A small Sephardic Jewish community which had existed in Shanghai from the mid-nineteenth century was in the early twentieth-century  joined by Russian Jews who fled the October Revolution. In 1930s, the largest influx of Jews to Shanghai consisted of refugees from Central Europe. By the end of 1939, when large-scale immigration was halted, 20,000 refugees fleeing the Holocaust, had made it to the International Settlement of Shanghai - the only place in the world that required no visa and had no immigration quotas.

At its peak the Jewish Community of Shanghai numbered 30,000 people. With the support of the existing community and international organisations, the refugees were able to find homes and establish thriving businesses. The ‘Shanghai Jews’, coming mainly from Germany, Poland and Austria, established their own schools, Yiddish newspapers, hospitals and a total of seven synagogues.

ORT’s work in Shanghai began in early 1941, when a member of the central board,  Charles Rosenbes, was sent to establish ORT programmes in the city. By the end of the year, Rosenbes had a wide range of educational and training courses running in several locations. Six-month courses offered by ORT  included building trades, electricity, locksmiths training and carpentry and later cooking, gardening, bookbinding, gas welding, typewriter repair, millinery, driving, wireless operating and industrial trades.  Altogether 3500 students, more than fifteen per cent of the refugee population of Shanghai,  were trained in ORT courses. The fortunes of the community changed in December 1941 after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor  and the Shanghai community was cut off from communication with America and help from American charitable institutions. In early 1943, at the insistence of the Germans, the Japanese authorities restricted its Jewish inhabitants to a ghetto in the Hongkew (now Hongkou) district of the city. Life became much harder and some died from disease and malnutrition. Based in Jansen Road, ORT Shanghai continued to run its training courses, providing practical skills and moral encouragement. But by now it was completely cut off from World ORT and had to rely on its own resources. In 1945 ORT was forced to relocate to a metalwork factory when Allied air raids destabilised its building (it later collapsed). The Japanese surrendered Shanghai in September 1945 and the city was occupied by American troops. Many ORT graduates (and current students) found employment with the US Forces. World ORT re-established contact with ORT Shanghai and money was sent through in 1946, enabling it to move into a more suitable building in Dalny Road. ORT’s programmes were centralised there and its many courses included building, gardening, fashion-design, book-keeping, hairdressing, driving, spray-painting and the manufacture of neckties. A visitor to the school described a carpentry class “where they are building doors and windows as well as other construction projects.” The students, she said, built furniture in one class while an industrial art class supplied “lovely decorative designs for the nursery school’.“The children in this nursery,” she explained, “which is maintained by the JDC, receive a hot meal a day cooked by the girls in the ORT cooking course. In the bookbinding course former lawyers, businessmen and even a philosopher are successfully studying to acquire manual skills and produce beautiful pieces of excellent craftsmanship.’[1]

After the war there was a steady migration from Shanghai, with most leaving for Israel, North America or Australasia – including Charles Rosenbes, who moved to Australia in June 1947. At that point ORT’s  attention was turned to the needs of those seeking to migrate. A very intensive carpentry course was organized in the Autumn of 1948 for young men who expected to emigrate soon to Israel. By 1948 the Jewish population had shrunk from 30,000 to 10,000 and the remainder was be forced to leave after the Chinese Revolution of 1949. With Rosenbes’ departure, M. Rechenberg took over as director and ORT began to offer vocational courses at the Shanghai Jewish School (SJS) and the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School. ORT vocational Classes were incorporated into the regular school curriculum of the SJS for their senior pupils. The ORT vocational training at the SJS was commenced on 8 September 1947, with dressmaking classes, followed by carpentry classes on 8 October 1947. Gardening classes were opened on 26 January 1948  with a tree-planting ceremony attended by all schoolchildren, on which occasion explanations were given them regarding the aims and objects of ORT.

In March 1948, ORT Shanghai repositioned from Dalny Road into a hut provided by the JDC and erected in the grounds of the SJS School in Seymour Road. In addition to its school courses, ORT continued to work with adults. In late 1948 it offered special courses for the elderly -  lessons in bookbinding and the making of neckties were organised for the elderly inmates of the Joint-House. Another bookbinding course was organised for T. B. patients undergoing treatment at the Refugees’ Hospital. This course lasted from 19 January 1948, until 15 April 1948.   M. Rechenberg, the director of ORT school in Shanghai, explained that the school provided much more than just vocational training: ‘Our training...was more than a mere teaching of a trade. Many of our pupils had suffered and undergone great hardships, and often have broken down under this strain. We tried to assist them morally, we tried to give them a new outlook and a new way of thinking, and thus to build up their character and personality.’[2] ORT’s work with Holocaust survivors in Shanghai closed in early 1949.


[1] World ORT Archive: : American ORT Federation Bulletin (January 1949) p.4

[2] World ORT Archive d02a001b: M.Rechenberg, ORT Shanghai: Society for Promotion of Handicrafts and Agriculture for Jews in East Asia. Activities for the Years 1947-1948 (Shanghai, 1949) p.26