all began like a detective story. Two photographs awaited me in
one of my e-mails. The photographs showed old gravestones carrying
the names of Jewish women.
One was the gravestone of a Miss Yachne daughter of Rabbi Shmuel
Peliack; the late Miss Peliack’s gravestone was impressive,
a prominent Star of David at its head and two lamps holding three
candles at its side. Engraved on the stone in Hebrew letters was
her year of death - a seemingly insignificant detail whose importance
would become clear later. The second gravestone, bearing the name
of a Miss Rayzel, daughter of Moshe Abramowich, was much older and
less elaborate. Below the Hebrew inscription her details were engraved
in Russian, indicating the country of her birth. At the head of
the stone remained a small but unmistakable mark showing where the
deceased’s photograph was once fixed, in accordance with Russian
custom. The picture had been torn off.
The e-mail had been sent to me by Georgia Noy. We first met a few
days earlier. She has lived in Shanghai for three years, and gives
guided tours that follow the unique history of the Jewish community
in the city. The letter attached to the photos said those gravestones
were for sale in a small antique shop in central Shanghai. She went
on to ask whether I thought this was intriguing and worth looking
At first I was somewhat dismissive of this e-mail. Such old Jewish
gravestones have long stopped attracting attention, it seems, and
can probably be found at any corner of the world. But this very
thought raised some questions and piqued my curiosity because here
in Shanghai, where a large, lively Jewish community existed until
the mid-twentieth century, it was known to be – paradoxically
- almost impossible to find the graves or gravestones of the many
Jews who had passed away and been buried in the city. The whereabouts
of hundreds of Jewish graves and the reason they disappeared are
a big mystery. How then did the gravestones materialize at this
antique-dealer’s, and did the Chinese law allow him to trade
in old gravestones that were obviously not his own property?
Many people from Israel and the United States have turned to Georgia
Noy through the years in their search for gravestones or for any
relics left by relatives who had lived in Shanghai. They all receive
the same answer: that ever since the sixties and the Cultural Revolution
there has been no trace of the city’s four Jewish cemeteries,
of any Jewish graves or gravestones, or of any other artifacts.
When we arrived at the antique store, Mrs Peliack’s ornate
gravestone was gone. Mr Shu, the store-owner, told us it had been
taken away a few days earlier by a Chinese buyer. Neither seller
nor buyer had any idea what the inscription on the stone meant,
and he couldn’t say what interest the buyer could have had
in it. When we told him what those marble stones were, a worried
look came over his face and he said that if they were indeed gravestones
then he had no interest in them, since it was well known that gravestones
bring bad luck. He himself preferred to believe they were boundary-stones
that once marked off the various quarters of the city.
told him we were interested in stones such as these, and to show
we were serious we asked the price of Rayzel Abramowich’s
broken gravestone. The prospect of making some money thanks to the
stone turned out to be more powerful than the fear of bad luck,
and only after long negotiations did the owner agree to sell it
for an overpriced fifty dollars. I asked him whether he could bring
more gravestones, perhaps even better ones than the broken stone
we had purchased, and added that we would gladly hire him to take
us to a place where we could find them. He hurriedly shook his head
and replied that such stones were almost impossible to find. Perhaps
after many weeks or months he might come across another one.
But money has its own magic touch, and as soon as we had paid for
the broken gravestone Mr Shu took a mobile phone out of his pocket,
moved away and made a few calls. When he returned he said there
were no more of those stones left, but asked for our phone number
just in case, and promised to let us know if any more gravestones
came into his possession.
There is evidence that Jews started settling in China as early as
the first century AD; in the 12th century the first synagogue was
established in the northern Chinese town of Kaifeng (where Jews
were present until the 20th century); in the 13th century Marco
Polo became the first Westerner to document the existence of Jews
In the mid-19th century, immediately after the end of the Opium
War and the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing, Shanghai turned from
a fishing town into a major port, and attracted the first Jewish
The Jewish community in Shanghai consisted at its peak of about
30,000 people, comprising three groups. The first to settle in the
city were wealthy Jews who had emigrated from Iraq – the Kadoorie,
Sassoon and Hardoon Families, rich merchants who soon took up key
economical and social positions, making an important contribution
to the city’s development.
In the twenties and thirties many Jews who fled the Russian pogroms
immigrated to Shanghai. This Russian group included many academics,
doctors, musicians and teachers, and led a vibrant community life
alongside the Iraqi Sephardic community yet separately from it.
By the thirties and forties Shanghai had many Jewish institutions
including a Jewish hospital, school, cultural club, synagogues,
kosher restaurants and a branch of Betar, among others. The last
significant group of Jewish immigrants to Shanghai consisted of
refugees from central Europe who escaped during the rise of the
Nazis and the war. At the time China was the only country for which
immigrants and refugees did not need an entrance visa, and thanks
to this many Jews who fled the Nazi terror were saved. The thousands
of refugees who came to the city were mostly destitute and needed
the allowance and help they received from the established, well-off
Sephardic community. During these WWII years China was taken over
by the Japanese army. The Japanese soldiers instructed all Jewish
refugees to settle in the poor quarter of Hongkou (formerly Hongkew)
in northeastern Shanghai, which was later dubbed ‘the Ghetto
of Shanghai’ because of the poor and overcrowded living conditions
of those who escaped from Europe.
Two days later the antique-trader called. He said he had a nice
gravestone for us. This reinforced our earlier suspicions, for if
Mr Shu could get more gravestones for money there had to be a place
to find those stones that had disappeared about forty years earlier,
perhaps even a secret spot where they were hoarded.
When we returned to the antique store there was, sure enough, an
impressive gravestone with an anchor carved at its head.
was the gravestone of a British seaman, a Christian. We realized
that the trader did not distinguish between items and could not
tell the difference between English, Russian and Hebrew letters.
As far as he was concerned, bad luck or no, gravestones meant potential
profits. He understood our disappointment and promised to send us,
along with one of the men who worked for him, to a place where more
stones might be found.
There used to be four Jewish cemeteries in Shanghai, the first -
The Israeli Cemetery, whose name later changed to Mohawk Cemetery,
after the street where it was located – established as early
In the fifties, the four Jewish cemeteries within the city limits
were transferred (with the help and supervision of the few Jews
left by that time, after the Communists’ rise to power) to
a site, in a western suburb of Shanghai, that became an international
cemetery for foreigners who died and were buried in the city. Jews,
Christians, and deceased persons of other nationalities and religions
were all buried there. A decade later, in the dark years of the
1960’s Cultural Revolution, the international cemetery was
destroyed and the gravestones uprooted, some smashed, others removed
from the cemeteries and scattered far and wide.
Today not a trace of the city’s Jewish cemeteries remains.
Where the first central-city cemetery used to be is now a public
parking lot, in place of the Hongkou cemeteries are a concrete factory
and a park. A few elderly people come to this park for their daily
tai chi practice and afternoon exercise. Some of them remember the
Jewish cemetery and its graves.