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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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