At a board meeting of the newly formed Taiwan Jewish Community in 1981, then-president Yaacov Liberman brought a matter to the table: a friend from his days back in Shanghai was down on his luck. He was in his mid-70s, didn’t have much money and his health was deteriorating. He needed meals and a safe place to stay. His name was Nathan Rabinovitch, alias Rabin, but sometimes he just used the name “Nat”. The community was able to house Rabin and give him meals at the Jewish centre in Taipei for a few days before finding him a room with the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic elderly care home outside Taipei. Members of the Jewish community visited him each week to keep him company until he died, in 1985. Rabin became the only Jew known to have been buried in Taiwan, one of the few Jews known to have come to Taiwan from mainland China in 1949, and one of the first Jews to have lived on the island. But even after his death, he remained a mystery among those who had helped care for him: no one knew much about what the old man, who died surrounded by attendant nuns, had got up to during his days in China. He had boasted about his previous life, and made some wild claims: he had been a good friend of American gangster Al Capone and had great riches, he said, but how much of it was true, no one knew. He was in Taiwan alone, no wife and children, no family. Even the few researchers who have stumbled across Rabin in their work have been left scratching their heads trying to figure out who he really was and how he ended up on the island. Little did his caretakers know that Rabin had been a “killer when drunk” and “one of the most notorious Japanese gang members in Shanghai”, who engaged in extortion and blackmail, among other crimes, according to Bernard Wasserstein’s Secret War in Shanghai (1998). He was described by the Shanghai Municipal Police as “wholly unscrupulous”, a “real strong-arm man”. Why Jewish refugees in Shanghai fled to Macau during WWII “I remember establishing contact with him, because he was very senile in a sense,” says Jacques Bijo, a former secretary of the Taiwan Jewish Community and one of the people who visited Rabin at the Catholic home in the 1980s. “He was very aggressive when I talked to him, like he wanted to come to hit me. He was not easy. And in order to let me talk to him, he wanted to tell me about his past.” Shanghai in the 1930s was self-governed, and self-policed by 14 foreign powers, admitting “the paperless, the refugee, the fleeing”, writes Paul French in his book City of Devils (2018). Shanghai was “a home [for those] with nowhere else to go and no one else to take them in” – which was good news for the young Rabinovitch. He stepped off the SS Princess Alice, in December 1932, along with his aunt and uncle, the Gurevitches, who would show him around the city. Boris and Eva Gurevitch had recently immigrated to the United States after years managing Shobur Pharmacy, on Shanghai’s Avenue Joffre, then known as Shanghai’s “Little Russia”; another relative owned a pharmacy up the street and the neighbourhood was filled with those who had fled pogroms and the Russian Revolution. Rabinovitch found his home there, at the upscale Linda Terrace flats. It was a new start for Rabinovitch, whose life up until that point had been marked by constant relocation: he was born in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils in Latvia), then part of the Russian empire, to Anna and Mendel Rabinovitch in 1909, the latter of whom was a rabbi and a shochet, a ritual slaughterer. Probably because of pervasive anti-Semitism in the empire, or the revolution itself, the Rabinovitches immigrated to Harbin, China, alongside the thousands-strong Russian Jewish community that had been established there. In 1928, the Rabinovitches moved again, this time to the United States, where they settled in Detroit, Michigan; 19-year-old Nathan began working as a car salesman and studying music part time at Detroit City College. The Sassoons and Kadoories – two Jewish families, different fates The Rabinovitch family eventually applied for American citizenship, but for unknown reasons, Nathan did not. His visa having expired six months after his arrival in the US, and having somehow been able to evade authorities, he was deported in 1932. His chosen destination was that “international capital of sin and vice”, Shanghai, not a bad choice given the ease of immigration and existing Russian and Jewish communities. French, who has researched the city exhaustively, has always been sceptical of Rabin, and claims and stories about him, considering him a bit of a “mythomaniac”. But so were many others who went to Shanghai, “a place of self invention”, says French. “This has always been somewhere where people go and invent themselves.” The day he arrived in Shanghai, Rabinovitch began writing a new story for himself, first changing his name: from the very-Jewish-sounding Rabinovitch to the slightly-less-Jewish-sounding Rabin; later, he began using a different last name altogether: Rakens, earning him the nickname “Raven”. To get into the good graces of Joe Farren, a Viennese Jew and ballroom dancer who managed the glamorous Paramount ballroom in the international settlement, Rabin boasted of having worked with the famous American band leader Ted Lewis. He was swiftly hired as a member of the Paramount’s band, though it is unclear exactly how Rabin contributed. A band leader? A musician? Some accounts say he played the trombone, but this could well be another one of Rabin’s fabrications, says Greg Leck, a researcher of Japanese internment camps in China, now working on a book about a group of Americans in World War II Shanghai, which will include Rabin. Later, he formed his own band, Nathan Rabin’s Champions, composed of himself and nine American men. They headlined the best clubs and theatres in the city with their “snappy tunes, either of the sweet or hot variety”, read one newspaper article. The local English publications, particularly The China Press and the North-China Daily News , lapped up Rabin’s story. They plastered his name and face on their pages and showered him and his players with praise. Rabin was “a youthful American” of considerable talent and achievement for his age (his citizenship was another fabrication; Rabin, like most other Russian Jews in Shanghai, was stateless), his band was “easily on a par with the best units in this part of the country”. The mid-’30s were Rabin’s heyday, and by 1936 he had bought the Little Club, on Bubbling Well Road, “Shanghai’s favourite dancing and dining spot”, according to a China Press article from September that year. Serving up top-notch entertainment alongside French and Russian cuisine brought in a steady stream of patrons and good money. But those days were coming to an end. He may have tried to embellish his story to enforce the fearsome quality of his personality, but he was definitely a nasty piece of work, there’s no doubt about it Greg Leck, a researcher of Japanese internment camps in Chin In 1937, the Japanese began their bombing campaigns, and started to gain control over parts of the city. Even as Shanghai plunged deeper into darkness, Rabin saw nothing but opportunity. There was talk of gangsters teaming up with the Japanese secret service: Eugene Pick and his gang were selling their services as blackmailers and informers. Rabin wanted in, and the Japanese got word of him; he was known among local gangs for assisting in illegal activities such as prostitution, drug running, extortion and – allegedly – hits. Rabin sold the Japanese an even bigger story than the band scene, claiming involvement with the Purple Gang, Detroit’s predominantly Jewish prohibition-era mob, and status as a powerful Chicago gangster who rubbed shoulders with Al Capone. He was hired, and even received a special Japanese passport. A new residential hotel, Broadway Mansions – built by the real estate investor and tycoon Victor Sassoon, responsible for many of the buildings on the still-iconic skyline of the Bund – was Rabin’s home. Broadway Mansions was Shanghai’s tallest building: a symbol of the wealth and power of the city’s foreign elite, and a far cry from the cramped house his parents, siblings, aunts and uncles were sharing back in Detroit. He cruised the international settlement in a “borrowed” car with Japanese diplomatic plates and walked the city armed with a pistol. His Japanese passport gave him some protection from arrest, not to mention alleviating the anxiety of statelessness. IN PICTURES: 26 family stories that tell history of Shanghai's Jewish community A post-war American intelligence report cited in Wasserstein’s book describes Rabin’s “sole aim with the Japanese” as “to obtain as much money as possible by criminal means and hide behind Japanese officials”. With a little time, he would become one of the most feared “Japanese” gangsters in the city, known among Shanghailanders for being ruthless and plain mean. Rabin was tasked with brokering tens of thousands of dollars worth of arms sales with Chinese guerillas fighting against the Japanese invasion, only to lead them straight into the hands of the Japanese. Police reports suggest Rabin killed two of them himself. His paymasters also had him target pro-Chinese media, calling in threats to journalists such as Carroll Duard Alcott, a radio broadcaster who became well known for his anti-Japanese on-air commentary. “He may have tried to embellish his story to enforce the fearsome quality of his personality,” but “he was definitely a nasty piece of work, there’s no doubt about it,” says Leck. The Shanghai Municipal Police had a thick case file on Rabin, and were on to him. All they had to do was prove that his crimes were committed in the international settlement, and detectives were committed to seeing it through. One shamelessly described Rabin as “a low type of Jew, wholly unscrupulous and just the person to commit a particularly mean type of fraud”. Indeed, he was far from discreet, and known for turning traitor to work for the enemy. He walked about drunk, pistol in full view, was often overheard passing on messages, and was on edge when a Chinese guerilla he had set up did not show and when a journalist he anonymously threatened called him by name. Sin city: the gritty underbelly of 1930s Shanghai But, says Leck, Rabin’s arrest would not happen until after World War II: the Nationalists apparently let Rabin off scot-free – at least for a time – and he continued to enjoy life while newly freed camp internees, some of whom Rabin arrested himself, watched in disgust. Wasserstein places Rabin with a group of foreign collaborators who were “flourishing” in Shanghai, “with pockets full of money, promenading Nanking Road and Bubbling Well Road, frequenting reopened hotels and nightclubs”. “It’s very common in the papers immediately after the war to see these people who had suffered at the hands of the Japanese [complain that] now they were seeing these collaborators strolling around without a care in the world,” says Leck. Though documentation is hard to come by, Leck is confident that Rabin was arrested after “the Nationalists finally got their act together” in 1945, and imprisoned in the Ward Road Gaol along with hundreds of other foreign collaborators, although it is unclear for how long. Further documentation shows that Rabin was imprisoned again, this time in 1949 in Taiwan, on a charge of falsifying statements. He was held first in a military prison and then transferred to a civilian prison, according to a 1953 US State Department memo reviewed by Leck. Rabin’s paper trail after Shanghai goes almost dead, but for those few records of his arrests. Almost nothing is known about his life in Taiwan , or how he came to be there. Requests for documentation about Rabin in Taiwan were declined because of national privacy laws. British author in Hong Kong on his obsession – 1930s Shanghai Leck offers a few possibilities as to Rabin’s activities after 1949. He was, “of course, stateless, and as such he would have had three realistic choices if he had been released from prison before 1949: accept entry to the Soviet Union, who most likely would not have treated him favourably; remain in China under the Communists, who would have viewed his past activities with disdain, or go to Taiwan, which we know he did”. Most foreigners who stayed in Asia after the Communist revolution in 1949 , though, chose British-controlled Hong Kong or Portuguese Macau; Taiwan at the time was a poor country, still recovering from the departure of the Japanese. In 1949, when Rabin said he moved there along with 1.5 million other Chinese and the Nationalist government, it had just been put under martial law, which would remain in place until 1987. “Whether [Rabin went to Taiwan] in KMT custody as a prisoner, or whether he managed to get there on his own,” says Leck, “we do not know.” Surely to the disappointment of his rabbi father, Rabin did not seem to be an observant Jew and never visited the Jewish community in Taiwan until he needed help, more than 30 years later, from his old Shanghai friend and then-Taiwan Jewish Community president Liberman. By then, he was no longer the “real strong-arm man” he had once been. The men and women who visited him would never have considered Rabin a hardened criminal, but he maintained his mythology: the stories about Al Capone, and all the money, property and power he was forced to leave behind in old Shanghai. “When Mr Rabin was telling his life story, he used to cry sometimes and said that he missed his good friend Al Capone and his big regret [was] that he never got married and had a family, although he had a lot of women,” says Yoni Gewurtz, one of the Jewish community members who visited Rabin in the time leading up to his death. Infamous characters of 1930s Shanghai expose the dark side of the city Towards the end, Rabin tried to reconnect with his brother, George, who he had not seen in 50 years. The two exchanged letters, and George once visited Rabin in Taiwan while on holiday with his wife and daughter. But George remained upset with his brother for his lifestyle choices and his disappearance. When I got in touch with George’s daughter, I knew more about Rabin than she did, her father too ashamed of his brother to share the gritty details of his lifestyle. Another late relative told Leck that Rabin would call home every Sunday at 5pm to ask for money. Rabin died of heart failure in 1985 at the age of 75. I reached out to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who told me where he had been buried: the Bali District third cemetery in New Taipei City, but the site had been dug up by the government several years ago; their building had also been renovated and Rabin’s belongings were gone. There was nothing left; his family did not attend the small funeral hosted by the Sisters and the Jewish community. In chronicles of Shanghai history, Rabin has for now gone down as another character who never got more than a few paragraphs, at most, in the history books. Among the Taiwan Jews, he is one more strange story that most have not thought about in years. When I asked Bijo what he remembered about this man, this infamous Mr Rabin, he replied, “I just got goosebumps.”. Jordyn Haime is an American Fulbright research fellow based in Taipei, Taiwan.