Mao’s Jews

On Oct. 1, 1967, China’s National Day, Sidney Rittenberg had reached the pinnacle of his revolutionary career.
November 20, 2015

On Oct. 1, 1967, China’s National Day, Sidney Rittenberg had reached the pinnacle of his revolutionary career. It was the 18th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and Rittenberg was seated on a reviewing stand less than fifty feet from Mao Zedong, overlooking a sea of thousands who had crowded into Tiananmen Square to mark the occasion.

For a Chinese language version of this story, click here.

Rittenberg was one of the very few foreign nationals who had remained in China after the communists came to power in 1949 and one of an even smaller number who had managed to work their way into Mao’s inner circle, serving the communist leadership as valued advisers, trusted emissaries and even revolutionary leaders.

In addition to Rittenberg, there was Austrian, Jakob Rosenfeld, commanding officer of the Communist 4th Army’s medical unit; Israel Epstein from Poland, a journalist who served as the Chinese government’s head of international public relations; and London-born David Crook, dean of the Beijing Foreign Languages University.

Although their backgrounds were varied and their motivations for coming to China diverse, these doctors, writers and educators had one thing in common — all of them were Jewish.

The story of how thousands of Jews fled Europe, took refuge in Shanghai, and eventually built schools, synagogues and businesses there is one that is well known. This often-told story eventually ends with the departure of all the Jews from China when the communists take over in 1949, a clean and satisfying end to a moving chronicle that leaves no ends loose or questions unanswered.

But in fact, not all those Jews left. Many stayed, and of those who did, a handful lived out dramatic lives that provide a rare glimpse into the early years of Communist China

A backbreaking job treating skunk skins in a windowless building at the heart of Manhattan’s Garment District was certainly not the most obvious or auspicious first step on a path that would eventually lead David Crook to China and into the highest echelons of China’s Foreign Service. His mother, matron of a middle-class Jewish family living in the outskirts of London, originally had much greater aspirations for him. After all, he had shown early promise as a student and had done well enough on his exams to get accepted to Oxford. But before he could even set foot in a classroom, the family business collapsed, a traumatic event that brought his budding academic career to a premature end and dashed his mother’s dreams. Faced with limited prospects and a shortage of funds, Crook eventually accepted an offer of employment, undoubtedly an opportunity of last resort, from a distant relative who was a furrier in New York.

To be sure, tanning skunk pelts for Garment District furriers was a far cry from rubbing shoulders with Oxford dons, but, as harsh an experience as this may have been, it did afford the young Crook a keen insight into the conditions of the working class and an appreciation for its plight. It was a transformative experience that would redefine his view of the world  and determine the course his future would take.

Like Crook, Rittenberg early in life developed an appreciation for the challenges and conditions faced by the American worker, although there was nothing in his background to suggest that he would have any affiliation with miners, bricklayers and pipefitters, much less end up playing a central role in the Chinese Revolution.

Scion of a wealthy family that was a pillar of the close-knit Jewish community of Charleston, S.C., Rittenberg grew up in privileged circumstances worlds away from the factory workers and day laborers whose cause he would come to champion. Like Crook, Rittenberg excelled as a student and, although he did well enough to secure admission to Princeton, he too would never set foot on campus. However, Rittenberg’s failure to take advantage of higher education at one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions was not the consequence of a reversal in family fortune, but the result of a conscious decision to reject an institution whose values, Rittenberg reasoned, were not aligned with his own. Rittenberg concluded that the academic environment provided by an elitist university whose students represented a privileged social class would not suit someone who was an active participant in labor strikes, had joined the Communist Party, and had even spent time behind bars as a consequence of his actions.

Given Rittenberg’s age and circumstances, one might be tempted to dismiss such an unorthodox decision as an act of youthful rebellion, but as Rittenberg’s life unfolded, this inclination toward contrarian positions and strict adherence to principle emerged as a consistent character trait that surfaced at critical junctures and guided his most important decisions.

This admixture of unabashed idealism and commitment to the socially disenfranchised informed a worldview that Crook and Rittenberg shared and that would ultimately bring them to China and sustain them in their darkest days.

Rittenberg’s initial engagement with China was purely coincidental. Shortly after his conscription into the U.S. Army at the outset World War II, Rittenberg learned that his first tour of duty would, ironically, be in a classroom learning Chinese, a language he knew nothing about. Teaching new recruits Chinese was a tactical element of the Army’s broader efforts to build up the resources that would help strengthen its position in a country whose political landscape was shifting and whose strategic value was increasing. Much to his surprise, Rittenberg found that he enjoyed learning the language and soon reached a level of proficiency that qualified him for posting to China and assignment to a unit that was operating on the ground in Shanghai .

 The China Rittenberg encountered on arrival in 1943 was in turmoil after years of economic instability, occupation by foreign powers and the looming threat of civil war. He was particularly struck by the abject poverty and dire circumstances that the average Chinese lived. His involvement in relief organizations brought him to the attention of the Communist underground. They sent an agent to approach him with an offer: Join the Communist revolutionaries and serve as a liaison to the representatives of foreign  countries, especially the U.S. Rittenberg accepted the offer on the spot, but with one condition — that he be allowed to join the Chinese Communist Party.

The path that Crook followed to China was equally coincidental, but much more circuitous. Recuperating in a Madrid hospital from injuries he had sustained while fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Crook came across a copy of the newly published, “Red Star Over China,” American journalist Edgar Snow’s classic account of the Communist movement in China

Crook, who had become an avowed Marxist, came to Spain to fight in support of those on the left. While there, he was recruited by the Comintern, ostensibly to spy on suspected Trotskyites. Inspired by his reading of Snow’s book, Crook decided that his destiny lay in China. To get there, he proposed to his Comintern handlers that a they send him to Shanghai, a vantage point from which, he suggested, he would be able to keep an eye on a number of prominent Trotskyists who had gravitated to the city and report on their activities. It didn’t take long for Crook to succumb to Shanghai’s various diversions and, much to the KGB’s dismay, was soon paying more attention to handicaps at the race tracks than to the task of spying and intelligence gathering. When Trotsky was assassinated in 1940, the KGB finally decided it no longer had need of Crook’s services and terminated its relationship with him. After some time casting around for other opportunities of employment, Crook eventually drifted into teaching English and was introduced to a member of the Communist movement through an acquaintance.

In contrast to Rittenberg and Crook, who came to China because they were attracted by the prospect of adventure and driven by a sense of mission, Rosenfeld and Epstein came to China to escape deteriorating conditions in their home countries and to avoid being engulfed by a wave of oppression that was sweeping across Eastern Europe and putting their lives at risk. 

Rosenfeld, who graduated from the University of Vienna’s prestigious medical school, had no sooner set himself up in practice and embarked on a promising career as an obstetrician than Nazi Germany annexed Austria and promptly set about ridding the country of its Jewish population. Like many other Jewish professionals in Vienna, Rosenfeld was forced to shutter his practice and was eventually sent to a labor camp outside the city, his fate irrevocably sealed. In less than a year, though, Rosenfeld would walk out of the camp with a visa in hand that granted him passage to China and asylum in Shanghai. As miraculous as this turn of events may be, and as vague the circumstances surrounding them, it is plausible to assume that Rosenfeld had the good fortune to come to the attention of Ho Feng Shan, the consul general of the Chinese Consulate in Vienna who single-handedly saved the lives of hundreds of Austrian Jews by exploiting poorly enforced regulations (in cities such as Shanghai, whose systems and infrastructures had been undermined by years of turmoil) to issue so-called “asylum” visas that gave them shelter in China. 

Like Shanghai, the city of Harbin at the heart of Manchuria China’s vast northeast region, was in in a state of upheaval. Extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway at the turn of the 20th century had fueled Harbin’s rapid evolution from a remote trading outpost to a full-fledged transport hub and commercial center of strategic value to the Chinese, Russians and Japanese, who by 1930s, were engaged in a tug-of-war over its control. The resulting unrest and dislocation that resulted distorted many of the usual legal rules, political conventions and social norms or dissolved them outright. This combination of factors — a transport hub with poorly enforced regulations — made Harbin an increasingly accessible and therefore attractive destination for revolutionaries, opportunists and refugees.  

 It was under these circumstances that Epstein’s family came to Harbin in the belief that it would serve them as a haven from the increasingly violent pogroms that were threatening Jewish communities across Poland. A brief encounter with  the city’s chaotic urban landscape and the denizens that inhabited it — the American consul who roamed the streets in broad daylight with a drawn pistol in hand, the Japanese film studio director who doubled as a spy with an impressive murder record, and Chinese warlords whose tendency was to shoot first and ask questions later — made it clear to Epstein’s parents that Harbin was a city of questionable safety and certainly no place to raise a young family. In short order, they moved to the city of Tianjin, a bustling port, that today lies just an hour’s train ride southeast of China’s capital, Beijing.

In Tianjin, Epstein received an education in British schools. At a young age, he became interested in journalism, an interest that deepened as he entered his teenage years. By the age of 15, he was freelancing for United Press. He eventually dropped out of school so that he could devote himself full time to reporting on the dramatic events that were unfolding across northern China. Perhaps because of his own firsthand experience with oppression and social upheaval, Epstein, like Crook and Rittenberg, was very sympathetic to the plight of the poor Chinese he encountered, a sympathy that had been cultivated and reinforced by his father, Herman, who admonished the young Israel not to forget the plight that the Jews had suffered.  

Epstein’s journalistic talent and the sympathy he expressed in his writing for the Chinese people, attracted the attention of Song Qingling, Sun Yat-Sen’s widow, who took him under her wing. Song Qingling was a visionary who recognized that China’s success in getting the support it needed would depend on the strength of its image overseas, and set about finding ways to enhance that image. Epstein was one of those ways. She enabled him to launch broad-based publicity campaigns targeted at audiences in the U.S. and Europe by leveraging her network of influential contacts and access to significant financial resources. Establishment of the monthly pictorial China Today with Epstein as editor-in-chief was an outgrowth of these efforts. As the country became more and more distant from the West, the publication effectively became (and remained) Communist China’s voice to the outside world. 

On the eve of the Communist takeover in 1949, Rosenfeld had achieved the rank of officer in the Communist military, a post he had secured largely by making himself indispensable as a leader and doctor who not only dressed the wounds and eased the suffering of the rank-and-file soldiers but, more importantly, attended personally to the needs of senior revolutionary officers who would later occupy prominent posts in the government of the new People’s Republic of China. Given his standing, Rosenfeld was well-positioned to enjoy the fruits of victory and the rewards for everything he and his Chinese comrades had struggled for. Yet, ironically, even before the revolution reached its victorious conclusion, the “Big-Nose Medical Saint,” as he was known by the troops, decided to return home to Vienna. Now that the war was over, Rosenfeld was convinced that Austria was on the road to recovery and that he would eventually be able to revive his livelihood. He also had learned that his sister was still alive and he was eager to be reunited with her.

On the eve of the Communist victory, Crook was also serving on the front lines in northeastern China, applying his teaching experience to the education of young leaders on the battlefield who would come to occupy senior posts in China’s Diplomatic Corps and laying the groundwork for the establishment that would become China’s Foreign Languages Institute. Crook distinguished himself and gained the trust of the Communist leadership  through the degree of his self-sacrifice and, as a party member, willingness to subject himself to self-criticism and abnegation that was as harsh if not harsher than what his Chinese colleagues endured.  

Known to the Chinese as “Li Dunbai,” Rittenberg proved his revolutionary mettle and demonstrated his zeal by struggling side-by-side with Mao, Zhou Enlai and other Communist revolutionaries on an arduous 500-mile journey to the refuge of caves in remote Yan’an that would become known as the “Long March.”

Like the other revolutionaries, Rittenberg lived a spartan life in Yan’an and followed a routine that was well-circumscribed: By day, he was an adviser to Mao, providing insights into American policy and drafting official correspondence to President Harry Truman and other American government officials on Mao’s behalf. By night, he was an active participant in the impromptu dances the revolutionaries organized, an activity that enabled him to forge bonds and deepen relationships with influential members of the communist movement that would play a consequential role in his life in China. One such acquaintance was Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, an actress who, in Rittenberg’s estimation, was a lot better at dancing than she was at acting. Rittenberg also  served as an occasional translator for the Laurel and Hardy movies that Mao, Zhou Enlai and the other revolutionaries were so fond of watching on Friday evenings after dinner.

The next 30 years that Rittenberg  would spend in China had all the arc and sweep of a classic Greek tragedy: The hubris of the young revolutionary eager to make history who is catapulted into the very center of a movement that would change the lives of millions, the reversal of fortune that would lead to a fall from grace, and finally enlightenment, a change from ignorance to awareness.


In the early 1960s, on the eve of a decade of upheaval that would come to be known as the Great People’s Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg was working in the foreign affairs office of the Central Broadcasting Bureau, a powerful  organization whose strategic importance would place it on the leading edge of the revolution. Rittenberg, true to his nature, took an active role in the Cultural Revolution at its earliest stages. His engagement in mobilizing workers, organizing revolutionary study sessions and other related activities catapulted him into a position of revolutionary leader.

The following excerpt from a speech he delivered to audiences across the country — from peasants in small villages to students in auditoriums and workers in stadiums — brought him to national prominence and turned him into a celebrity:

 “When I was a young man growing up in America, I worked alongside steelworkers and miners. I joined the American Communist Party. So I have experienced at firsthand how capitalism exploits workers. The life of a worker in the U.S. is a tough and painful one. China should avoid going down the path of capitalism at all costs.”

His spectacular revolutionary career reached its apex with the bold takeover of Central Broadcasting Bureau that he engineered as the leader of a radical faction.

Emboldened by his power and success, he increasingly used his speaking platform and stature to bring the revolutionary commitment of others into question and point out contradictions in their behavior, a tactic that ended the careers of not a few innocent citizens and brought misery to their families.  

A Reversal of Fortune

One of the targets of Rittenberg’s defamatory speeches was Jiang Qing, who for Rittenberg would always be the B actress and dance companion he knew from Yan’an and, in any event,  hardly a threat to someone such as him, who wielded so much power and influence. This turned out to be a severe miscalculation that would ultimately lead to his downfall. Since Yan’an, Jiang Qing, perhaps proving that she was a worthy actress after all, had succeeded in transforming herself into the “White-Boned Demon,” ringleader of the notorious Gang of Four and the object of fear and loathing. In a matter of weeks after delivering his stinging criticism of the woman many had come to see as an object of fear and loathing — hence her nickname — Rittenberg found himself in solitary confinement behind the walls of Qincheng Prison, a correctional facility on the outskirts of Beijing that was less forbidding than Alcatraz, perhaps, but no less notorious.


Qincheng Prison Profile

·       Originally “Beiping Prison Number 2”

·       1960 remodeled by Soviet advisers

·       Average cell size 20 m2

·       Three meals a day:

o   Breakfast – steamed bread, cabbage

o   Lunch- rice, noodles, and other grains

·       Exercise regimen:  20 minutes a day (inconsistent)

·       Reading material: The People’s Daily



For most of the counter-revolutionaries, professors and artists who ended up there, being sent to Qincheng Prison was a fate worse than death. For Rittenberg, the time in Qincheng was a period for reflection and contemplation. The regimen of prison life, the long periods of inactivity and the pervasive silence was, Rittenberg reasoned, an existence that was not much different than that of “a monk in a monastery,” and he kept himself occupied with activities that would keep his mind active and his spirit engaged. “Comrade Li Dunbai,” noted the prison’s chief warden, “reads the[People’s Daily] from beginning to end every day without fail.”

Despite their status as party members, sacrifice on the front lines and impeccable record of service to the state and the party, Crook and Epstein also were imprisoned in Qincheng Prison at the height of the Cultural Revolution, victims of irrational fears of foreign influence, intrigue and spying. This was a fate that befell a good number of foreigners. However, like most of the other foreigners who were imprisoned, Crook and Epstein were released in 1973 and invited to an official state dinner, where they received an official apology from Zhou Enlai. Only Rittenberg was missing. Asked by one of those present at the dinner about Rittenberg’s absence, Zhou Enlai responded gravely: “Li Dunbai has committed severe crimes against the state and its citizens.  Because of this, he will remain in prison.”

Enlightenment and Awareness

Rittenberg’s term in prison would last nearly six more years, and upon his release in 1979, he emerged a much wiser and more humble person. After admissions of error and wrongdoing, he was finally pardoned. The official government statement exonerating him read:

“Comrade Li Dunbai has worked for the benefit of the Chinese people since 1945 and made great contributions to the Chinese revolution.”  

In 1980, Rittenberg, approaching his 60th birthday, decided that he was finished with China and returned to the place where his odyssey had started, Charleston, S.C. There he took a job as a teacher in a local community college, intending to lead a lead a quiet and unassuming life. Although he thought he was finished with China, China, it seemed, had not quite finished with him.

As China began to liberalize and institute economic reforms in the 1980s, large American firms began to take an interest in the potential market opportunities such a huge country offered. But since China had been closed for so many years, the Chinese lacked the insights and experience needed to be successful. Thanks to his extensive knowledge of China and, even more importantly, his familiarity with officials at the very highest levels of the Chinese government — many of whom he had been comrades-in-arms with in the caves of Yan’an — Rittenberg became the go-to adviser for any U.S. company seriously considering entry into the Chinese market. Intel, Levis and Microsoft, to name just a few, knocked on his door. The man who once rejected capitalism for the communist ideal would now grow wealthy serving capitalism in a communist country.

Rittenberg, Crook, Epstein and Rosenfeld each approached China in a unique way and each played a distinctly different role during the time he spent in the country, but in the end, it is what they have in common that provides the greatest insight into their personalities and their motivations. In addition to being Jewish, they all joined the Chinese Communist Party, became Chinese citizens, and, most intriguingly, all lived to be more than 90 years old. Whether there is any connection between their longevity and their engagement with China is open to speculation, but what is certain is that their experiences and contributions generated one of the more unique and interesting perspectives on the great transformation of China in the 20th century.

Paul Ross is a telecommunications executive who has been living in Shanghai for eight years and a member of Kehilat Shanghai, a liberal Jewish community in Shanghai. He first came to China in 1985.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.