Demolished synagogue reflects strong ties to Jewish community
By Michelle Qiao
Jewish footprints are scattered all around Shanghai. These footprints extend to architecture. The Ohel Rachel on Shaanxi Road N. is an obvious example, but history and redevelopment have erased others.
Beth Aharon Synagogue opened in 1927 on Museum Road (today’s Huqiu Road) after legendary Jewish tycoon Silas Aaron Hardoon and his wife Lisa donated the money for it. The synagogue was named after Aaron the High Priest, who was a lover of peace.
It was closed in 1949 and remained that way until it was demolished in 1986 to build the 22-story Wenhui Building for Wenhui Daily. That building was then destroyed in 2006 to make way for the Rockbund Project.
In 1927, English newspaper North China Daily News reported on the opening of the synagogue, describing it as “a distinct architectural acquisition to Shanghai.” The report added that architectural firm Palmer & Turner had “demonstrated their thorough appreciation of the Moorish and Byzantine styles.”
China Press gave an even more detailed description: “The new structure is built in the mosque style elliptical in shape and with a lofty marble dome. On the ground floor are reading rooms and lecture halls, while the main auditorium is approached by stairs winding about both sides of the building to the second floor.”
Beth Aharon was one of the 7 Jewish synagogues in Shanghai, according to a survey by Shanghai Jewish Research Center Deputy Director Wang Jian, who wrote the book “Shanghai Jewish Cultural Map.”
“The best of the 7 was the Ohel Rachel on Shaanxi Road N., built in 1920 by the Sassoon Family. Following that the Jewish community persuaded Hardoon to donate another synagogue and Beth Aharon was the result,” Wang says.
Through his research, Wang has learned a great deal about the history of Shanghai’s Jewish population. The Sephardi Jews were the first Jewish group to arrive during the mid-19th century. They were mostly merchants from the Middle East and among them were the Sassoon family.
Then came the Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom were scientists, artists or technicians who fled to Shanghai during Russia’s political storm in the early 20th century.
The last were the most famous, the World War II refugees from Europe. Shanghai had sheltered them and saved their lives, earning the city the nickname “Noah’s boat in the Orient.”
“The three groups of Jews have all impacted our city in many ways,” Wang says. “The wealthy Sephardi Jews brought in a commercial culture. They were among the first to practice advertising, financial mortgaging and family business networking in Shanghai. They also started the trend to build skyscrapers.
“The Ashkenazi Jews and the refugees were more intellectual and they influenced the city’s medical and cultural scene. China’s first-generation Western doctors and musicians were students of the Russian Jews,” he adds.
According to the Foreign Affairs Office of Hongkou District, Shanghai accepted 18,000 refugees from Germany, Austria, Lithuania and Poland between 1933 and 1941, most of whom flooded into ghettos in the district.
“Before their arrival, the 1-square-mile refugee area had already swelled with 100,000 Chinese residents,” says Liao Guangjun, an official from the office that runs the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. “The influx meant people had little living space and queues for buying hot water were very long. But the Chinese and Jewish nations, both suffering from wars, were nice and generous to each other.”
Wang believes it was partially the good impression made by the earlier Russian Jews that led to the friendship between the refugees and Chinese.
Beth Aharon Synagogue was built by a Sephardi Jewish businessman who lived a classic rags-to-riches story.
Born into a poor family in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1851, Silas Hardoon left Baghdad for Bombay (now Mumbai), India, with his family. There he was educated at a charitable school funded by David Sassoon. After both parents died early, young Hardoon came to Shanghai in 1868 to work as a watchman for David Sassoon, Sons & Company.
This intelligent young man was quickly promoted and showed a talent for real estate. He soon established his own company, S.A. Hardoon Co, and made a huge profit from investing in the city’s booming real estate, especially Shanghai’s “Fifth Avenue,” today’s Nanjing Road.
“Hardoon was the only man in the history of Shanghai that had served as a board member for both the Shanghai Municipal Council (that ruled the international settlement) and French Municipal Council (that governed the French Concession),” Wang says. “That owed to his vision of the city’s development. At that time Xizang Road was still a suburban area and he suggested the international settlement expand west to today’s Jing’an Temple. Others wanted to extend it to the north or the south.”
Hardoon himself also profited from his vision as he owned a large portion of properties on Nanjing Road. His beautiful home, the fancy 26-acre Aili Garden was located on today’s Nanjing Road W., the current site of the Shanghai Exhibition Center.
He married a devout Buddhist named Luo Jialing (1864-1961), daughter of a French sailor and Chinese mother, who influenced Hardoon to believe in Buddha and love Chinese culture. They never had any biological children but adopted dozens of Western and Chinese orphans.
He founded a school and invited prominent figures like scholar Wang Guowei and artist Xu Beihong to study or paint in his renowned garden. Hardoon lived a thrifty life but was a generous philanthropist.
“He was Jewish but his heart was close to Chinese culture,” Wang says. “One of his Western adopted daughters told me that they enjoyed Peking Opera and used chopsticks at home. His daughter was fluent in both Mandarin and Shanghai dialect.”
In a report on Hardoon’s will after he died in 1931, North China Daily News said: “The couple lived together very happily for 45 years and were devoted to each other. The deceased treated the lady in all respects as his wife and always spoke of her as ‘my wife.’ She went to the synagogue as his wife, perhaps three times a year. Mrs Hardoon made presents to the children at the synagogue, the children interest her very much.”
The synagogue was also famous for housing the Mir Yeshiva school in wartime Shanghai. The school trained rabbis and miraculously escaped the Holocaust, relocating from Poland to Shanghai during World War II. More than 200 teachers and students resided in the synagogue at the time. Mir Yeshiva eventually relocated to the United States in 1946.
Nearly 90 years ago, the legendary synagogue opened with an impressive ceremony in the edifice on Museum Road.
The then British Consul General Sydney Bartoa performed the rite of opening the building with a golden key. Local Jewish community leader D.E.J. Abramson lighted the perpetual lamp above the altar.
Abramson concluded his remarks with the wish that the spirit of peace in which the synagogue was created might soon bring harmony to China.
His wish did not come true as events remained turbulent in China for the next two decades. But this spirit did bring harmony among Chinese and Jews.
Yesterday: Beth Aharon Synagogue
Architectural style: Moorish and Byzantine styles
Architect: Palmer & Turner
Built: In 1927
Tips: Visit the Ohel Rachel at 500 Shaanxi Road N. It was built in 1920 and looks like a Greek sacred hall and opens to local Jewish community 4 times a year. The Ohel Moishe Synagogue was originally founded in 1907 and moved to 62 Changyang Road in 1927. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is also there and traces the stories of Jews who lived in Shanghai during World War II.