Chinas Jewish dynasty: Local Jews recall a childhood in the Far East

All he has to do is close his eyes, and Mat Nissim is back in Shanghai.

He’s back in an elegant house with 14 servants and a brood of hens in the yard. He’s back at his parent’s dinner table where, depending on the guests, the conversation might be in Hindi, French, English or Shanghai’s unique Chinese dialect.

Nissim, 86, has lived in the Bay Area since the early 1950s. However, half a century is not enough to erase his memories of growing up Jewish in Shanghai from the 1920s through the 1940s. Today the semi-retired banker proudly claims his Chinese heritage.

“I wish I never had to leave Shanghai,” says Nissim from his Walnut Creek home.  “I’d still be there today.”

Nissim and two other local Jews in their 80s and 90s — Inna Mink of Larkspur and Hyman Gurman of San Francisco — probably won’t make it back to their former homeland of China anytime soon.

But thanks to an ambitious yearlong exhibition that started last month, Shanghai is coming here.

The Shanghai Celebration is a multi-venue festival honoring San Francisco’s sister city, with presentations staged by various institutions around the Bay Area, mostly in San Francisco. The exhibits include art, performance, film screenings and panel discussions, and several of them have Jewish angles.

One of the most fascinating for Jewish audiences will be the exhibit “Jews in Modern China,” which began this week and runs through May 16 at the Presidio Officers’ Club in San Francisco. A welcoming reception, with Jewish community leaders, scholars from China and representatives from the Chinese consulate, takes place Tuesday, March 2.

Composed of 89 vintage photographs and accompanying documents, the exhibit also includes lectures and panel discussions about the Jewish saga in China.

The staff of Bernstein and Sons, a Jewish-owned store in China photos/courtesy of “jews in modern china” exhibit

Three distinct waves of immigration mark that saga: Sephardim from the Middle East who settled in cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1840s (some cashing in on the opium trade); Ashkenazi Jews, mostly from Russia, in the late 19th century who settled in the north; and the famous Shanghailanders, more than 30,000 European Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

All three waves are represented in the exhibit, as well as the fourth wave: Jews from around the world living and working in China today.

The American Jewish Committee’s San Francisco office is co-presenting the exhibit with the Presidio Trust. Mervyn Danker, the AJC San Francisco regional director, says the exhibit recognizes the fact that the Chinese “welcomed the Jews, and that anti-Semitism was never present in that country. When other countries were closing the door on immigration, the Chinese did not do that.”

AJC San Francisco board member Linda Frank ran point on the exhibit, meeting with Chinese consulate staff and securing additional material for the pre-existing display (assembled by the Chinese International Cultural Exchange Center and Center for Jewish Studies in Shanghai).

“People just don’t know these stories,” Frank says. “More people know of the [refugees] that came from [Nazi] Germany, but not of the existing Jewish communities that were there to greet them.”

The Tianjin Jewish Cemetery in the 1920s   photo | courtesy of “jews in modern china” exhibit

Communities such as the one Mat Nissim was a part of.

A third-generation Shanghai Jew, Nissim can be spotted in a couple of photos in the exhibit. One shows him at age 9, with his brothers, dressed in traditional Chinese garb. The other shows him as a young banker in Shanghai, which was a freewheeling capitalist center before the communist revolution.

Nissim’s family immigrated to Shanghai from India as part of a Sephardic migration to China in the 19th century. His family and many others were drawn to Shanghai’s emerging economic might and its tolerant views of foreigners. Strictly Orthodox at home (“My father was so religious, he would say ‘Don’t eat at the rabbi’s table,’ meaning that’s how kosher our home was”), he went into the family banking business at an early age.

“The city was so cosmopolitan, so international and the education was tops,” Nissim recalls. “It was a lifestyle that did not exist in any other part of the world.”

Like Nissim, Inna Mink of Larkspur has fond memories of her Shanghai childhood. Born in 1928 in Harbin (a northern Chinese city with a once-sizeable Russian Jewish population) she and her family moved to Shanghai when she was 2 years old.

Mink will speak April 29 at one of the exhibit’s panel discussions, sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica.

Unlike Shanghai’s Sephardic families, many of whom originated in India and Iraq, Mink’s family was Ashkenazi. Her parents, born in Siberia, were lured to China by business opportunities when the railroads expanded along the Sino-Russian border.

Though she has no memories of Harbin, Mink remembers the splendor of Shanghai in vivid detail.

“Life was sweet,” she recalls. “My father opened a [metals engineering] factory in Shanghai. We had live-in servants in the house. My parents belonged to private clubs, which was the style.”

The Jewish community of Hengdaohezi gathers for a picnic in 1927. photo/courtesy of bess gurman

She also remembers a very cosmopolitan city in those pre-war days: the Palace Hotel lobby with its crystal chandeliers and white-gloved doormen, the department stores, the ocean liners and steam ships lining the harbor, and rickshaws jamming the boulevards.

Even the prostitutes were glamorous.

“The girls were absolutely beautiful,” Mink says. “Many men had concubines. The downside was that many Chinese families got rid of their [baby] girls. The Russian Orthodox nuns would drive up and down the street, looking for babies wrapped in newspaper and dumped in the street or in the garbage.”

Like any other major city, there was plenty of poverty — and the congregants at Mink’s Orthodox synagogue took tzedakah seriously, helping their Chinese neighbors as well as the European Jews who descended on Shanghai during the war years.

Though the native Jews opened soup kitchens and donated goods to their European fellows, there was only so much they could do. With Japan occupying the city starting in 1937, the Europeans were ghettoized on the opposite side of Shanghai. Mink and her family continued to live in relative splendor, but many of the newly arriving Jews suffered.

“They had the worst time and barely survived,” Mink says. “They lived in hovels, had little food, and lived by their own conniving.”

The glamorous Shanghai of Mink’s

childhood was a world away from Hengdaohezi, a tiny outpost in northwest China not far from the Korean border.

Hyman Gurman was born in Hengdaohezi 93 years ago. His parents — Jewish natives of Russia — came to the region in 1912 with the growth of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which crisscrossed the border between Russia and China.

Today, Gurman lives in the same Sunset District house he bought decades ago. His daughter, Bess Gurman of Piedmont, speaks for him and for his proud legacy as a Jew from China.

She donated old family documents to the “Jews of Modern China” exhibit, including a fifth-grade report card from her aunt’s Russian school in Hengdaohezi. She feels the exhibit honors her family history as well as one of the lesser known sojourns of the Jews.

A refugee pass giving permission to leave the Hongkew Jewish ghetto

“Anytime there’s recognition of diversity, it helps people understand each other better,” Bess Gurman says. “Jews went wherever they could go, and this was a safe haven for many years.”

Hyman and his three siblings grew up speaking not Chinese, but Russian and Yiddish. Their father was the town shoemaker and shochet (kosher slaughterer).

Though her father came to the United States as age 11, and quickly adapted to his new homeland, he never forgot those early images of Jewish life in provincial China. And he made sure to tell his San Francisco–born daughter.

“When I was in the fifth grade, I had to write a family history,” Bess recalls. “I wrote that my father was born in China. At parents’ night, the teacher said, ‘I think your daughter was lying.’ But my father told her he was born in China.”

At work on the exhibition for more than a year, Linda Frank had several good reasons for getting involved with  “The Jews in Modern China.”

For one, she had seen the exhibit before, at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. It impressed her then, and later, in her capacity as an AJC board member, she led the way to bringing it here for Shanghai Celebration.

For another, her son now lives in Beijing, working as a New York Times journalist. She attended the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and is gearing up for her ninth visit to the country later this spring.

But her fascination with the Jews of China began more than 20 years ago, when she first read up on the subject. A freelance writer and critic, Frank wrote a novel, “Secrets of the Afikomen,” which includes sections about the Jews of Shanghai.

“It was the only place that welcomed Jews when nobody else did,” she says. “Even now the Chinese have great respect for Jews. There’s a bond and mutual respect.”

Why did the Chinese people not only reject anti-Semitism, but come to embrace the Jews?

Historians proffer several theories. China’s spirituality — centered on Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism — had no conflict with Judaism, and indeed found areas of overlap. In addition, Jews and Chinese share many values, including emphases on family and education, and both cultures have histories of victimization and suffering.

Moreover, China and Israel formed many trade alliances, launched even before the two nations established diplomatic ties in 1992.

Bottom line: China is as friendly to Jews and Israel as any nation on Earth.

“There is no anti-Semitism in China,” says Nissim. “On top of that, there are books in Shanghai today that say ‘Be like the Jewish businessman. Have the spirit of the Jew.’ Before Nixon went to China, Israel was already doing business with them.”

Nissim would have been content remaining in China and working as a banker. Unfortunately, as the  communist revolution swept the country in the 1940s, he felt compelled to leave.

He’d visited the United States as a teenager, and knew that America would become his eventual home. The day after he departed Shanghai in April 1949, Mao’s army forced the city to surrender. The rest of the city’s Jews were forced out the following year, not because of their Judaism but because they were considered foreign capitalists.

Nissim eventually settled in the Bay Area, where he has lived since 1952. He still serves on the board of the S.F.-based Bank of the Orient, and he still speaks Shanghainese.

Over the years he has lectured frequently about the Jewish experience in China, and he’s been back to his hometown a few times.

Mink has been back only once, in 1980, before China emerged as the economic powerhouse it is today. She sees images of Shanghai’s towering new skyline and doesn’t recognize it as the bustling city that once laid out the welcome mat to wandering Jews.

“We were a very close-knit community,” Mink recalls. “We had a very decadent, spoiled life before the war. Then it all just changed and stopped, overnight.”

It wasn’t long before she married, came to America, started a family and enjoyed a career as rep for a leading sportswear company.

But she says after all these years, she still remembers the thrum of the old city, the rickshaws racing by, and the Chinese street beggars crying in their pidgin English: “No mama, no papa, no whiskey soda.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.