As early as November 20, 1938, just 10 days after the November pogroms in Germany, the Hong Kong Jewish Refugee Society (JRS) was founded. The organization helped refugees wherever it could: The Jewish Recreation Club provided housing, paid passage for steamship trips, acted as guarantor for visas, found local jobs for refugees, and raised funds for refugee relief.
In December 1941, the Japanese invaded the British colony. The Jewish refugees defended the city along with the Hong Kong Volunteers. Herbert Samuel, a Jew and statistician from Halle an der Saale, died in the fighting. The occupation of Hong Kong by Japanese troops lasted until 1945, closing the eye of the needle for refugees from Europe.
All these fates of escape, of death, but also of the miracle of life and rescue are told by Seven Places online and made tangible in the real exhibition in Hong Kong.
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Party for refugee children at The Peninsula Hotel, 1946 (courtesy of Fred Antman and HKHP).
Refugee children sometimes ventured outside the Peninsula Hotel to explore Hong Kong. One former refugee remembers trips on the Star Ferry, tasting ice cream for the first time, and visiting the Repulse Bay beach, courtesy of his mother’s friend. After the privations of war and the bombings wrought on Shanghai, Hong Kong was like a paradise for refugee children. For their parents, however, the unexpected interruption was cause for anxiety. They had to grapple with yet another new city and an uncertain future. Under Hong Kong’s immigration law, refugees were not allowed to work.
By January 1947, all the refugees had reached Australia. By the mid-1950s, only a handful of Jewish refugees remained in China. In 1982, Max Leibovich, known as the ‘last Jew of Shanghai’, passed away.
The Peninsula Hotel from the sky, circa 1946 (courtesy of HKHP)
Hong Kong was liberated from the Japanese in August 1945. In the post-war years, the colony once again became a site of transit – this time for Jewish refugees leaving Shanghai to find new homes in Australia and Israel (est. 1948). Lawrence Kadoorie helped refugees emigrate to new countries by providing temporary accommodation in his family’s business interest, The Peninsula Hotel, during a period when accommodation was scarce in Hong Kong.
In July 1946, nearly 300 Jewish refugees travelling to Australia became stranded at The Peninsula Hotel for six months when the Australian Government recalled one of their ships to transport troops. Although the refugees were fortunate to have found accommodation at such short notice, The Peninsula Hotel was not the five-star retreat we know today. It too had been seriously damaged by war. One former refugee remembers that:
“Before you are too impressed let me describe our sleeping arrangements: the grand ballroom on the top floor was bisected by a rope hung with bed sheets, on one side rows of beds for the gentlemen, and on the other a similar scheme for the ladies. We spent most of our days in the admittedly elegant foyer on the ground floor, where we could sit in comfort and observe a higher class of hotel patron”.
Eduard Lippa, a CLP employee, was made to work for the Japanese during the war. He is pictured third left, inspecting electricity cable maintenance works in Kowloon, circa 1942 (courtesy of HKHP).
Only a handful of Jewish refugees were permitted to remain in Hong Kong after June 1940 – mainly doctors and engineers. Eighteen months later, the Japanese invaded the colony in December 1941. Several Jewish refugees died during the Japanese invasion including Herbert Samuel, a German Jew and statistician at CLP who fought to defend the colony with the Hong Kong Volunteers.
Because of their Axis nationalities, German and Austrian Jewish refugees were not interned in the Stanley Civilian Internment Camp. Instead, refugees led a precarious existence and were forced to work for the Japanese in order to survive. Most Jewish refugees fled to neutral Macau in the summer of 1944 when conditions deteriorated in Hong Kong.
La Salle College.
On 3 September 1939, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany after its invasion of Poland. In Britain and across its empire, Austrian and German male citizens were arrested and interned as "enemy aliens". In Hong Kong, Austrian and German men were interned at La Salle College, a school for boys situated in Kowloon.
While conditions were not necessarily bad at La Salle – internees were provided with German-language books, musical instruments, and tennis equipment – the incarceration of refugees upended their lives and left family members on the outside without an income for weeks on end. The imprisonment of Jewish refugees at La Salle – which was encased with barbed wire and guarded by the Royal Scots Guards – was also a painful reminder of the concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Europe, from which the refugees had narrowly escaped.
Though La Salle was transformed into a prison, it continued to function as a school. The school was re-opened to students at the start of the new academic year a week after the outbreak of war, and the building was partitioned for use by teachers, students, and internees.
By the end of the year, most of the refugees were released from camp. However, the fall of France and the Low Countries in May 1940 reignited fears about ‘fifth columnists’ and the colonial government ordered all Germans and Austrians to leave Hong Kong in June. The so-called ‘Expulsion Order’ caused understandable distress for Jewish refugees. For the vast majority, the Expulsion Order spelled the end of life in Hong Kong. It signalled the dissolution of livelihoods, the end of friendships, and in some cases, the separation of spouses and loved ones.
Erna Friedlander’s modernist painting ‘The Refugee’, watercolour on canvas, circa 1939 (courtesy of HKHP). Erna Friedlander’s modernist painting ‘The Refugee’, watercolour on canvas, circa 1939 (courtesy of HKHP).
Erna Friedlander and her husband Martin Friedlander came to Hong Kong in April 1939, having previously escaped Germany for Italy. Soon after his arrival in the colony, Martin became involved with the Jewish Refugee Society (JRS) where he met Monia Talan, the JRS’ secretary, who hired him at American Lloyd Shipping. Erna was a talented impressionistic painter who had trained in Paris. She became involved in Hong Kong’s small artistic community and was also employed by the Working Artist’s Guild, where she gave art lessons and frequently exhibited her work. While in Hong Kong she painted ‘The Refugee’, which depicts a ‘grey, beaten, exhausted’ refugee being comforted by a stranger. Martin was sadly killed during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, and is buried at the Jewish Cemetery in Happy Valley. After the war, Erna left Hong Kong for England. She died in New York in 1979 at the age of 89.
Hong Kong’s Central District, 1930s (courtesy of the Walter Grindley Collection at HKHP)
Before the outbreak of war in Europe, Jewish refugees tended to live in the affordable yet middle-class district of Kowloon Tong. They worked as merchants, teachers, doctors, engineers, musicians, butchers and artists, and their children also attended local schools. Evidence suggests that a loosely defined ‘community’ took shape among Jewish refugees in Hong Kong. Newspaper reports indicate that some refugees met and married each other in the colony, while others opened businesses together.
Erich Porges, for example, fled in this way in December 1938. The Austrian pianist fled Vienna for Hong Kong along with two of his bandmates. All three musicians were hired by Aaron Landau, the Jewish proprietor of Jimmy’s Kitchen and the Parisian Grill. Erich became a renowned musician in Hong Kong. He performed light opera and popular dance music on Hong Kong’s Z.B.W. radio station, and gave music lessons to aspiring young musicians. In September 1939, Porges was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ at La Salle College and in June the following year he was ordered to leave Hong Kong. Porges subsequently left for Shanghai, one of the only places still open to refugees. He spent the war years in the Hongkew Ghetto, where he met his future wife, Hedy. After the war, the couple emigrated to Australia where Porges worked as a salesman. He continued to perform music until his death in 1992.
Lawrence Kadoorie hired at least seven Jewish refugees in his Hong Kong businesses, helping them escape Europe (courtesy of HKHP).
Approximately 120 Jewish refugees settled in Hong Kong before the war, where immigration control was stricter than Shanghai, thanks to the employment opportunities provided by Hong Kong’s Jews. These employers-turned-philanthropists included the industrialist Lawrence Kadoorie, a director of China Light & Power (CLP – the electricity company for Kowloon and the New Territories); Aaron Landau, a restauranteur and owner of Jimmy’s Kitchen; and Karel Weiss, a publisher, among many others.
On 20 November 1938, the Hong Kong Jewish Refugee Society (JRS) was founded. The JRS was led by Lawrence Kadoorie and Albert Raymond, who was also a prominent industrialist and fellow director of CLP. Monia Talan, a Russian Jew originally from Shanghai, served as the JRS secretary. The organisation helped refugees in several ways. It provided accommodation for Jews transiting through the colony at the Jewish Recreation Club; paid for steamship passages; acted as ‘guarantors’ on visa applications; found jobs for refugees locally; and also raised funds for the refugee cause in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Familial networks were also vital routes of escape. For example, fifteen refugees were brought to Hong Kong by one man alone: Herman Korczyn. Originally from Vienna, Korczyn came to Shanghai in the early 1930s to work for the American firm William Hunt & Co; he was later transferred to the Hong Kong branch of the business in 1937. After the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938, Korczyn helped his extended family – including his mother, siblings, nieces and nephews, ex-wife, and child – escape Vienna for Hong Kong by arranging visas as well as accommodation, financial support, and local contacts.
Refugee children at the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, May 1940 (courtesy of HKHP).
Though Shanghai was the main pull for large-scale refugee traffic in Asia, approximately 1,200 European Jewish refugees also fled to Manila in the Philippines, another haven in Southeast Asia. Some refugees may have travelled to the Philippines through Hong Kong either by ship or airplane as a Pan American Airways flight connected the two port cities by 1938. The colony was also a point of transit to other parts of Britain’s Empire, such as Australia (a dominion), though the exact figures for these refugee movements are unknown.
Steamship passengers would finally arrive in Shanghai after four weeks, depending on the weather and the ship. In total, it is estimated that 16,000 Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai. Most arrived impoverished due to heavy exit taxes imposed by the Nazis. Refugees were cared for by various Jewish aid organisations working in Shanghai, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee led on the ground by social worker Laura Margolis; the ‘Komor Committee’, named after its founder Paul Komor; and the Committee for the Assistance for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees in Shanghai, led by Michael Speelman; as well as the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association, founded by Sir Horace Kadoorie. In addition, Sir Victor Sassoon also did much to help the refugees. Together, these committees helped house, feed and educate Jewish refugees in Shanghai.
A refugee family en-route to Shanghai pictured during a stop-over in Colombo, Sri Lanka (courtesy of HKHP).
When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, small numbers of Jews started to escape Germany for Shanghai. In 1938, the year of the Anschluss and November pogroms this exodus rapidly escalated. That year, Hong Kong became a major port of transit for hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism for the sanctuary of Shanghai – where visa restrictions were more lax than other places around the world.
A common route to Shanghai was by train to the Italian ports of either Genoa or Trieste, from where refugees would board luxury tourist cruise ships – usually the Italian Lloyd Triestino liners as well as Japanese, French, and German steam ships – on whatever tickets were available. Once a ship left Italy, it would typically travel through the Suez Canal, making scheduled stops at Alexandria or Port Said, then on to Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Stop-overs in Hong Kong could last from a few hours up to two days.
David Sassoon (seated) with his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) and Sassoon David.
Jews were some of the earliest settlers to come to Hong Kong after the island was ceded to the British in the 1840s. Jews, who were then known as “Baghdadi Jews” came to Hong Kong from Iraq and India to take advantage of the trade opportunities pioneered by the Sassoons. By the turn of the century, there were around 165 Jews living in Hong Kong (as against a total population of 221,441 in 1891), most of whom were Baghdadi merchants working in, or connected to, Sassoon firms. In 1902, the Ohel Leah Synagogue was opened on Hong Kong Island, which was financed by Sassoon brothers Jacob, Edward, and Meyer, and named in honour of their mother.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian and Eastern European Jews also arrived in Hong Kong to escape antisemitic pogroms. In the 1930s, they were joined by German and Austrian Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe. By 1939 there may have been 400 Jews in Hong Kong among a total population of 1.6 million.