After the rise of communism in 1949 Judaism was struck off the list of religions recognized in China, which means that Judaism is not formally considered to be a religion, and therefore that Jewish rituals and prayers are officially forbidden – but they do take place discreetly and are ignored, as long as there are only foreigners taking part.
The rabbi of Shanghai, Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, says that the Chinese take a very practical approach. He says that despite their not recognizing Judaism as a religion, they turn a blind eye to services held on Shabbat and holidays, since they wish to keep the Jewish business community in the city and realize that Jewish customs are an integral part of our lives. For this reason they do not prevent their taking place, though they don’t officially sanction them, either.

It was only in recent years, following intense public pressure from American Jewry and the efforts of the Israeli Embassy, that the Chinese government agreed to preserve some of Shanghai’s Jewish heritage sites and restore two of the city’s seven synagogues. The first to be renovated was Ohel Moshe, the small synagogue in the center of Hongkou - the poor “Jewish Ghetto of Shanghai” neighborhood - that is now a small Jewish museum. The great Sephardic synagogue, Ohel Rachel, used for decades as a storehouse, was renovated preceding former US president Bill Clinton’s visit to city in the late nineties. Despite the restoration, the Chinese authorities only allow it to be opened to the public for a few days a year. These two places and a small memorial in Hongkou park are the only sites which the Chinese authorities have so far dedicated to the preservation of the city’s Jewish history – even though many of the finest buildings constructed in Shanghai in the early 20th century and still gracing it today were financed by wealthy, famous Jewish families of Iraqi descent. The famous Peace (Cathay) Hotel, built by Sir Victor Sassoon on the banks of the Wang-Fu, was and still is one of the best-known hotels in the world. The marble mansion that was once the residence of Sir Elly Kadoorie is the present-day Children’s Palace, and the large commercial buildings constructed by Silas Aaron Hardoon are all among the most important buildings in the city. Today, however, they are all Chinese-owned, and few Chinese are aware of the buildings’ history or of the city’s Jewish heritage, for the Cultural Revolution was very successful in its mission to erase history and heritage in many areas of life.
About a fortnight later the antique-dealer called us again. This time we saw in his yard the largest, most complete and impressive Jewish tombstone we had come across until then. It was a red marble stone, 1.70 meters high, vine leaves carved at its top and base, and sculpted marble pillars at its sides. The inscription stated that this was the gravestone of Mrs Chaya Melike daughter of Israel, wife of David Abramovitch, who died in 1910.
The antique-dealer also told us that close to the place where he had found this stone were some bigger, more elaborate ones, more than two meters high. He refused to take us to this site, claiming that if the locals saw foreigners were interested in the stones, they would demand a higher price from him.
We returned by ourselves to the vicinity of the Moslem cemetery. Close by was a large Buddhist cemetery, and at its entrance an office building – the central administration for the area’s cemeteries. The head administrator was happy to receive us in his office, but said he had no idea what became of the Jewish graves or gravestones. He claimed to have no documentation regarding people buried in the international cemetery that once existed here, and said that to search for such records or documents we would need to go to the relevant Shanghai municipal offices.
With John’s help we telephoned the Municipality. John asked to speak with the most senior official and told him that he was a tour guide, and that one of the tourists in his group wanted to come to the municipal offices, to look for records of relatives who had lived in Shanghai in the thirties and passed away there. To our disappointment the official said there would be no point in coming to the city council, since they had no documentation or record of deaths and burials in the city before 1949. He could not estimate how many Jews were buried in Shanghai, either, and certainly could not say where their graves could be found.
We returned to the village near the cemetery and resumed our search from the spot where we had found the concrete-encased gravestone. This time we discovered that the house-owner had made himself a store of other tombstones nearby, covering them in planks and apparently keeping them as future building materials. The path that led to the rest of the village took us to a small bridge across what was once a river. This time we noticed that many of the stones making up the bridge’s foundations seemed to be gravestones. We could not see their faces, but as if to support our assumption we found another gravestone: it was set among the stones on the surface of the bridge, trodden upon by those crossing the river.
We entered one of the yards. The owner stood washing clothes, rubbing them across a slab of concrete the way those old women must have rubbed laundry on the Jewish tombstones. When she saw I was taking pictures, she asked me to photograph her grandchildren and send the photos to her. She stood the children on the doorstep and combed their hair so that they would look their best in the picture. Then I realized that the doorstep where she wanted the picture taken was a marble gravestone lying face down.
At the door of a small kiosk near the yard stood a billiards table, around which some smiling, tipsy locals gathered at midday. It seemed that each and every one of them knew of foreigners’ gravestones found in the area. Some pointed in various directions, indicating where we should look. One of them could even indicate the general direction of a distant field where he claimed to have seen large abandoned gravestones standing upright. He would not take us there, not remembering the exact location, but suggested we return some other day. None of those present was too willing to leave the games table in order to guide us.
Only after they had had a proper group photograph taken did one of them consent to show us the way to a place, further into the village, where he claimed we could find more stones.
Behind one of the houses was a small brick structure where the sewerage channels intersected. It was obvious that this sewerage outlet had been built not long before, and it had no cover yet. Two large, unbroken gravestones, both with a Star of David at the top, were leaning against a nearby wall. One carried the name of Dr Chaim Solomonov, in Hebrew and English, and the other, in Russian, the name of Sarah Avramovna Veron.
It was obvious that these stones had been brought here as covers for the sewerage outlet. While we were standing there a young woman approached and asked us in ‘Chinglish’ what we were doing. Her name was Yang Lee Lee, and this was her family home. She was studying microbiology at the University of Shanghai. She had grown up in the village and could tell us of many foreigners’ tombstones in the area. She said she did not know why the stones had been put by the sewerage outlet behind her house, but had sympathy for our distress as to their future use, and agreed to ask her grandfather - who was drying meat and rice grains - not to use the stones as a sewerage cover.

With the help of Yang Lee Lee we continued to search for other stones. The first gravestone to which she brought us served as a paving stone at a small square. Its face was turned upwards, so that the writing was legible. It was the gravestone of a Thomas Harrison Bathome, first officer on the Australian steamer SS Fort Adelaide.
Nearby, in a small cultivated plot, was a stone path riddled with fragments of tombstones. The path led through the mud to an outhouse with fabric walls and a tin roof. The stepping-stone in front of the hole that served as a toilet was an upturned marble slab, whose shape and size resembled those of other tombstones we had found.
At the edge of a nearby vegetable field lay, exposed, the tombstone of Chaya Feldman, born in Kishiniev, died 1932. Yang Lee Lee asked one of the neighbors for water and a rag to clean the mud and shoeprints that covered this inscription and the Star of David.
We crossed the field towards the water channel that bordered it. A little further were a few steps leading down to the water. One of the locals was crouched on the bottom step, washing his work tools. I took a picture of him, and he rose and turned to go. The bottom stone step on which he had been standing, its edges touching the water and waterweeds, was the gravestone of a Dr Otto Hess. The name showed clearly in large engraved letters, but we were not sure whether Dr Hess was a Jew or a Christian. From the channel John pulled a receptacle intended for spooning out water. He used it to rinse the mud off the stone and expose the Star of David at its head.
Although the Shanghai Jews had never met with anti-Semitism, and lived very safe lives compared to the Jews in the countries from which they had emigrated, almost all of them were quick to leave when the communists rose to power, and migrated to Israel and the States. By the early fifties only small handful remained in the city, and from the mid-fifties to the eighties there was no Jewish community in Shanghai. The year of Mrs Peliack’s death, engraved in Hebrew on the first stone we had found, was 1951; she must have been one of the last to be buried in Shanghai’s soil.
The Israeli Consulate in Shanghai informed us that in response to its appeal, the Chinese authorities have promised to assemble the stones in a separate plot within the Buddhist cemetery, next to the Moslem one. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign affairs also carried out investigatory excavations at the Buddhist cemetery, in which remains of Jewish graves and fragments of yet more gravestones were found. Representatives from the Israeli Consulate collected the large marble stone from the antique store and explained to Mr Shu, the antique-trader, that he was not permitted to trade in gravestones.
In the large rural area at the west of Shanghai there are still many scattered gravestones, some put to various uses by farmers, some lying abandoned. It seems that only a monetary incentive will persuade the villagers to hand in the gravestones they have, as well as to look for and collect the scattered ones.
It seems that the Chinese position towards Judaism, as an unrecognized religion, is not likely to change in the near future, but that slow changes are taking place and in effect returning the Jewish spirit to Shanghai. A further indication of this would be the placing of Jewish tombstones by the Chinese authorities, in their allocated plot; should this eventually happen, the site will most probably become the renewed Jewish cemetery of Shanghai.

Further details are available by e-mail at:

Dvir Bar-Gal
mobile phone: 0086 13002146702

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