Schmoozing with the Shammes of Shanghai
The shammes of Shanghai is an 87-year-old man named Wang Fa Liang.
I often write for this paper when I return from overseas travel, but
halfway through my recent trip to China with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, I was at a loss for a topic. And then I played hooky one morning in Shanghai.
I knew the general outline of the story of the Jews of Shanghai. Fleeing Nazi persecution, thousands of Jews journeyed halfway around the world to the sanctuary offered by Shanghai’s unique status as a free trade city. A small yet vibrant Jewish community had formed on the edge of the Middle Kingdom. While not discussed in my guidebooks, I hoped its remnants might still be found today.
Armed with an address from a Google search, three of us (former California Treasurer Kathleen Brown, Los Angeles Times reporter Duke Helfand and I) hired a car and asked the driver to find 62 Chang Yang Road. After a few wrong turns, the driver pulled up in front of Ohel Moishe (the “Tent of Moses”), a shul that had stood at the center of Shanghai’s ghetto.
We stepped from a Chinese street of working-class clothing, beauty and fish merchants into the world of our fathers. Ohel Moishe is a well-maintained, small but sturdy three-story brick building recessed from Chang Yang Road via a courtyard. Under a Star of David, we kissed the mezuzah and entered a plain sanctuary. The Torah scrolls had long been removed from the ark, but one could imagine the half-dozen rows jammed on Shabbat in Shanghai long ago.
The shul was nearly empty save for a couple from Brazil and four other Americans. Wang, the octogenarian caretaker and Shanghai native, assembled us around an old table upstairs to watch a video on the area’s history.
Wang then addressed us, drawing a portrait of centuries of Jewish privation with the erudition and compassion of a skilled rabbi. Hundreds of years of history, ours and his, spilled forth.
Wang told us of the Sephardim, principally from Iraq, who had traveled the Silk Road to Shanghai. Their descendants had gone on to greatness in Shanghai — one of the city’s defining landmarks, the Peace Hotel, was erected by Sir Victor Sassoon.
Then there were the Ashkenazim (Wang could discuss the distinctions between Jews with greater dexterity than we could discuss the subtleties of the Chinese) from Russia who — following pogroms, the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution — moved to Shanghai at the start of the 20th century.
Finally, Wang told us of the Jews who had fled the Nazis. He spoke movingly of yeshiva students from Poland and musicians from Vienna who had sailed from Genoa or traversed Siberia to settle in his neighborhood. He spoke of the heroism of Japanese Consul General Chiune Sugihara in Kaunas, who had processed paperwork permitting thousands of Jews to flee from Lithuania to Shanghai. He told us the astonishing story of a failed mid-war German-Japanese plot to kill Shanghai’s European Jews (the plotters had evidently neglected the Sephardim, he noted).
Wang’s lecture was a tour de force. He beamed as he pointed to the pictures of the Israeli leaders — Herzog, Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu, among others — who had visited Ohel Moishe. He showed off reunion photos taken with former Jewish refugees who return from time to time.
When he concluded, Duke asked him a sim
ple question — “Why do you work here?”
He responded, “I remember my colleagues Mr. Stein and Mr. Friedman from the cafe where we worked in the ’40s. There were so many Jews in this area it was called ‘Little Vienna.’ Mr. Stein and Mr. Friedman moved away, and they helped my family move into a Jewish house.”
As we left the shul, Wang followed us down the street, pointing out additional landmarks.
“Make sure you see the park — Jewish families played there,” he called after us.
We were on a tight schedule to rejoin the mayor of Los Angeles, but the mayor of Little Vienna wouldn’t let us go.
I turned to Duke and Kathleen and told them how uplifted I felt, and I mentioned the story of Sugihara.
“He’s famous — I think he’s been recognized as a Righteous Gentile,” Duke said.
The memory and sanctuary of thousands of Jews are being kept alive by an old Chinese man in Shanghai, a man who did more than move into a Jewish house — a man who moved into Jewish lives, and became the guardian of their memories. Surely Wang Fa Liang is righteous as well.
Ohel Moishe, located at 62 Chang Yang Road in northeast Shanghai, is open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Telephone – 86-21-65415008.