This is the fourth article in the “Tientsin at War” series, stemming mostly from books, interviews and actual government and newspaper reports. Many of the shocking details were revealed by an anonymous Jewish refugee on a typewriter in 1937, desperately pleading for help from the US government. His pleas fell on deaf ears. Before 1940, some reports claim more than 5,000 Jewish refugees escaping Czarist pogroms and later Stalin’s purges, fled south through Manchuria and trickled down to Tientsin, where for a time, they thrived. Kept hidden since 1937, here is the story of Tientsin’s Jews.
By C.S. Hagen
TIENTSIN, CHINA – All around the main story was filler. Scabby headlines left fingers black: Hymn of the Triumphing Demon, and League of Nations: Organ of the World Jewish Super Government. The main story in the Czarist newspaper drew a crowd one early morning to the Victoria Café. Despite late summer heat, bad news chilled Tientsin’s Jewish community.
Although Tientsin’s Jews had their own newspaper, the Utro, founded in 1931, on Monday, August 23, 1937 it lay forgotten at the stoop. The aromas of fresh bread wafted from the bakery’s open window. Late night rickshaw coolies stopped on their way home to watch the commotion. A bent Ashkenazi Rabbi flattened the Czarist newspaper, Resurrection of Asia, a White Russian rag.
Most days the fascist publication was ignored, but recently, the Japanese anti-Semitic pendulum was swinging fast. No one could understand the Japanese Military Authority’s tactics. One day they welcomed, the next, they invested in White Russian anti-Bolshevik, Jew-hating rhetoric. The early-morning crowd tightened around the Rabbi. There were fur traders, jewelers and doctors. Two German Jewish dentists and a ballet teacher, all come to buy their morning bread. All stopped to listen.
“In connection with the large number of enquiries and requests from the Russian non-military emigrants—” The Rabbi was interrupted. Mister Zondovitch, the owner of a small fur trading company, stepped closer.
“What requests? Who’s been making requests?”
“Maybe you have, Mister Zondovitch,” a cocky young student said. He held a newly released book called Red Star Over China. “After all, your good book says, ‘ask and you shall receive.’ In my book it says—”
“Feh! I wouldn’t ask those Czarist goyim for –”
“Quiet, quiet down,” a middle-aged orthodox Jew said. “If I wanted to hear squabbling I would have stayed home. Please Rabbi, continue.”
The Rabbi cleared his throat, adjusted his glasses and smoothed his cottony beard. The newspaper doubled over at the accordion fold and the young student hurried to help.
“Yes, here we are. In which the White Russian emigrants are in Tientsin, the Peiping-Tientsin District of the Far Eastern Military Union establishes…” He scanned the page. “A temporary civilian affairs department, and the above-mentioned White Russian emigrants may register with it.”
“Would that mean we can go home?” the orthodox Jew said.
“It’s not quite finished,” the Rabbi said.
“Will we have papers?” the ballet teacher said. “Ay-yay-yay.”
“Certainly not,” Zondovitch said. “Do you know who runs the Far Eastern Military Union?”
“It continues,” the Rabbi said.
“Let him finish,” the student said. Twelve Russian Jews huddled closer. All gathered could read Russian as well as some English, and they spoke mostly Yiddish but the news took a heavier, more meaningful form when read by the Rabbi.
“The right to register is granted to those White Russian emigrants who are firmly of anti-communistic views and who share the principles of the New North China and its brotherly Nippon and Manchukuo, but to those who intend to reside within the New North China not recognizing its laws and regulations this right of registration is not granted.”
“That leaves me out,” the student said.
This is no right, no privilege,” Zondovitch said. “It’s the start of another pogrom. Everyone knows what kind of a mad man Pastukhin is. Do you remember what happened to Mister Brenner?”
Aaron Brenner, a Jewish furrier for an American company in Tientsin, was kidnapped and held for ransom on November 11, 1929, according to the Binghamton Press. He was enticed by a blond White Russian woman named Yena Sverkoff, a manicurist, and married to a Japanese, who tricked Brenner to members of the Czarist “White Guard.” The Czarists demanded USD 500,000 in ransom. As time wore on, their monetary demands lessened, and when British police closed in, Brenner was released. Aaron Brenner and his brothers, Joseph and Herman, remained tight-lipped about the experience. The culprits were caught and most sentenced to life imprisonment by a Chinese judge.
Whispers of Tientsin Pogroms
White Russian pogroms began long before World War II, shortly after the Czar’s humiliating defeat by the Japanese and before Bolshevists murdered the Russian royal family. Records from American and British consulates date back to 1896, when Jews fled south to Manchuria, hoping to escape persecution from Cossacks.
But the Cossacks, beaten by Bolsheviks, followed.
Stateless, disillusioned and angry, the Cossacks, referred to as White Russians (opposed to communist Reds) in most newspapers of the time, became rickshaw pullers, and bodyguards. Many joined Chinese warlords in the 1920s to further their anti-Semitic and imperialistic goals. Violent men such as Marshal
Chang Zong-chang of the Fengtian Army, nicknamed the “monster” because of his size, was once a coolie, then a self-declared murderer-white-slave-runner-bandit-turned-warlord, The News reported on February 27, 1927. He hired as many White Russians as he could find.
“I have my plans,” Marshal Chang said in an interview. Marshal Chang liked to boast, especially when it came to his harem, which numbered fifty. He once held up the Tientsin-Pukow Railway for three days while a train containing thirty new members of his harem arrived. “I have four thousand White Russians. They are wonderful fighters. My personal bodyguard is composed of eight hundred of them.”
Tientsin’s Jews did not flinch.
“Due to the critical situation now prevailing in Tientsin, many young Jews have enrolled as volunteers in the foreign town militia,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on June 26, 1927. “It was learned that many of the Monarchist Russians are serving in the Chinese army. The enrollment of the Jewish group in the town militia was viewed as a precautionary measure to prevent any anti-Jewish excesses which may be started by the Czarists.”
When the warlord era finished so did fascist attempts at a Jewish pogrom, but the White Russians turned to their one-time sworn enemy, Japan.
A newspaper called Nashput, meaning “Our Way” began attacking Jews in Harbin, a northern Manchurian city and one of the first inhabited by Jewish refuges. The newspaper spat anti-Semitism, calling for local Chinese to rise up against the Jews.
“So violent has been this paper’s campaign of vilification of the Jews, that many of them here… are living in a state of terror,” a 1929 Foreign Office Files report for the British Consulate stated. The Russian Fascist Party published the newspaper, frequently depicting Jews as “hangmen,” “bloodsuckers” and that they “used blood for rituals.”
“The late publishing[s] of the paper Our Way have assumed a distinct character of the campaign for the Jewish ‘pogrom,’ i.e. assault on the Jews,” the British Foreign Office files reported. “The campaign engenders panic in the Jewish population of Manchukuo [Manchuria], and is compelling many Jews fearing for their lives and property to leave the state.”
Many did leave. They packed up their meager belongings and migrated 700 miles to Tientsin. Not long after their arrival however, Captain E. H. Pastukhin, a Cossack officer who served in the Czarist armies attempted a new pogrom, according to American Consulate records from 1937. Backed by Japanese money and military, he began publishing the Resurrection of Asia to spur locals against Bolshevists and Jews living in Tientsin.
By 1937, the Japanese Military Authority was running most of Tientsin, excluding the concessional areas, and they recruited stateless White Russians for three dollars a day into their military. Although the Japanese initially protected Tientsin Jews, Pastukhin persuaded some officials into believing all Jews were communists, and he was allowed to establish a militant “Anti-Communist Committee,” known as the “supreme arbiter over the lives and souls of all White Russians in North China,” according to a U.S. Embassy at Peking report on August 30, 1937.
“The Russian monarchists in China are now trying to take advantage of the strained situation between the two countries [China and Japan],” the Jewish Criterion reported on April 11, 1930. “They [White Russians] are now taking a very active part in the work of persecuting Jews, or spying on them and of inciting the authorities against them.”
Pastukhin was also head of the local Far Eastern Military Union, and was known as a devout follower of the “Mad Baron” Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a brutal Czarist warlord. According to the book Shanghai on the Metro by Michael B. Miller, Pastukhin, with nowhere to go, was a crook and a brute, a man sold out to Japan. While in Siberia, Pastukhin slaughtered countless victims from armored trains named Merciless, the Terrible, the Master, the Horrible, the Ataman and the Destroyer.
In Tientsin, Pastukhin’s headquarters and Japanese-funded printing press was at 15-16 Suma Road, Japanese Concession, which is near present day Shenyang Road, but he lived in an ex-German Concession mansion, grandiosely nicknamed the White House. Pastukhin was “ready at a moment’s notice, to rise to fight the Comintern – to fight for Nationalist Russia,” British Foreign Office files stated about the Czarists. “They believe that every means must be employed to free Russia from the clutches of the Red Devil.”
The Jews of Tientsin passed through a dark period, according to the Far Eastern Information Bureau in New York. Owing to the fact that the vast majority of the Tientsin Jews were stateless Russian emigrants, meaning no country protected them and they were subject to Chinese courts and laws, the Anti-Communist Committee exerted heavy pressure on Jews to join its ranks and pay exorbitant membership fees.
Some Tientsin Jews, comprised mostly of furriers, restaurateurs, watchmakers, doctors and dentists, said no.
White Russian fascist cliques, such as Tientsin’s “Forty-Seven Group” traveled in a special train furnished by the Japanese, according to Office of Strategic Services records named the China Card Files, and took matters into their own hands.
“It was generally believed that what happened in Manchuria during the past six years could not take place here where the protection of the foreign concessions, the general atmosphere of security of Tientsin and the influential public opinion of the international communities would make the success of such a highly-political and forcible regimentation unlikely,” a letter written from a Jewish refugee and manager of Oppenheimer Casing Co. in Tientsin to the U.S. Embassy in Peking states. The Jewish manager remained nameless, but was vouched for by the sausage casing company’s U.S. corporate office in Chicago, the assistant secretary, Mister Jaffe.
“The Anti-Communist Committee, however, managed to dissipate such doubts very rapidly.”
Tientsin’s Jewry – “It Can’t Happen Here!”
At the outbreak of World War II, when Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China, Tientsin’s Jewish population had surpassed 3,500 people, according to the Jewish Quarterly.
It wasn’t the first time China welcomed Jews.
Three centuries before Marco Polo’s arrival, Jews traveled the old Silk Road in western China and settled in a city called Kaifeng, in Henan Province. Time and inter-marriage assimilated the “Kaifeng Jews,” who, by the time World War II began were indistinguishable from their Chinese neighbors. According to a December 13, 1955 report published by the British Consulate’s Far Eastern Department, a small handful of people in Kaifeng still refused to work on certain days of the year, which coincided with Jewish holidays.
In 1937, however, Jewish dentist shops and clinics lined Tientsin’s streets. They built synagogues, restaurants, businesses and libraries; they came with little but the clothes on their backs and their skills.
Most Jewish accounts written about Tientsin life in the 1930s are filled with warm, safe memories, of Chinese Amahs’ lullabies, of kites and elephants of the Italian circus, concerts in the Hai-Alai hall. Even with 700 Germans in Tientsin before the outbreak of World War II, of which 98 were Nazis, Tientsin’s Jews had little to fear until the White Russians joined forces with their one time enemy, Japan.
Pogrom’s whispers materialized into damning posters, official mandates and a “White Guard.” Some Jews applied to the Anti-Communist Committee for identification papers and were turned down. Others made a beeline for the Soviet Consulate in Tientsin. A few, once again, began packing. Most Tientsin’s Jews, however, decided to resist.
“In the northern Chinese city of Tientsin, White Russian Guards fighting with the Japanese forces there attempted a pogrom among the local Jews,” the Jewish Chronicle reported in September 1937. The Jews countered, forming their own Jewish Defense Volunteer Organization, moved to the British and French concessions in the city and bypassed Pastukhin’s orders, appealing directly to friendly Japanese military authorities.
Not all White Russians sided with the so-called White Guard. And when they didn’t, Pastukhin flexed his muscles, perhaps using gangs like
the “Forty-Seven Group.”
A prominent Russian disappeared from his London Road home. A week later his mutilated corpse was found floating in a creek under Elgin Avenue Bridge, Desmond Power wrote in his autobiography Little Foreign Devil. British authorities soon after began rounding up the White Guard for questioning, and then two more Russians were kidnapped in Tientsin.
“The consequences became apparent at once,” the Oppenheimer Casing Company letter stated. “Several of those who applied for membership and were refused (because the Anti-Communist Committee did not like their noses) were warned by the Anti-Communist Committee hoodlums to clear out of town whether they live in the concessions or not.”
By December 7, 1939, the Anti-Communist Committee had refused more than one hundred stateless Russian Jews for registration, and not because they were communists.
“The reason for refusal is usually given as suspected Soviet leanings, in reality, it is either anti-Semitism or dislike for the applicants’ decent job and clothes; for, paradoxically, these anti-Communists are violently anti-bourgeoisie and detest those who have succeeded in elevating themselves above the levels of the White Russian rabble.”
Some Jews, according to the Oppenheimer Casing Company letter, were arrested by the Japanese military on trumped up charges of espionage. A well-known transportation man was jailed for three months under terrible conditions before being shipped to Shanghai.
Tientsin’s Jews were trapped. They could not travel without identification papers, and most did not want to return to their motherland, the newly-formed USSR. The few who were accepted into the Anti-Communist Committee paid heavy dues. With monthly salaries under USD 100, they were forced to pay up to four dollars in fees, known as the “Voluntary Self-Taxation,” every month. Those with higher salaries were made to contribute up to five percent of their salaries.
A man named Mister Rubin, the owner of a grocery store on Dickinson Road, was forced to pay an entrance fee of USD 1,000 before being considered for enrollment. Older men who were allowed into the Anti-Communist Committee performed odd jobs around the committee clubhouse on Suma Road. Women were cajoled into spying on fellow members, Soviet citizens in Tientsin or newly arrived immigrants. Children and young men were forced to join the military scout units and trained mercilessly a short distance outside of Tientsin.
The Japanese Military Authority denied any knowledge when stateless Russian Jews were rounded up for military training, saying they did not interfere with White Russian affairs, according to the Biloxi Daily Herald on October 17, 1941. When eleven youths refused to go, the Anti-Communist Committee revoked their permits, leaving them once again, stateless.
There was little the United States could do to help in Tientsin, was chief of the U.S. Division of Far Eastern Affairs Maxwell M. Hamilton’s response.
Prior to World War II Japanese politics were split on the Jewish issue. One side, led by leaders such as Shioden Nobutaka and Navy Captain
Inuzuka Koreshige, called the Jews in Asia the “Jewish Menace.” After Japan became a member of the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, Nazi Germany applied pressure to the Japanese public to accept anti-Semitism.
To the south in Shanghai, a city where nearly 20,000 mostly German Jews found a semblance of refuge in the Shanghai Hongkew ghetto, Colonel Josef Meisinger the “Butcher of Warsaw,” who was head of the Gestapo in China, tried to convince Japanese military authorities to load Jewish refugees on to ships in the harbor and have them sunk or starved.
“The Jews thus assumed the role of the antithetical Western “Other,” providing the Japanese with a tangible focus for their wrath against the wartime Western enemy,” according to ‘Japan’s Jewish Other’: Anti-Semitism in Prewar and Wartime Japan by C.J. Pallister.
Still other Japanese thought the Jews in Asia could be exploited to manipulate foreign governments. Historians later dubbed this plan the “Fugu Plan,” comparable to cooking the Japanese puffer fish called fugu, which contains lethal amounts of poison in its organs and must be carefully prepared.
In Tientsin three factors eased the Jewish community’s status: many White Russians including an unknown number of Jews, were sent north to fight the Soviet Union; Japan turned its interests elsewhere and began losing the war; and even though some White Russian fascists were arrested by British police, not all Japanese were sympathizers, and protected the Jews when they could.
One Jewish man from Switzerland, Marcel Leopold, arrived in Tientsin during the 1930s and saw he could make quick money. He was a racetrack and gambling operator, married a White Russian woman and made enough money by 1939 to build a streamlined “skyscraper” on bustling Victoria Road, the British Concession’s main thoroughfare. The building was named after him, the Leopold Building, and is now called the Lihua Building. In his day the Leopold Building was used as office space and storefronts, selling everything from jewels to quick loans.
A former US Marine assigned to the 7th Regiment to accept and organize Japanese surrender in North China, David D. Girard, wrote about once meeting a man who fits the description of Leopold.
Girard described Tientsin in his short story, “China 1945-1946” as a forbidding fortress with high stone walls topped with iron fences, and once during his stay in Tientsin he was invited to Leopold’s penthouse in his high rise building.
“He was very blunt,” Girard wrote. “He wanted us to get him and his family out of China on military or chartered aircraft. Hell, we couldn’t get ourselves out, let alone him, even for the generous price he hinted at.”
Four years after the end of World War II when Mao Zedong’s communist forces sacked Tientsin, Leopold was convicted of stealing and selling Japanese Navy armaments and sentenced to nearly three years in a Chinese gaol. Released in 1954, he turned to arms smuggling, quickly rising to become the “number one gunrunner in the world,” according LMS Newswire.
Leopold’s luck ran out however, in 1957 while boarding a plane to Tripoli with 130 pounds of explosives in his suitcase, he was caught, and then nine months later assassinated while out on bail by a homemade dart gun, The Caneberra Times reported. A six-inch metal dart severed a blood vessel near his heart, and he died in his wife’s arms in Geneva.
Other, not quite as ambitious Jews created projects of their own while calling Tientsin home. The B. Zondovitch & Sons Fur Company established in the 1930s, and headquartered in Harbin soon had branches in Tientsin, Shenyang and New York City.
According to the China Card Files, a fifty-year-old man named R. Abramoff, who was employed by Leopold, headed the Jewish Zionist military training in Tientsin.
The Victoria Café, established by a man named Bresler built the famous bakery and restaurant in the Xiaobailou “Small White Building” section and featured Russian styled Western food and top grade apartments on the upper floors.
Gershevich Bros., a leather company, was established by Leo Gershevich. He came to Tientsin with his father and five of ten siblings from Russia in 1924 and by 1950 had three generations under one roof.
Perhaps the most famous of Jewish endeavors was the Kunst Club, built originally in 1928 and then moved to Twenty-fourth Street, now Qufu Street, in the British Concession in 1937. The club had a library and a theater, which often held dramas, concerts and dancing performances. The Jewish Club also featured a restaurant, a chess room and billiards room, and sadly, was torn down in 1999.
The Tientsin Jewish School had a student body of ninety-five, of which seventy-six were Jewish in 1935. By 1936 the school reached 110 students and had fifteen teachers.
Among other endeavors the Jews built a synagogue, the Jewish Hospital, which healed both Jew and Gentile, a Home for the Aged, a Zionist youth organization, Betar, which engaged a rabbi who was in charge of all the religious activities, and a cemetery. The Tientsin Hebrew Association registered births, deaths, and marriages and was a unifying force for Jews in Tientsin.
Pastukhin’s white army didn’t make it far before surrendering to Soviet forces, and White Russian leftovers such as the “Forty-Seven Group,” were rounded up or slipped through the cracks of postwar confusion. The former Russian and many areas of the Japanese concessions are almost gone.
By 1947 only 900 Jews remained in Tientsin, according to the Jewish News Source, and by 1958 almost all of Tientsin’s Jews were granted identification papers by China’s communist party and had left for Israel or other Western ports. Today, Tientsin’s Jews are hardly more than a memory, and a well kept one at that, but they left an indelible mark on the city of Tientsin.