[KS] Jews in Korea during the Second World War

Frank Hoffmann hoffmann at koreanstudies.com
Sat Jul 27 15:21:14 EDT 2013

Some Hints, Some Clues, Some Sources:

It seems Dr. Levkowitz' notes are summing the topic up. Still, Korea is 
always good for surprises, and so is the vitality of Jewish culture 
around the globe. 

Those from on the list from Germany sure know Professor Choi Chong-ko 崔
鍾庫, now retired, before a professor of Law at SNU who had once 
studied in Germany and who wrote a thick book on the history of 
Korean-German Relations (in the early 1980s), and in general wrote many 
articles on European-Korean relations (law and otherwise). In any case, 
he seems now to be working on the history of Jews in Korea:
On the other hand, some of those early assumptions may be taken with a 
grain of salt, and maybe also by considering the specific hype about 
Jewish culture in Korea--see the May 12th article in the online _Jewish 
Chronicle_ to see what I refer to:

As for Jews in Korea during the colonial period and more specifically 

We all know Jewish communities have a long history in CHINA. By the 
late 19th century these Jewish communities had dwindled in size and 
most synagogues had disappeared. With the Nazis taking over much of 
Europe those communities, in Shanghai and some other key cities, 
started again to grow through the influx of Jewish emigrants. Some of 
those emigrants had direct and active contacts to the Korean resistance 
there. Those were contacts on a personal level, no institutional 
coalitions. And JAPAN, although one of the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis 
powers--as a young Japanese student once confidently told me in 
Beijing, "next time without the Italians"--well, JAPAN was for obvious 
reasons not so interested in a superiority of the Nordic-Aryan race. So 
there was a sizable number of European Jews coming through Japan, and 
some of them stayed for longer. The famous architect Bruno Taut 
immediately comes to mind, who fall in love with Japanese culture, 
influenced Japanese modernism while at the same time being influenced 
by traditional Japanese culture (a very complex story). There were many 
others. In most cases, though, Japan was just the gate to the U.S., 
Canada, or South America. As for KOREA I am not aware of even a single 
case of a Jewish émigré to have stayed on there.

Typically, Jewish and also some political émigré from European 
countries just traveled through Korea to get to Japan. Here they may 
have stayed on for a week or two or in some cases longer, before 
boarding a ship to their final destination.
Professor Alexander Chajes (of Amherst, USA), in a short typescript 
with handwritten frontispice, written in 1991, describes his family's 
emigration in June/July 1940 from Vienna via Berlin, Moscow, Manchuria, 
Korea, Japan, to Seattle. Only his maternal grandmother was left behind 
in Vienna and was later murdered in the Theresienstadt concentration 
camp. I quote:
"Because World War II had already started, we could not take the 
obvious route from Europe to America via the Atlantic Ocean. (...) 
through Russia (...) This route was open to us only because of the 
infamous nonaggression pact that existed between Russia and Germany. 
(...) 12,000 miles and last approximately two months. Without the help 
of the Joint Distribution Committee we could not have made it. This 
American philanthropic organization, dedicated to providing relief for 
Jews in distress, gathered together a group of about twenty refugees 
and made all the arrangements for the entire journey." (pp. 1-2) And on 
the handwritten frontispice he summarizes: "Transsiberian Train 5-6 
days - Lake Baikal - Manchuria (occupied by Japan) - Harbin - Korea 
(under Japan) (...) Yokohama - ship to USA via Pacific." In Harbin they 
took the train to Korea through Dandong [Antung]-Sinŭiju, via Seoul, 
and then directly to Pusan, where they took a ferry going to 
Shimonoseki. [The Chajes typescript is in the collection of the Leo 
Baeck Institute.]

In another, far more detailed description of that basic same journey 
(route)--there must have been many such groups--that a Jewish emigrant 
to Ecuador describes, Elisabeth Bamberger, the author states the 1940 
train journey from the Korean border to Pusan took "one day and one 
night" (p. 13), passing through Seoul during the night, being in Pusan 
at lunch. In spite of this pass-through experience the writer is 
completely taken by the beauty of the Korean landscape! [The Bamberger 
manuscript is also at the Leo Baeck Institute.]

It might be interesting to look into the history of *possible* Jewish 
communities before the times of Japanese occupation. Paul Georg von 
Möllendorff (1847-1901), advisor to King Kojong with various important 
offices in Korea, a man who had studied Hebrew and who had written an 
article on "Die Juden in China" [The Jews in China], a man with his 
interests, I think, would have mentioned it somewhere if there was a 
Jewish community in Korea. He did not, as far as I know. Maybe Prof. 
Ingeborg Göthel who has gone through all his published and unpublished 
papers would know for sure if he did? 

Yet, around 1900 the situation *may* have changed. This seems a pretty 
important article, actually, if the content is verifiable! I am 
therefore translating it for you. It is from _Die ✡ Welt_ (of October 
1902), the original follows beneath the translation:

The Jews in Korea.
Even the uttermost tip of the farthest Far East, a peninsular shrouded 
by ice-cold winds and mist, has a Jewish community. The Jews of Korea, 
of course, were not born here but come from faraway countries. Their 
birthplaces are in the ghettos of Russia, Galicia, and Romania, and 
only because of the persecution of Jews did they end up in the Far 
East. Most of them came through London and India to Korea, others 
through New York, San Francisco, or Japan, and some even through rough 
Siberian landscapes. Highly interesting is the fate of some Jews who 
have come to the country via Shanghai after having experienced plenty 
of failures and calamities in China, Sumatra, Borneo, and Java, before 
finally finding refuge in Korea. Korea now has presumedly around 300 
Jewish families who live among the "wicked heathens" ["gottlose 
Heiden"] far more trouble-free than before in the "countries of 
religion and love." This is because the Koreans soon enough understood 
what a valuable asset they had gotten with the Jews, since they 
stimulated trade and caused unprecedented growth of activities around 
their establishments, importing Russian sugar to Korea, alcohol and 
kerosene, and also introduced to Korea products from the Lodz (Łódź) 
industrial complex. Furthermore, the Jews introduced a large number of 
crafts that had till then been entirely unknown in Korea; thus, culture 
was brought to East Asia in the most noble sense. It is hardly 
surprising therefore, that the people and the government of Korea are 
cordially welcoming the Jews and the continuing growth of two 
communities in Seoul and Masampo through new immigrants. A lot of 
promotion [Propaganda] about the immigration of Jews to Korea is done 
by the head of the Jewish community in Seoul, a Jew from Austria who 
came 12 years ago via Hongkong to Seoul, and who worked so hard that he 
succeeded in now having a regular Jewish community with a synagogue, a 
shohet, and chasan. A similar organization should soon be materialized 
in Masampo, so that Korea can pride itself of having well organized 
Jewish communities.

"Die Juden in Korea" [The Jews in Korea], _Die ✡ Welt: Zentralorgan der 
Zionistischen Bewegung_ 43 (October 24, 1902): 8.
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The reference to Masampo (today Masanhapp'o-gu, Kyŏngsangnam-do) and to 
products from Lodz and Russia are interesting, as these references show 
a clear connection to Russia, thereby at least indicating how Russian 
trade interests were willingly or unwillingly represented in Korea. 
Masampo istelf was before the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) an 
important subject for the quarrels between Japan and Russia, both being 
interested in managing that port with its new railroad to trade its own 
products. Might well be that Russian pre-revolution archives would have 
some surprising documents in this regard … might well be that the 
Japanese after the Russo-Japanese War saw the Jews as representing 
Russian interests (-- just speculating, have no facts, didn't look into 


Frank Hoffmann

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