisco's Hebrew Academy.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.