Jewish History of Tianjin
(Edited from the Igud Yotzei Sin website)
Jews began to settle in Tianjin (Tientsin) as early as the 1860s. They came mainly in three waves. The first wave came with the European merchants who poured into Tianjin when it opened as a commercial port in 1860. The second wave occurred between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century and consisted of Jews fleeing czarist Russia . By 1904 ten Jewish families called Tianjin home. By 1917, the revolution in Russia led to rapid growth of the Jewish presence in Tianjin, with 500-600 families leaving Russia and finding their way there via Manchuria. The third wave, by far the largest, occurred during the years leading up to World War II as Jews fled Nazi rule.
In 1920 the community was formally named The Hebrew Association of Tientsin (THA) - Тяньцинская Еврейская Община. In this context the community built a synagogue, engaged a Rabbi and a Shochet, and provided full religious services. Committees for Eretz Israel affairs and hospitals were set up. A singular feature of the community was the establishment of the Benevolent Society in 1920, whose aim was to assist Jews in need and help them settle into their new environment.
During the 1920s and the 1930s, Tianjin had the third largest Jewish community in China, after Shanghai and Harbin. In 1935, the number of Jewish people in Tianjin reached 3,500. The information office for Eretz Israel was established in 1921, and by the following year it was renamed The Zionist Organization of Tientsin. It is safe to say that all cultural activities of the Jewish community at this time were directed by one or another Zionist Organizations.
The Tientsin Jewish School was established in 1925. It provided free education in Hebrew and English. By 1936 the school had 110 students and 15 teachers. Most of the students, even then, received free education. The school budget was covered through donations and the income from the annual new year party.
In 1928 the amateur dramatic society established itself under the name of ''Kunst'' which means ''Art'' in German. This went on to become the center of the Jewish communal life including a fine club, restaurant, meeting halls, theater and of course a well stocked library The Charity Society (גמילת חסד) was established in 1931. This society provided interest free loans to the needy.
A Branch of the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) was set up this year. The Revisionist youth movement BETAR was created in 1932. It was to remain the only Jewish youth movement in Tianjin. The Jewish Agency set up a permanent presence in Tianjin in 1936, but contacts commenced in 1932. It is to be noted that at this time all the above institutions were established and managed by Jews from Russia. Jews of other nationalities did not have a separate identity and merged seamlessly with the Russian Jews.
The Chinese generally did not show any prejudice against the Jewish community; anti-Semitism mainly came from the ‘White Russians’ as well as Germans living in their German Concession.
Before 1941, stateless Russian Jews living in China were better off than Soviet Jewish citizens who were exposed to the particularly nasty anti-Semitism of Russian fascist mercenaries who worked for the Japanese. However, probably the key criterion used by thugs when targeting Jews of Russian background in the 1930s was not the Soviet passport or lack thereof, but the apparent wealth of the victim and the victim’s family. When the Pacific war broke out in December 1941, the situation reversed itself. The tenuous protection of the foreign Concessions was gone. The Soviet Union at that time was not at war with Japan so Soviet passport holders (including Jews) had a kind of protection from Japanese intimidation and attacks by Russian fascists.
The Russian Jewish community in Tianjin was indeed very fortunate that it managed to escape any real form of persecution during World War II. The primary reason for this was that there was a non-aggression pact between the USSR and Japan during most of the war. In effect this meant that as ‘Russians’ they were not treated by the Japanese as aliens. When the USSR finally declared war on Japan in 1945, the Japanese had far more pressing matters to attend to and so the Jewish community was spared any special attention. In fact, during World War II, the Jewish community maintained its original existing shape and became a refuge for Jews fleeing the Nazi Holocaust.
After the war, community members moved to Israel and elsewhere and its institutions were disbanded. The Synagogue building has now been approved as a state-preserved monument of architecture to be owned by the Tianjin Municipal government.
Tianjin Synagogue built in 1939 by Russian Jewish immigrants
The Five Avenues
The historic foreigner district with diverse European architecture representing Tianjin's colonial past when nine foreign countries had concessions in the city, the Five Avenues includes many former Jewish homes in the areas of Wu Dadao and Xiaobailou.
Located at the intersection of Nanjing Road and Zhengzhou Road, the gothic-style synagogue was built by Russian Jews in 1939 when Tianjin had China's third largest Jewish population.
Postcard of the Astor House, one of China's most prestigious, historic hotels, built in 1863.
Maynard, Isabelle. China Dreams: Growing up Jewish in Tientsin (Iowa City:
University of Iowa Press, 1996)
Song, Anna, ed. 犹太人在中国 。The Jews of Tianjin. (China Intercontinental Press, 2004)
Xu, Xin. Coursera. Video lecture, "Famous Jews of Tianjin." Course: Jewish Diaspora in Modern China, Nanjing University.
Old Concessions in Tianjin