Only four Jewish graves have remained in place in Shanghai. In one of them lie Sir Elly Kadoorie and his wife, Lady Laura Kadoorie, and nearby stand the tombstones of Charles, Aharon and Yosef Sasson. These were among the city’s richest, most prominent citizens. They lie in the same famous cemetery in the park where Soong Ching Ling, wife of the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen and an important leader in her own right, is buried. The destruction wrought by the followers of the Cultural Revolution left this important Chinese cemetery untouched.
Gao was the man we had waited for. Gao’s job was traveling the countryside around Shanghai, purchasing old furniture and other items from the poor villagers at ridiculously low prices, to be resold at a markup of several hundred percent at the antique dealer’s city shop.
Gao took us to a village at the western outskirts of the city. We got out of the taxi in the central street of the village and followed him. Occasionally he stopped and asked people about old tombstones in the area. A guard at the entrance to a small factory agreed to leave his post and led us further on down the street. There, by the side of the road, was a broken and discarded piece of marble, its face to the wall. As soon as we had turned it we were struck by the inscription, in Hebrew and Russian, testifying that where it had originally stood was the grave of a Rabbi Salman, son of Benjamin Wittensen, who had departed this life at the ripe old age of seventy-three years.
While Gao went off and brought a bucket of water to rinse the dust off the stone, neighbors crowded round, curious as to the business of these “foreigners” in the village. One of them pointed us to a nearby alley. We walked into the narrow lane and not too far off, leaning unobtrusively against a wall, was another tombstone, larger and more elaborate, inscribed with the name Chaim Rosenstein. Its top half, which had carried the Hebrew inscription, had broken off, and beneath the Hebrew letters denoting the words “May his soul be bound up in the bond of life” was his name in English and in Russian.

The water Gao brought to wash this second stone hadn’t yet dried when one of the onlookers directed us to a nearby backyard. There, in a small cauliflower patch, lay two more gravestones, making up part of the path that crossed the muddy ground in which the cauliflower grew. These stones, too, were broken, and on one of them an engraved Star of David was clearly visible. This time, as well as water, Gao brought a straw broom to scrub off the mud and clean the face of the stones.
Once they had been cleaned, the inscriptions on the stones were legible. The one embellished with a Star of David was inscribed, in good Hebrew “Here, on sacred ground, is a new grave of the Yeshiva student Moshe, son of Rabbi Abraham Schuchman, born in the city of Marinsk in Siberia.” We were puzzled to see Shanghai, which at the beginning of the century had acquired a reputation as “the Eastern City of Sin”, called “sacred ground”.
Of the second stone only the lower half remained. An inscription in Russian informed us that this was the tombstone of Chaim Goldman. Aided by John, the interpreter, we began to ask the neighbors how the tombstones came to be there and why they were lying abandoned by the roadside and in yards.
From the ensuing loud debate among the neighbors we learned that the youngsters did not know how the stones got there, but the old ones told us that they had been in the village for many years, used to be stepping-stones along the river which had once run through it, and had been lying uselessly around ever since the river had dried up.
Two friendly old Chinese women explained, demonstrating with hand gestures, how they had used these gravestones for scrubbing laundry, and how the pieces of marble were arranged alongside the river as stepping stones leading down to the water. The old people had clearly known they were using old gravestones but had a naïve attitude towards their religious significance, almost ignoring it. After all, these stones were scattered everywhere, available to anyone who wished to use them, and the inscriptions meant absolutely nothing to the villagers.
Someone else informed us that the stones originated in the great Moslem cemetery lying a few kilometers east of the village, towards the city.
At this point it was none other than the taxi driver who came to our aid. He’d had had enough of waiting in his taxi, and came to see what business we foreigners had in this village, and what the hubbub around us was all about. He said he was familiar with the area and knew where that Moslem cemetery was.
The guards at the cemetery gate were unsurprised by our presence. They told us that in the past Jewish tourists had come there to inquire about Jewish graves and gravestones, but had found none. They were also able to tell us that, whereas now this was indeed a large Moslem cemetery, in the past it had been the international cemetery of Shanghai and contained many Jewish graves.
I asked John, the interpreter, to ask them whether in that case they knew where the Jews’ graves had gone. They explained that during the Cultural Revolution the international cemetery was destroyed and all tombstones, Jewish, Christian and other, were smashed and scattered all over the area.
I questioned why the stones had been broken and the cemetery destroyed. They smiled, embarrassed, and after a short silence explained that this was due to one of the principles of the Revolution, which concerned the Si Jiu – “the Four Old Elements”. Old habits, old thoughts, old practices and old culture were considered harmful by the revolutionaries, and masses inflamed by their ideas destroyed much of China’s glorious cultural and historical heritage. The Shanghai international cemetery and its Jewish graves were among the casualties of those destructive ideas.

The Moslem cemetery office could not add any new information about the fate of Jewish graves. Amongst the Moslem graves we met an old Chinese man who was cleaning and caring for them. He was in the process of repainting some Arabic letters at the head of a tombstone. We asked him whether he knew of any Jewish graves in the cemetery, and he answered dismissively that there were none. I went on to ask whether he lived in the area and whether there were any abandoned gravestones near his house. He thought for a while and replied that he thought there were such stones in his nearby village. He could not say whether or not these were Jewish gravestones. We asked him to take us there, and he explained that we would have to wait until he finished his work and picked up his grandchildren from kindergarten before he finally went home. Half an hour later he reappeared at the entrance to the cemetery, both grandchildren atop his bicycle.
The village where this old man lived was much poorer and more neglected than the first. The man pointed to a large stone lying facedown by the side of the main path.
It was a large, unbroken tombstone. The villagers who had gathered round helped John and Gao turn and expose it while I filmed the process. A large cross stood out at its head, and the deceased’s first name was Christopher.
We went walking along the village paths and came across many slabs shaped like broken tombstones, but none of them carried Jewish names. A little later, as the sun started descending into the tree-lined avenue at the edge of the village, we found another Jewish gravestone behind one of the houses, inside a mass of concrete. The stone had been set into the concrete that had been cast at a back corner to stop the house from moving. The face of the white marble stone was exposed, but only part of the Hebrew inscription was legible. This concrete-encased tombstone couldn’t be saved now, I thought sadly.
At this point it seemed that that large agricultural area west of Shanghai must be strewn with hundreds of Jews’ and gentiles’ gravestones scattered in various villages, along the river and the streams. It was late; we decided to return to this village at another time.
The humiliating sight of gravestones paving a path in the mud intensified the feeling that this had to be urgently dealt with in order to save and preserve as many of those stones as possible.
With our video and photographs we approached the Israeli Consulate in Shanghai. The Israeli Consul, Ilan Maor, was as amazed as we had been to see these vestiges of Jewish heritage in such a deplorable state. He asked us to let the Consulate handle the matter diplomatically, and in consultation with the Israeli ambassador to China he approached the Shanghai municipality’s Foreign Affairs office, to explain the Jewish sensitivity regarding graves and gravestones and ask them to collect the numerous stones from those villages.

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