Chinese Jews

Emperors during the T'ang dynasty (618-907) tolerated members all sorts of religious sects — Taoist and Confucian scholars, Christian missionaries, Zoroastrian priests, and Buddhist monks. A small community of Jews established themselves in China at that time. A community of Chinese Jews was established in the 9th century by Persian traders who traveled along the Silk Road to Kaifeng, at the time China's capital. Records documenting the group's history are spotty, but experts do know that some of the Jewish traders settled in Kaifeng and eventually built a synagogue with official recognition from the emperor. After the last rabbi in Kaifeng died in 1809, many began to forsake their religious practices while holding on to certain traditions, like the prohibition against pork and the celebration of a communal meal on Passover.Many Jews moved to Shanghai and Harbin in the 19th and 20th century. Some made fortunes in real estate and business. As of the mid 2000s, there were around 10,000 Jews in China, with many of them in Shanghai. Jewish entrepreneurs are routinely asked to give seminars on how to make money the “Jewish way.”

Jews — or at the least the stereotype of them — are widely admired for their business sense and are often characterized with phrases like “good with money” and “always smart.” There is a whole genre of books related to this theme with titles like "The Eight Most Valuable Business Secrets of Jewish Wealth", "The Legend of Jewish Wealth" and "Jewish People and Business: The Bible of How to Live Their Lives". The books inevitably have sections on the Lehman brothers and the Rothschilds but also erroneously refer to J.P. Morgan (an Episcopalian) and John D. Rockefeller (a devout Baptist) as Jews. Needless to say the scholarship of these books is dubious and often it is unclear who wrote them.

Good Websites and Sources: : ; Haruth Communications ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Jews of China. Org ; 1907 National Geographic article

Judaism Judaism101 ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ; Chabad,org ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,; Virtual Jewish Library ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ;

Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Holocaust Museum ; Jewish Museum London ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL)

Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations ; Brooklyn College ; Religion Facts; Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies Christianity in China Christianity in China Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; History of Christianity in China Ricci Roundtable

Kaifeng Jews

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Kaifeng Jew in 1910s

A small community of Jews lives in Kaifeng in Henan Province. They look Chinese; don't speak Hebrew or celebrate Jewish holidays; have little contact with each other; and have lost most of their traditional customs and religious beliefs. Yet they still consider themselves Jews. Avoiding pork is about the only custom they retain. Some old timers recall celebrated in Passover and Yom Kippur as children with their families and having stars of David in their childhood homes. At one time, Kaifeng was the capital of China, and it is thought that these Jews came as merchants and traders to Kaifeng along the Silk Road.

About 500 to 1,000 people in Kaifeng claim to be Jews. No one knows exactly where they came from. They may be descendants of 500 Persian Jewish traders who came along the Silk Road and settled in Kaifeng when it was the capital of China during the Song Dynasty (A.D.960-1126). According to Chinese records the Persian Jews were welcomed by the Emperor, established a synagogue in 1163, performed circumcision and abstained from pork. During the Ming dynasty they were given seven family names: Ai, Lao, Zhao, Zhang, Shi, Jin and Li.

In 1615, the Jesuit Priest Matteo Ricci met a Chinese Jew who was on his way to Beijing to take an exam. The man said that he was an Israelite and he was familiar with the stories from the Old Testament but he was not familiar with the word Jew. He also said there were 10 or 12 Jewish families living in Kaifeng and the town had a 600-year-old "magnificent" synagogue which contained scrolls of the five books of Moses. The man told Ricci that some of the Jews in Kaifeng spoke Hebrew and more Israelites lived in the city of "Cequian."

The original synagogue in Kaifeng was destroyed by a Yellow River flood in 1642. The synagogue that replaced it was wiped out by another flood in the 1850s. The land was later sold to Canadian missionaries and is now the home of No. 4 People's Hospital. Scrolls in the last synagogue were "rescued" by Christian missionaries and taken to libraries in Israel, Canada and the United States. At present, there is no money to build a new synagogue. The October 1907 issue of National Geographic featured an an article about Chinese Jews.

Jews in Harbin

There was fairly large Jewish community in Harbin that emerged as the Trans Siberian Railway was opening up Siberia. The first arrived in 1899. Some were Russian Jews fleeing pogroms. A second wave came during the 1917 Russian Revolution. At its peak in 1920 the Jewish population of Harbin reached 20,000. A third wave came in 1929, fleeing a Russian-Chinese border conflict. Most were Russians. Jews from elsewhere in Europe mostly ended up in Shanghai

The Jews that lived in Harbin generally led a privileged life. They had Chinese and Russian maids and crossed the river in the winter on telhai, sleds pushed by attendants. There are no Jews left in Harbin. They were pushed out by a Communist government suspicious of “imperialist capitalists.” Most left in the early 1950s. Most of their property and businesses were seized. A few lingered longer. The last was a woman who died in the mid 1960s.

Harbin recently earmarked $3.2 million to renovate the main synagogue and take steps to preserve the largest Jewish cemetery in Asia and other buildings associated with the city’s Jewish community. The move is widely seen as a bid to bring tourism and investment from Jews to Harbin.

Jews in Shanghai

Buddhist ark used by Chinese Jews

Shanghai also had a fairly large Jewish community in the early 20th century. Some were Russian Jews fleeing Russian pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Others came from other spots around the globe. Sephardic Jewish families like the Sassoons and Kadoories had been in Shanghai since the mid-19th century and made a fortune trading tea, opium and silk.

Victor Sassoon — a Jewish businessman of British descent from Baghdad who made millions trading opium, real estate and racing horses — was one of the most famous personalities in Shanghai. His most famous quote was "there is only one race greater than the Jews and that's the Derby." His most famous possession was the Cathay Hotel, where the rich and famous wined and dined and Noel Coward wrote "Private Lives".

During World War II, around 30,000 Jews fleeing Hitler found safe haven in the open port of Shanghai, where they built synagogues, Yiddish theaters and yeshivas even as the occupying Japanese forced many to live in a cramped ghetto.

Virtually nothing remains of the Shanghai's old Jewish community. In 1958, the government relocated all foreign graves — including the Jewish ones — to one international cemetery, which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, when locals plundered the gravestones to use in construction.The last synagogues were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. About 200 Jews remain in Shanghai's Jewish enclave along with European-style row houses, a theater, a synagogue and several grand buildings. About 2,000 expatriate Jews live in Shanghai today. Most are entrepreneurs or corporate executives — or members of their family — from around the world.

Shanghai’s Jewish Quarter According to Peter Max

Reporting from Shanghai, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The old Jewish quarter is in a quaintly ramshackle neighborhood called Hongkou with red-and-gray brick houses, many of them with patterned gables and fluted turrets, a weird fusion of Asian and European architecture that is uniquely Shanghai. So many Jews were here, along with cafes, cabarets, German bakeries, delicatessens, dance halls and music conservatories, that the neighborhood was nicknamed Little Vienna at the time. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2012]

In 1939, when he was 2, the artist Peter Max and his family fled Berlin for Shanghai. At first the family lived in a large house, but they were later moved to Hongkou, which he remembers as a chaotic, colorful neighborhood. "It wasn't really a ghetto," Max, ne Finkelstein, said, "There were two cinemas. We could listen to jazz. There was an old man who sat cross-legged on the street selling American comic books."

“Max attended an English-language school funded by the Kadoorie family and learned rudimentary Chinese from kids on the street. More important, he learned to draw from his baby-sitter, a Chinese girl who was a few years older and the daughter of an artist.” In 2012, Max took his first return trip to Shanghai. He searched for his old nanny even he doubted she was still alive.”

Jews in Occupied China in the 1930s and 40s

Historical marker in the Shanghai Jewish ghetto

The Japanese were not all beasts. Shanghai under the Japanese was one of the few places in the world that accepted Jewish refugees from Europe. Thousands of Jews arrived in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the late 1930s and early 1940s from Europe because it was the only place that would accept them without passports or visas and unlike other places there were no restrictions on the numbers of Jews allowed in the country.

Japanese rulers in Shanghai accepted 25,000 Jewish refugees, more than Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India combined. The Japanese Foreign Minister told a group of Jewish businessmen in December 1940: "I am the man responsible for the alliance with Hitler, but nowhere have I promised that we would carry out his Anti-Semitic policies in Japan."

Most of the Jewish refugees came from Austria, Poland and Russia. The Japanese "Schindler," Chiyune Sugihara, a consul in the Japanese Embassy in Lithuania issued thousand of exit visa for Jews, which allowed them to leave the country before the Nazi occupation. After his seal was taken he issued the visas by hand and continued doing so out of the window of the train that took him out of the country.

Shanghai Jews in World War II

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “During World War II, 20,000 European Jews fled to Shanghai, one of the few places in the world they could go without a visa, and one of the few that put no limit on the number of Jews it would accept. Under Japanese occupation, they were squeezed into one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, living cheek by jowl with working-class Chinese. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2012]

The story of Shanghai's Jews is also a feel-good one that runs counter to the criticism of China over its human rights record. "No city saved so many Jewish lives as Shanghai," said Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli expatriate who gives tours of the old Jewish neighborhood. "For the Chinese, this is a 'good face' story."

“During World War II, few countries were willing to accept Jews fleeing Europe. (At the 1938 Evian conference, only the Dominican Republic, out of 32 countries attending, agreed to admit a sizable number.) Shanghai was an open port without visa requirements and had a well-established Jewish community that included wealthy families such as the Sassons and Kadoories who'd made fortunes in real estate and banking. They helped the new arrivals, as did several courageous diplomats.

“The Chinese consul in Vienna, Ho Feng-shan, supplied about 2,000 visas that the Austrian government required for Jews to leave. A Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, issued thousands more for Jewish refugees to exit through Japan as a transit point to Shanghai. At first the Jewish refugees lived throughout the city, but in 1943, the Japanese, under pressure from their German allies, ordered them into Hongkou.

Suffering of Jews in Occupied China

In 1943, partly to appease their Nazi allies, the Japanese rounded up 18,000 newly arrived Jews, mostly from Austria, Germany and Poland, and placed them in Hongkew (now Hongkou), a two-square-mile ghetto that had been badly damaged by bombing raids.

The Nazis proposed rounding up the Jews for a "final solution." One suggestion was to sponsor a big Rosh Hashanak party on some barges and then send the celebrators to concentration camps on Tsungming Island (later canisters of gas were found on the island that contained the same chemicals used to kill Jews in Europe). Why the Japanese refused to go along with the plan is unknown? Some have suggested that it was because Jewish businesses had lent them money during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.

The Jews in Shanghai suffered terribly. They did menial jobs and relied on charity to survive. Baths, fresh food and hot water were luxuries. They ate old bananas and cabbage soaked in chemical to kill bacteria and washed their hair with kerosene to kill lice. Many died from starvation and diseases. Others busied themselves with clubs, dances and theater performances. Most survived the war.

Interior of the Kaifeng synagogue: 1 – The main Ceremonial Table (Kung-cho), on which the Wu-kung were laced (A) Censer. (B) Flower-vases. (C) Candlesticks. In addition this table had extra oil-bowl lamps on stands at each end (DD) 2 – The Chair of Moses (Mo-she pan tso), on which the Roll of the Torah was placed, for ceremonial reading 3 – Balustrade (lan-kan) which railed off the ceremonial furniture in the centere of the hall. It extended as far as the inner Sanctuary or Bethel. 4 – The Ch'ing Emperors Tablet (Ta Ch'ing Wan-sui-p'ai), of red and gilt lacquered wood, with inscriptions in gilt Chinese characters. 5 – The Ming Emperor's Tablet (Ta Ming Wan-sui-p'ai). This is not seen in the sketch but was farther in and directly behind the Ch'ing Tablet. 6 – The Dragon Pavilion (Lung-lou). A canopy under which the Ch'ing Tablet rested. It stood on a suitable table, and before it was another smaller table with censer and par of candlesticks. The Ming tablet also had before it a small table on which stood a censer but no candlesticks. 7 – A Tripartite Arch with Hebrew inscription in gold letters. This was in the form of a Memorial Archway (p'ai-fang or p'ai-lou) and stood on a table immediately in front of the Bethel. 8 – The Bethel or Arch of the Revered Scriptures (Tsun Ching K'an). It exterior was square and its interior circular. (The Chinese delegates state it was hexagonal.) In it were the 12 cases (T'ien ching shih-erh t'ung) each of which contained a Roll of the Pentateuch. Frontal drapes (fu yen) hung in front of these Torah cases. 9 – Rack (lung) for the Square Scripture Sections (Fang Ching). 10 – Rack for the Miscellaneous Writings (San Chih). 11 – Wooden pillars, lacquered black. On some of these were hung the vertical couplet inscriptions. 12 – Lattice Partition walls. It was unusual to have them also on both sides of the hall, as well as along the eastern front. The woodwork of the partitions was decorated in read, the upright columns in black. 13 – Stone drain mouth, over which the hands were ceremonially washed by the pouring of water. 14 – Tablets with Hebrew inscriptions in gold letters. The two were indentical, and were above each of the racks containing the Scripture Sections and the Miscellaneous Writings. 15 – Inscription in Hebrew, which hung above the Emperor's Tablet. 16 – Dome above the Chair of Moses. Does this dome suggest a Persian influence?

Chinese Who Befriended Shanghai Jews

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The family always knew there was something mysterious about Wang Fanglian, secrets he dared not share with even his closest relatives.Although he was just an ordinary worker at a diesel engine factory, he spoke four languages, among them English with a guttural German accent. His narrow brick-faced house had a flush toilet, a gas stove and a balcony for drying clothes, all strange luxuries in his rickshaw-wide Shanghai alley. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2012]

“Only late in life did Wang explain himself, when it was safe to talk about his friendships with Jews. "They were good friends. They lived together. They played together. They suffered together under the Japanese occupation," said Wang Fanglian's 21-year-old granddaughter, Wang Kaiyan. The old man learned English and French from his Jewish neighbors — and Japanese from the occupiers. He bought his house, the one with the Western luxuries, at the end of the war from a departing Jewish family.

“Then when the remaining Jews, along with other foreigners, fled China after the communist victory in 1949, this chapter of Shanghai history was tucked away and forgotten. "Because of the Cultural Revolution, people didn't want to talk about relations with foreigners," said the granddaughter, referring to the communist purges of the 1960s and 1970s against what were seen as bourgeois influences. For Chinese such as Wang, some of the friendships with Jews lasted a lifetime. "My father got along very well with them," said Wang's son Wang Jianmin. "After the Cultural Revolution, his old friends started to send him letters. They would come to Shanghai to visit him."

“Wang Fanglian conducted tours of Shanghai Jewish sights briefly before his death in 2008. Wang's old house still stands and occasionally receives tourists, though there's little trace of the former Jewish occupants. Wang Kaiyan, an English-language major in college, says she regrets she was too young to hear more of her grandfather's stories before his death. But she's pursuing his legacy just the same: as a volunteer tour guide at the museum. "Jewish people come to the museum who still remember my grandfather and ask about him," Wang said. "I feel bad saying that he's dead and I didn't spend as much time as I should have listening to his stories."

Modern Chinese Jews

member of the Jewish Zhao clan

Benjamin Haas wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “As a child growing up in Kaifeng in central China, Jin Jin was constantly reminded of her unusual heritage. "We weren't supposed to eat pork, our graves were different from other people, and we had a mezuza on our door," said the 25-year-old, referring to the prayer scroll affixed to doorways of Jewish homes. Her father told her of a faraway land called Israel that he said was her rightful home, she recalls. But "we didn't know anything about daily prayers or the weekly reading of the Torah." [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2011]

Another Kaifeng resident Wang Yage told the Los Angeles Times he stood out his whole life. His house was filled with Hebrew books, a language no one in his family understood, and even his name was different: It's the transliterated version of Jacob, a biblical name.

Organization Helps Chinese Jews to Emigrate to Israel

In 2005, a group called Shavei Israel arrived in China. The privately funded conservative religious organization, based in Jerusalem, specifically targets descendants of Jews who have lost their connection to the religion, such as those forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition in Spain. "Chinese have a strong reverence for ancestry," said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. "Even though they don't know how to read the Torah, they know they're Jewish." [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2011]

As of 2011 the organization had helped 14 Jews, out of an estimated 3,000 who live in Kaifeng, move to Israel. But Freund complained that Israel's bureaucratic and religious red tape has prevented Shavei Israel from bringing over more of these Chinese Jews.

The first family of Kaifeng Jews to immigrate to Israel was almost sent back to China. Shlomo and Deena Jin had overstayed their tourist visas in 2005. As they faced deportation, Shavei Israel worked with authorities to allow them to stay after going through the conversion process. Shlomo, at the time in his late 40s, endured a circumcision to complete the conversion. More recent arrivals have been in their early 20s and most have felt more at home in Israel than in Kaifeng.

Difficulty Kaifeng Jews have Emigrating to Israel

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Kaifeng Jew in 1910s
Because the community intermarried and based Jewishness on patrilineal heritage rather than matrilineal, the norm in Judaism, Kaifeng Jews who want to move to Israel need to undergo Orthodox conversions under Israeli law. The process takes a year or more of study at an Orthodox yeshiva, and requires a final examination before a rabbinical court. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2011]

Despite this progress, bureaucracy in Israel and China may prevent larger-scale immigration. According to Shavei Israel, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior has been reluctant to give visas to a group not officially considered Jewish by Israel's chief rabbinate.

Meanwhile, because Jews are not among China's 56 officially recognized ethnic groups and Judaism is not one of the five officially recognized religions, the Chinese government is suspicious of the Kaifeng community's efforts to organize."The government is still worried about religion and its negative effects," said Xu Xin, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University. "They worry it will affect stability and encourage fundamentalism." Ultimately, the government sees organized religion as a challenge to its power and state-sponsored atheism.

Chinese Jews that have Emigrated to Israel

Jin Jin is one of the Kaifeng Jews that has emigrated to Israel. She works as a tour guide for Chinese citizens visiting Israel and now goes by the Hebrew name Yecholya. She wears a long khaki skirt, indicative of her conservative religious views, and Teva-like sandals, the national footwear of Israel. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2011]

Jin was brought to Israel with three others from her hometown by Shavei Israel specifically to begin the conversion process. Once converted, she was eligible to remain in Israel under the country's Law of Return. The statute allows Jews to claim citizenship, which she did along with her three Chinese classmates. Jin's father remains in China, although she said he hopes to join her soon.

At first, Jin and others were indignant about the need to formally convert to Judaism. "According to me and my family, we were always Jewish," she said. "I was confused why we needed to go through the conversion process." But after she started studying in Jerusalem, Jin said, she realized how little she knew of Jewish traditions and rules.

menorah in the new Harbin synagogue

Jin eventually became such an expert in prayers before meals, Freund said, that she stumped him at a dinner with other Jews from Kaifeng at a kosher sushi restaurant, where they discussed which prayer should be uttered first: the one for the rice or for the fish. "This is something that I, or most Jews for that matter, would never have given a second thought," Freund said. "It shows how much they can add to Judaism."

After studying one year at Henan University in Kaifeng, the 25-year-old Wang Yage jumped at the opportunity to move to Israel. He hasn't looked back. "I feel Israel is my home and I'm more comfortable here," said Wang, who now refers to himself as Yaakov. "Israelis help you out when you need it; it's like belonging to a big family." After his conversion, Wang plans to become a rabbi to help Kaifeng Jews immigrate to Israel. If he succeeds, he will be the first Chinese rabbi in almost 200 years.

Along with a newfound freedom of religion, the 14 Kaifeng Jews are looking forward to stretching their political wings. "The first time I went to vote, it was raining hard and three of us went together," Jin recalled. "I was so proud. For everyone else there it was just another election, but for us, it was the beginning of a new life."

Remembering Shanghai’s Jews

On the old Jewish Quarter of Shanghai, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Most of the neighborhood has since been rebuilt, the European cafes demolished or turned into Chinese restaurants. The only remaining Jewish landmark, a onetime synagogue that had been turned into a psychiatric hospital, reopened in 2007 as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2012]

“To call it a revival would be an overstatement, but the Jewish history of Shanghai is gradually coming out from the shadows. In March and April, a theater company performed a play about a romance between a young Jewish woman and a Chinese resistance fighter, with funding partially provided by the Israeli Consulate. There are now more than half a dozen academic programs at Chinese universities — in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Nanjing among others — devoted to Jewish studies. The Shanghai Jewish Studies Youth Forum, for Chinese students studying Jewish history, held a conference here in July.

“The government-owned Shanghai Film Studios is developing a television miniseries about the Jewish emigres in partnership with "Black Swan" producer Mike Medavoy, who was born in Shanghai to Ukrainian Jewish refugees. "We want something like 'Schindler's List,' " said Pan Guang, an advisor to the project, who heads the Center for Jewish Studies in Shanghai. Pan says Chinese awareness about the Holocaust is a natural offshoot of rising interest in World War II and in the Nanjing massacre in 1937, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese were killed by the Japanese. The massacre was the subject of Zhang Yimou's film "The Flowers of War," starring Christian Bale. "This is a very hot topic among graduate students right now," Pan said.

More recently, Chinese tourists have started visiting the old Jewish quarter. "When we first opened, 90 percent of the visitors were foreign, but now increasingly we get Chinese tourists and students who want to learn the history of the Jews in Shanghai," museum director Rita Tan said. Admittedly, it is a steep learning curve. Even He Zheng, a 23-year-old business student who was a volunteer guide, acknowledged to visitors that he still knew little about Jewish culture. "Are there foods that Jewish people don't eat?" he asked one visitor. She patiently explained kosher dietary rules, emboldening the guide to pose another question. "Are there things that Jews don't talk about?" She replied, "Oh no, they talk about everything."”

Preserving Shanghai's Jewish Past

Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli expatriate and photojournalist, is working around Shanghai to find old gravestones and other lost relics of this city's vanished Jews. "When I go out to these villages filled with peasants it's almost like I've gone back to another era," he said. "Sometimes I'm lucky. Suddenly I'll see Hebrew letters or a Jewish star poking out. Then I have to dig it up."[Source: Dan Levin, Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2011]

exterior of the Kaifeng synagogue

Dan Levin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘since finding one for sale at a Shanghai antique shop 10 years ago, Bar-Gal, 45, has made it his mission to find the Jewish tombstones that once stood in four cemeteries belonging to the real-estate barons, bankers and penniless refugees who settled here before the Communists took power in 1949 and expelled China's foreigners....Although the Jewish bones are irrevocably lost, Bar-Gal, a blunt, balding man who left behind a job covering the chaos of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to devote himself to documenting Shanghai's Jewish history, refuses to allow the elaborately carved markers to be consigned to the trash heap."It's harder and harder to find them now because of all the development," he said, pointing to new houses rising nearby.

In collaboration with the Israeli consulate, Bar-Gal has so far found 105 gravestones and has created the Shanghai Jewish Memorial Project tracking down the descendants of those who died and documenting their lives. He hopes one day the gravestones will become part of a Jewish memorial in the city's Hongkou district, which once housed the ghetto and the Ohel Moshe synagogue, now a museum of Shanghai's Jewish refugees. But, according to Bar-Gal, the district government has denied his request, claiming the gravestones would bring bad luck.

So they languish, cracked and broken, stored in a warehouse and piled up in a parking lot at the city's Buddhist cemetery, which was once the international cemetery. With no one to look after his collection, the gravestones sometimes go missing. In April, Bar-Gal received word that two were on display at the Shanghai Burial Museum, which also functions as a crematorium.

Chinese Government and Preserving Shanghai's Jewish Past

Dan Levin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Because the Communist Party refuses to acknowledge the state-sponsored violence of the Cultural Revolution, the museum gives only a censored explanation of what happened to the gravestones in the accompanying plaque: "Due to the moving of graveyards and rebuilding reasons, those Jewish cemeteries have ceased to exist." The director, Xin Binyong, denied that he knew the gravestones were under the protection of the Israeli Consulate and Bar-Gal, though he did admit they came from the Buddhist cemetery. The museum, he added, had no intention of relinquishing them. [Source: Dan Levin, Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2011]

To some, the government's indifference reflects a larger problem about how an increasingly powerful China interacts with the outside world, especially on matters that are not part of its core interests. Avrum Ehrlich, an adjunct professor at the Center for Judaic and Inter Religious Studies at China's Shandong University, said the plight of the Jewish monuments reveals a profound shortcoming of the Communist Party's Machiavellian political strategy. "How the Chinese deal with these gravestones is a litmus test of their humanity," said Ehrlich, the author of "Jews and Judaism in Modern China." "That the government lets them lie in the cold shows a pettiness when it comes to matters of the soul and spirit."

stone inscriptions about the Kaifeng Jews

Having spent a decade working diplomatically to find a home for the gravestones, the Israeli consulate has counseled patience. "One has to understand these are relics of destroyed graveyards turned into real estate and when one asks the Chinese to deal with this it opens up a whole other complicated issue," said Jackie Eldan, the Israeli consul general. Chinese officials, he said, "always say they will study the issue deeply, and that's how it ends."

The authorities' relationship with the city's 2,000 expatriate Jews, mostly entrepreneurs and corporate executives from around the world, has been mixed. With an eye on attracting tourism, the government yielded to years of diplomatic pressure and in 2007 converted the Ohel Moshe synagogue into a for-profit museum. But it has refused to allow another synagogue, Ohel Rachel, which houses Ministry of Education offices, to be used for regular worship.

For the descendants of those who lived and died in Shanghai, the stalemate is difficult to bear. Frank Wexner, 91, a retired insurance salesman who lives in Los Angeles, escaped from Germany with his parents in 1938 and found refuge here. He returned three times in a fruitless attempt to find the grave of his mother, Else, who died of tuberculosis in 1945. "I was very sad and shaken to find out that none of the cemeteries survived," he said by telephone.

Wexner was thrilled to learn that Bar-Gal had in 2007 unearthed his mother's tombstone in a village outside the city. Since then, however, his joy has faded as government foot-dragging has left the last link to his mother stuck in a parking lot. "I would like to see a memorial made," he said, "so our family members can be remembered in a dignified way."

Image Sources: Kaifeng Jews, National Geographic

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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