Jewish Educational Trade School student Isser Brikman works with Jewish Home resident Michael Candiotti on a computer-based genealogy project. Photo courtesy of JETS.

Seniors team with teens to trace family trees online


The sign in the library at the Los Angeles Jewish Home reads, “Silence is appreciated in the Library,” but on one recent stormy Sunday, the place was positively abuzz with activity.

Six residents of the senior living home and six teens from the Jewish Educational Trade School (JETS) sat in a row, each in front of a computer monitor. More teens loitered around, and elders sat in plush leather armchairs, waiting for their turns at the computer.

The seniors brought binders and notebooks with biographical details about relatives, and as they spelled out place names and birth dates, the students keyed the data into geni.com, a genealogy website.

For the students, the Jan. 22 afternoon get-together was a capstone, of sorts. They’d spent eight weeks learning about genealogy in a not-for-credit seminar taught by E. Randol Schoenberg, an attorney who made a name and a fortune reclaiming Jewish-owned art looted by the Nazis. As their final project, the students volunteered to help the seniors upload information that connects them to a global Jewish family tree.

“Teenagers are tech savvy, but it’s the seniors who want to put up their family trees,” said Rabbi Naftali Smith, the principal of JETS, who accompanied the teens to the Jewish Home.

For the seniors, such as Joe Levoff, 86, who was born in Shanghai, the session provided an opportunity to explore their roots. “I’m always interested to know where I came from, how far back I can go,” he said.

The idea undergirding Jewish genealogy, Schoenberg explained, is that Jews really are one big family.

“It’s like this giant, connected puzzle where we’re all related,” he said.

Geni.com illustrates that fact by allowing users to search for their connections with anybody whose family history is logged on the website. So, for instance, it turned out that Levoff’s student mentor was also his aunt’s nephew’s ex-wife’s second cousin’s ex-husband’s first cousin’s husband’s great nephew, according to geni.com.

But here’s the catch: You can find connections only if you’ve added enough information about yourself to link you to the global network of connections already uploaded to Geni’s World Family Tree. Schoenberg curates about 152,000 of these profiles.

So by helping the seniors log their data, the students were linking them to a network that includes, in theory, every Jew in recorded history. Some lucky seniors had enough information during the two-hour session to plug them into this massive family tree.

The students had only recently experienced this phenomenon themselves.

Oran Gabriel Sherman, 16, said Schoenberg helped him find his great-grandfather in Russia. Sherman hadn’t known he had any Russian ancestry. The search had even turned up a photo of his great-grandfather  — “He’s a good-looking guy,” he said — that shocked him.

He showed the photograph to his grandmother. “She was amazed herself,” he said.

Another JETS student, Isser Brikman dutifully typed as Dorothy Scott, 94, the senior home’s resident chaplain, leaned forward and spelled names of places and people in a commanding staccato. For Scott, whose childhood ended when her family was displaced by the Holocaust, the exercise carried an extra weight.

“We, the children, don’t know anything about who we are,” she said.

Schoenberg considers the event a success, and is looking to repeat the seminar at JETS or other schools.

“This was totally experimental,” he said. “It worked.

Shanghai pushing WWII Jewish neighborhood for UNESCO register


Shanghai is applying to have the neighborhood that sheltered Jewish refugees during World War II added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

Some 20,000 Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis lived in Shanghai, in the Tilanqiao area of Hongkou District, according to Xinhua news service.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is working with the Hongkou district government to complete the application. As part of the application, the city completed the collecting of the refugee list, data bank, literary, video and audio material.

Shanghai also has announced plans to rebuild a cafe where Jewish refugees gathered during their time in the city. The Wiener Cafe Restaurant, opened in 1939, will be rebuilt using its original blueprints opposite the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. It was demolished in 2009 to expand the city subway system.

Witnesses to Kristallnacht


On a Wednesday evening in late 1938, the sounds of broken glass shattered the quiet streets of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Over the next 24 hours, Nov. 9-10, rampaging Nazi mobs would torch more than 1,000 synagogues; vandalize Jewish homes, businesses and cemeteries; and kill nearly 100 Jews. As many as 30,000 Jews were arrested and carted off to concentration camps. These coordinated attacks, which came to be known as Kristallnacht —  the Night of Broken Glass — mark the beginning of the Holocaust.

Survivors who lived to tell the story of the terror of Kristallnacht  — some quite young at the time — remember vividly the horrors of that night. These four, who share their memories on the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, are among the lucky ones whose families were able to escape and who, eventually, made their way to Los Angeles. 


Herbert Jellinek, Vienna

Late on the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, Herb and his father, Leo, were walking home from their weekly visit to the public baths,when from a distance they saw the Turner Temple in flames. Only a year and four months earlier, Herb had become a bar mitzvah at this Vienna synagogue, but now Nazi Brownshirts, also called SA or Stormtroopers, were standing around with the local police, watching the building burn, and a crowd of Austrians had gathered and were cheering the sight. Herb and Leo stayed in the shadows. “We were very afraid,” Herb said. “We tried to get home as quickly as possible.”

They arrived at their apartment on Mariahilferstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, around noon to find Herb’s mother, Irma, in tears. Later that afternoon, Herb peeked out of their living room window and saw hordes of Brownshirts going from building to building, breaking the windows of apartments and stores where Jews lived and shopped. He also witnessed the Brownshirts roughing up Jewish men, dragging them out of their apartment buildings. Herb’s family fully expected the Nazis to come to their door to take Leo, and possibly 14-year-old Herb. They sat on the couch, wearing their overcoats because the apartment didn’t have central heat, and waited. 

Suddenly the doorbell rang. Irma opened the door and was surprised to find their electrician standing there, responding to their call from several days earlier to repair a broken radio. “I can’t understand what’s going on,” he told the Jellineks. “It’s ridiculous.”

Herb and his parents waited the rest of the night, listening to their newly repaired radio and staying quiet so as to not draw attention to themselves. They learned later that their concierge had steered the Nazis away, informing them no Jews lived in the building. 

The next day, Herb’s parents resolved to leave Austria. 

The situation had been deteriorating, especially since the Anschluss on March 12, 1938, when Germany annexed Austria. Three days later, Hitler had entered Vienna, the climax of a triumphant tour of Austria. Despite a warning over loudspeakers that anyone leaning out a window or leaving curtains open would be shot, Herb peered out to see Hitler riding in an open car with his hand raised. He heard people cheering and saw buildings adorned with swastika flags and banners. “It was like everyone all of a sudden became Nazi,” he recalled. 

Shortly after, Herb was forced to transfer from public school to a Jewish school, an hour’s streetcar ride, and at least weekly he found himself fighting members of the Hitler Youth. 

But Kristallnacht was the turning point for the Jellineks, and the following week Herb accompanied his father to the American consulate, where Leo filed an application to immigrate to the United States. But the waiting list was long, as it was at other consulates they visited. Weeks later, they learned that only Shanghai, which the British had established as a treaty port in the 1840s, would take them without a visa. With difficulty, Leo secured second-class tickets on an Italian passenger ship, departing Trieste in the spring.

In June 1939, Herb and his parents left Vienna. As they crossed the border into Italy and an Italian customs official entered their train car, they felt great relief. 

“A lot of people forget. You can’t forget what we went through,” Herb said. 


Rita Feder, Berlin

As evening fell on Nov. 10, 1938, Rita heard a huge crash outside her family’s apartment on Berlin’s Metzer Strasse. She looked out the front window and there, next to the entrance to their building, she saw four or five Brownshirts throwing cement blocks through the windows of the stores that occupied the ground floor. Rita’s mother, Fanny, started screaming. She dragged 10-year-old Rita away from the window and closed the drapes. 

 The Atterman family in Berlin in 1938. From left, mother Fanny, brother Jona (Heinz), Rita, brother Bill (Willy) and father Max

The family gathered in the living room, in the center of the apartment and away from the front windows and the back staircase. Rita sat in the dark with her parents and older brother, Bill (Willy). Her middle brother, Jona (Heinz), had immigrated to Palestine several months earlier. Time moved slowly. “I was so scared. It was the only time I was almost traumatized,” Rita recalled. While Max Atterman, her father, thought the Nazi hysteria would pass, Rita believed this was the end.  

The next day, Rita saw the store windows had been boarded up and the owners were sweeping up shattered glass. “There was not one store that wasn’t hit,” she said. Rita went to school that day, but no one talked about what had happened. 

Life had become increasingly unhappy for Rita as Hitler gained power. A gymnast and a sprinter, she had dreams of participating in the Olympics and desperately wanted to attend the 1936 Berlin Games. But Jews were not allowed. Her father did take her, however, to watch the men’s 50-kilometer walk, which took place along city streets.

About a year later, in 1937, Rita and her mother were walking near Alexanderplatz when the crowd began buzzing that Hitler was approaching. Everything quickly came to a standstill, and Fanny warned her daughter, “You better raise your hand now and scream, ‘Heil, Hitler.’ ” Rita shouted the salute as the Führer rode by in his open car, his arm raised. “I felt terrible,” Rita recalled.

Kristallnacht convinced Fanny that it was time to leave Germany, but Max wanted to stay. He thought again, however, as people around them began making plans to emigrate. Then, after visiting various consulates in Berlin, he discovered the world was blocked off to Jews. 

One day, a family friend came to visit. “We’re getting out of here, and you are, too. We’re going to China,” she told Fanny and Max. Max thought she was crazy.

In December 1938, Max made arrangements to send Rita to live with his niece in Antwerp, Belgium. When the smuggler came for her, Rita was frightened. “You have to go. It’ll save your life,” her mother told her. The man, who was Jewish, delivered Rita to her relatives. “They were wonderful people,” she said. 

In July 1939, the niece’s husband brought Rita back to Berlin, and a week later, Rita, her parents and her brother Bill boarded a train to Italy. “A stone fell off my parents’ hearts. They were getting away,” Rita said. They took a passenger ship to Shanghai, and in 1947, she and Bill immigrated to Los Angeles. 

“I have to give back to God and my country. I’m so fortunate,” Rita said.


Tom Tugend, Berlin

From his family’s second-floor apartment on Berlin’s Greifswalder Strasse, during the late-night hours of Nov. 9 or very early on Nov. 10, 1938, Tom heard the crashing of glass as bricks or rocks were heaved through the windows of the street-level shops. Tom’s mother, Irene Tugendreich, hustled Tom, 13, and his older sister, Brigitte, into her bedroom, and then his usually undemonstrative mother lay down and cuddled her children in the dark room. 

Tom Tugend, 14, and his mother, Irene Tugendreich, in 1939 in Philadelphia, their first year in the United States. 

At one point, the doorbell rang. The owner of the stationery store on the building’s ground level stood in the hallway, deathly pale and shaking. “Can you hide me?” he begged. The gentile landlady, who had answered the door and who also lived on the second floor, was too frightened to take him in; her Jewish husband had been sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp just a few days earlier. But she allowed the man to run through Tom’s apartment and out the back door. Tom didn’t feel particularly frightened at the time, he said, but, “I always remember his face, that absolutely horror-stricken face.”

Tom, his sister and mother returned to the bedroom. Tom continued to hear the shattering glass and the shouting mob. The three of them were grateful that Tom’s father was in the United States, as he undoubtedly would have been arrested.

The following day, Tom went to school. He remembers seeing the shattered glass on the streets and the stores being boarded up. But in a few days, life returned to what was then normal. He was riding his bike to school and playing soccer, the activity that mattered most to him at the time. 

His father, Gustav, a highly respected pediatrician and a World War I medical officer, had believed for a long time that Hitler was an aberration. But by 1937, when Gustav was no longer permitted to treat non-Jewish patients and when the family was forced to move from their upper-middle-class apartment to a smaller one in a working-class neighborhood, Gustav realized it was time to leave. Plus, he was likely influenced by Irene’s more pronounced sense of urgency. But by that time, most countries had closed their borders, and it was impossible to obtain visas.

Gustav, however, had tracked down the American and British Quakers, with whom he had worked in Germany in 1919 feeding hungry children. They found an immigration law exception for academicians and secured Gustav a one-year lectureship at the University of London in 1937-38 and one at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania the following year, thus qualifying him for a non-quota visa. Meanwhile, after the Munich Agreement in September 1938 and again after Kristallnacht, Gustav had been writing the family urgent letters from the United States, begging them to depart as soon as possible.

Finally, on April 20, 1939, with flags bedecking the city to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday, Tom, Brigitte and Irene boarded a plane from Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport to London. They then traveled to Southampton and sailed by passenger ship to New York. 

Tom cautions that the trouble with writing history is that you see it through the lens of what has happened since. “Nobody could imagine at that time, even after Kristallnacht, that the Holocaust could happen,” he said.

Since 1955, Tom has lived permanently in Los Angeles. He has been writing regularly for the Jewish Journal since 1993 and serves as a contributing editor.


Risa Igelfeld, Vienna

Before Kristallnacht, and even before the Anschluss, when Risa witnessed Nazi soldiers singing and marching along the streets, she saw many Viennese turning to Nazism. “They came up like cockroaches. It was a frightening time,” she said.

Risa Relles Igelfeld, center, in Vienna in 1928 with her older sister, Edith Relles, and half-brother, Paul Knie. The girls were given the maiden name of their mother, who died when Risa was 1. 

Risa was asleep in the early morning hours of Nov. 10, 1938, when the sound of boots kicking the front door of their house awakened her abruptly. “Where’s the money?” she heard the intruders shout. Risa, 21, and her older sister, Edith, who shared a bedroom, heard them enter their parents’ bedroom. “You’re coming with us,” they ordered Risa’s father, Ruben. The girls got out of bed and started dressing. “I was shaking like a leaf,” Risa recalled. The Brownshirts burst into their bedroom, searching for money, then left with Ruben. Risa and Edith stood together, holding onto one another. “I was so scared, just so scared,” Risa remembered.

About an hour later, Risa ventured into the living room. Daylight had broken, and she looked out the window onto Favoritenstrasse, one of Vienna’s main streets, to see other Brownshirts pulling away in Ruben’s first-ever new car. She kept pacing back and forth to the window. At one point, she saw SS and Brownshirts marching up and down the street, singing. Another time, she glanced at the window of the house across the street to see a neighbor sticking out her tongue at her. 

The following night, Risa’s half-brother, Paul Knie, managed to cross Austria’s border and head for Belgium. Then on Sunday, Risa was walking alone when she was stopped by the Brownshirts, who forced her to eat grass. She also saw elderly Jews she knew, on their hands and knees cleaning the sidewalks. “That was very upsetting for me,” she recalled.

The family did not learn Ruben’s fate until a month later, when they received a letter from him. He had been taken to Dachau and then Buchenwald. 

In early January 1939, Risa, following in her sister’s footsteps, left for London on a domestic visa sent by an English family looking for a servant. Soon after, she was promoted to the position of nanny for the couple’s two young children. 

Back in Vienna, Risa’s stepmother went to Nazi headquarters and bribed an SS official, who agreed to release Ruben with the stipulation that the couple leave Austria immediately. They boarded a boat to Palestine but were refused entry. Other ports were also closed. They finally landed on the island of Mauritius, off the southeast coast of Africa, where they were imprisoned for three years. 

Before Kristallnacht, Paul had gone to the American consulate to search its telephone books for people with their surname, Knie, writing letters pleading for help. A couple in Chicago, Max and Tesse Knee, who were not related, responded, offering affidavits for all the family members. “They were just good people,” Risa said. Her parents arrived in New York around 1944. Risa and her husband, Gershom Igelfeld, whom she married in London, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1949. 

‘Jewish Refugees in Shanghai’ tells story of survival


For Jews desperate to flee the Nazi regime but barred from entry almost everywhere, Shanghai was the Last Place on Earth and a rescuing Noah’s Ark.

Between 1933 and 1941, some 20,000 Jews, mainly from Germany and Austria, found a harsh but safe refuge in the Chinese port city, and a UCLA exhibit and symposium will bear witness to one of the rare Jewish experiences of the Holocaust era with a positive narrative.

The “Shanghai miracle” is “a story of remarkable survival and hospitality,” summarized professor Todd Presner, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, who was one of the main organizers of the event, together with Chinese studies colleagues and the Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office.

Opening Oct. 27 and continuing through Dec. 14, the “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941)” exhibition will include historical documents, memorabilia, photos and artifacts, most on loan from the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum.

Two panel discussions on “Cosmopolitan Sounds and Jewish Music in Pre-1949 Shanghai” and “Transnational Shanghai, Modern Metropolis” will be followed by a celebration on Oct. 27 to mark the exhibit’s opening.

Participating will be Chinese and American scholars and artists, diplomatic representatives and two “Shanghailanders,” who will recall their childhood lives in the city.

One of the survivors is William Hant, who was 4 when his parents left Vienna for Shanghai in 1939 and stayed until 1947, long enough for young Hant to celebrate his bar mitzvah.

Hant, now a visiting scholar at the UCLA Electrical Engineering department, recalled a “good childhood” in the cramped quarters of the Jewish-Chinese neighborhood of
Hongkou.

A more somber memory is the July 1945 U.S. bombing of the city, which had been occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army since 1937. The bombs killed more than 30 Jews and some 500 Chinese.

In late 1942, Hitler started to put pressure on his Axis partner, Japan, to turn over the Shanghai Jews, so that they could become part of his “Final Solution.”

There are at least two curious explanations for the Japanese refusal to accede to the German demands. One goes back to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, when wealthy Jews in Europe and America — remembering the pogroms under the czars — supported the Japanese side, an action that the Tokyo government never forgot.

The other explanation rests on an episode that took place in late 1942, when the Japanese military governor of Shanghai called in the leaders of the Jewish community.

When they arrived, the stern general asked why the Germans hated the Jews so much, to which the Amshinover Rebbe Shimon Sholom Kalish quickly replied, “Because we are Orientals.” At that, the general smiled for the first time and deprived Hitler of 20,000 more victims.

However, in early 1943, the Jews who had settled in various parts of the city were ordered to move into a one-square-mile ghetto in the rundown section of Hongkou, sharing the already crowded and decrepit neighborhood with the Chinese residents.

The two ethnic groups got along well, and, as they did in other locations in exile, the German and Austrian refugees soon created mini versions of their old Berlin and Vienna lifestyles, complete with theaters, opera, schools, sports clubs, bookstores and pastry shops.

Quite a different Jewish lifestyle was added by a few hundred students and teachers of the famed Mir Yeshiva, last located in Lithuania, which became the only yeshiva in Nazi-occupied Europe to survive the Holocaust.

The refugees were fortunate in receiving aid not only from their Chinese neighbors, but also from two earlier waves of Jewish immigrants to Shanghai. First came the Iraqi, or “Baghdadi,” Jews, some of who became great merchant princes, and later the Russian Jews, following the communist revolution in 1917.

Chinese officials first broached the idea of the Shanghai exhibit to the UCLA Confucius Institute, one of more than 300 such institutes in 98 countries supported by the Beijing government to promote the study of the Chinese language and culture.

The UCLA Confucius Institute in turn enlisted the participation of campus experts in Chinese history, ethnomusicology, Hillel’s Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts, the German consulate in Los Angeles and the UCLA Library, which will mount a satellite exhibition from its own collection.

The Chinese government initiative in proposing the Shanghai exhibit at UCLA is another indication of the country’s more open attitude toward Western academicians, Presner said.

In particular, many Chinese intellectuals have long felt a certain affinity for the Jewish people, he noted, as members of an ancient civilization with a history of suffering and discrimination similar to their own.

“Chinese scholars are particularly interested in examining how the Jewish people have been able to adapt to the modern world while still retaining their own culture,” Presner observed.

China’s growing interest in American academic life is indicated by the increasing number of its students enrolling in American universities. During this year’s summer session, some 500 “fully paid” Chinese students attended UCLA classes, said Susan Pertel Jain, executive director of the Confucius Institute on the Westwood campus.

The academic flow between the two countries runs both ways. One example is the Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, bearing the name of Los Angeles philanthropists Diane and Guilford Glazer.

Among co-sponsors of the Shanghai exhibit is Facing History and Ourselves, an international educational and professional development organization. It is hosting a Nov. 3 workshop for educators, focusing on using the personal narratives of rescuers and survivors to teach middle and high school students about history, compassion and creativity.

The “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai” exhibition will be open to the public without charge Oct. 27-Dec. 14, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., at Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave. Paid parking is available on campus at Lot 2, at the corner of Hilgard and Westholme avenues.

To attend the Oct. 27 symposium and opening celebration, preregistration is required; call (310) 267-5327 or e-mail cjsrsvp@humnet.ucla.edu.

With Netanyahu in Shanghai, China rips Syrian airstrikes


As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a five-day visit to China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized the military strikes on Syria without singling out Israel.

“We oppose the use of military force and believe any country's sovereignty should be respected,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday. She did not mention Israel by name.

“China also calls on all relevant parties to begin from the basis of protecting regional peace and stability, maintain restraint and avoid taking any actions that would escalate tensions and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also is visiting China; Abbas and Netanhayu are not scheduled to meet there. Netanyahu will meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday.

On Monday evening, Netanyahu met in Shanghai with dozens of Israeli businesspeople who represent companies that operate in China. The company representatives discussed ways to increase bilateral trade.

Saving Shanghai’s Jewish Past Via Headstones


In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Western philanthropists and volunteers are restoring dozens of historic Jewish cemeteries.

But in Shanghai, there are none to restore.

The four cemeteries that once served this city’s small but prosperous Jewish community disappeared in the late 1960s during China’s Cultural Revolution. The sites were paved over to build a factory, park, hotel and Muslim cemetery, their history forgotten.

Israeli photojournalist Dvir Bar-Gal is trying to change that.

While the cemeteries may be gone, since 2001 Bar-Gal has made it his mission to track down as many of the original headstones as possible. He has located 85 and hopes to use them in a memorial to Shanghai’s Jewish past.

The project has kept Bar-Gal in Shanghai for more than seven years, and he is waiting for government permission to erect the memorial. The clock is ticking, he says.

“In a few years, the area where I found these stones will be gone,” Bar-Gal said in an interview. “The villages I first visited have been redeveloped and are now upscale residences.”

Shanghai, a major port that is now China’s largest city, has had three waves of Jewish immigration. The first began in 1845, when David Sassoon, an Iraqi Jew living in India, moved his family business to Shanghai, which was China’s first city to open to the West. He was joined by two other Baghdad Jews, Elly Kadoorie and Silas Hardoon, and as the community grew they built Shanghai’s fortunes and their own.

After 1905, Russian Jews fleeing pogroms and revolution arrived in Shanghai. And in the 1930s, in the third wave, some 30,000 refugees from Nazi Europe arrived in the city when other countries were closing their doors to Jewish refugees. Shanghai, an “open city,” allowed immigration without visa or passport.

Japan occupied Shanghai in World War II but refused Nazi orders to deport or murder the city’s Jews. The 20,000 stateless Jewish refugees still in the city were confined in what became known as the Hongkew ghetto, but those with jobs outside were permitted to continue working. The Iraqi and Russian Jewish communities, along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, sent in frequent aid.

Disease and poverty were rampant, but the Jews of Shanghai were spared the horrors of the Holocaust. After the war, virtually all of them left for Hong Kong, Australia, North America and Israel.

Dvir Bar-Gal gives regular tours of Shanghai's Hongkew district, site of the wartime Jewish ghetto. Photo by Sue Fishkoff

Dvir Bar-Gal gives regular tours of Shanghai’s Hongkew district, site of the wartime Jewish ghetto.Photo by Sue Fishkoff

Bar-Gal discovered this history in November 2001 during a Jewish tour of Shanghai led by fellow expatriate Georgia Noy. She told him that a local antiques dealer was selling two Jewish tombstones from one of the abandoned cemeteries.

What began as a mystery tale soon turned into an all-consuming project. Bar-Gal and Noy visited the dealer and purchased one of the headstones; the other already had been sold.

The first headstone led Bar-Gal to dozens more, which he hunted down in villages outside the city. Some were being used as stepping-stones. Others were embedded in garden walls, used to build bridges or simply were thrown into rivers. Some village women used them as washboards, the letters worn away by years of scrubbing.

Funded in part by a grant from the Sino-Judaic Institute at Stanford University, Bar-Gal hired teams of workers to dig out the headstones from the strange places they had come to rest. In many cases he had to purchase them from villagers who claimed to own them.

Their inscriptions chronicle the history of Shanghai Jewry, from the 1874 headstone of a British sailor named Lazarus to the 1958 headstone of Charles Perceval Rakuzen, a British-born ophthalmologist whose sister still lives in England.

Bar-Gal set up a Web site with photos and information about the headstones he found, including interviews he conducted with surviving family members.

Twenty of the headstones found by Bar-Gal are being held by the government in a Buddhist cemetery while their fate is determined. Five others were too heavy to dig out. The 60 in his possession have been moved to four storage facilities over the years while Bar-Gal awaits government permission to build a Jewish memorial in a small park in the middle of the former ghetto. The park already contains a granite marker commemorating the Jews of the ghetto, and it is close to the recently restored Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which houses an exhibit of the city’s Jewish history.

“Tourists who care about the Jewish history of Shanghai come to this park, so it’s a natural place for such a memorial,” Bar-Gal said. “It would serve as a great bridge between Jewish and Chinese cultures while expressing the mutual hardship we shared in the dark days of World War II.”

The Israeli Consulate has added its voice to his pleas, but Bar-Gal has received just one response from the authorities.

“They said it’s bad luck to put gravestones in a park used by the living,” he said.

Bar-Gal now runs the tour of Jewish Shanghai, formerly offered by Noy, who has left China. Quite often, he says, former ghetto residents show up on his tour. If they remember their wartime address he can usually locate their homes; the city has not changed the numbers on old buildings.

But Shanghai’s population of 26 million is growing rapidly, and the Hongkew neighborhood, including the 1.25-square-mile Jewish ghetto, is slated for redevelopment.

The district mayor agreed six years ago to stave off construction for a sum of $700 million, but despite initial interest by two Canadian benefactors, no buyers have come forward. Bar-Gal points out that $700 million would be used primarily to relocate the neighborhood’s 16,000 residents; much more would be needed to maintain the area as a tourist destination.

Meanwhile, Bar-Gal’s 60 headstones rest in a warehouse he shares with the Jewish Center.

“They are somewhere between the pickles and the Passover matzah,” he said.

For more information, visit this article at jewishjournal.com. l

To see Bar-Gal’s Web site with photos and information about the headstones he found, visit, shanghaijewishmemorial.com.

For information on Bar-Gal’s tour of Jewish Shanghai, visit http://www.shanghai-jews.com.

 

Recalling Shanghai’s Jewish past


SHANGHAI, China (JTA)—Uri Gutman had more than parades and picnics in mind a couple of years ago when the Israeli government allotted funds to its Shanghai consul general for an Israel Independence Day reception.

Gutman wanted to make a bigger impact with a service project in the community.

So he devised a three-step plan to give back to elderly residents of the Hongkou neighborhood, the area made into a “stateless refugees” ghetto during the Japanese occupation during World War II and home to more than 20,000 European Jews fleeing the Nazis.

While the world’s eyes are trained on Beijing for the Summer Olympics, which start Friday, Shanghai’s Jewish history has been spotlighted recently as well.

Many of the refugees reached Shanghai through the heroic efforts of Ho Fengshan, a Chinese diplomat in Vienna who issued thousands of visas to Austrian Jews. Ho was honored with a special tribute in June.

He came to be known as the “Chinese Schindler,” in reference to the German industrialist who saved Jews. Oskar Schindler’s life became the story of an Academy Award-winning film, “Schindler’s List,” by Steven Spielberg.

The consulate and 27 Israeli companies joined to raise approximately $87,000 for Gutman’s project detailing Shanghai’s Jewish past.

The first step was completed in June, a renovation of the Hongkou Elders’ Activity Center in Huoshan Park, around the corner from the site of the former Ohel Moshe synagogue, now the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

The funds also were used to set up a database, to be housed at the refugees museum, of names and addresses of Shanghai’s Jewish residents. Gutman wants the database to be interactive and eventually include multimedia and information on the whereabouts of descendants.

“Here, after the war, Jews spread all over and there is nothing left, no community, no archives,” Gutman lamented.

Also at the museum in June, the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad honored Ho, dedicating a marker in English, Chinese and Hebrew. In cooperation with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, the commission also opened a photo exhibition about Ho’s life and work.

After Austria’s annexation by Germany and Kristallnacht in 1938, many of its 185,000 Jews, most of whom lived in Vienna, needed safe passage out of Europe. Acquiring the necessary documentation proved especially difficult after the 1938 Evian Conference at which 32 countries, including the United States, made it clear they would not stand up to the Nazis.

As the consul general in Vienna from 1938 to 1940, Ho at his own peril sometimes issued as many as 900 visas a month to Jews trying to escape Nazi rule.

Ho’s daughter, Manli, was on hand for the ceremony along with American, Chinese and Israeli officials.

She recalled that one visa recipient, Eric Goldstaub, visited 50 foreign consulates in Vienna before obtaining from her father 20 Chinese visas for himself and his family.

“On Kristallnacht, both Goldstaub and his father were arrested and imprisoned, but with the Chinese visas as proof of emigration, they were released within days and embarked on their journey to China,” Manli wrote in the event’s program.

Not all of the Chinese visa holders from Austria, Europe’s third largest Jewish community, went to China. But those who did entered predominantly in Shanghai, where the open ports enabled them to immigrate with minimal hassle.

Other recipients of Ho’s life-saving visas included those arrested and sent to the Nazi concentration camps Dachau and Buchenwald.

His work was motivated by humanitarian reasons.

“I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help,” Ho once wrote.

Ho acted in defiance of direct orders to desist from his superior, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, and incurred a subsequent demerit from his own government.

In early 1939, the Nazis confiscated the Chinese consulate building in Vienna, but Ho continued his efforts issuing visas from a smaller facility for which he paid all the expenses himself.

Ho continued his diplomatic career after leaving Vienna in 1940 and moved to San Francisco following his retirement in 1973. In 1990, he published a memoir, “40 Years of My Diplomatic Life.”

His heroism in Vienna mostly went unrecognized during his lifetime. The Republic of China ignored his legacy for many years because he was a member of the KMT Nationalist Party. Meanwhile, he was denied his pension by the nationalist government in Taiwan because he was accused of embezzling a small sum of money.

The accolades would come after his death in 1997. In 2001 he was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. In June, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution honoring Ho.

At the Shanghai ceremony, Martin Gold, a member of the U.S. preservation commission, praised Ho by pointing out that 70 years ago most nations, “including my nation, rebuffed the Jews.”

Gold noted that all the Jewish recipients of Chinese visas lived, with many eventually settling in America.

“Dr. Ho’s life was itself a bridge between China and America,” he said in his speech. “No relationship in the world is more important.”

Key dates in recent Chinese Jewish history


BEIJING (JTA) — The following are key dates in Chinese Jewish history:

  • 1920 Ohel Rachel Synagogue is established in Shanghai (still standing).
  • 1928-49 The first Lubavitch rabbi in China, Meir Ashkenazi, leads Shanghai’s Congregation Ohel Moshe. Built in 1927, Ohel Moshe is now the site of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum.
  • 1938-45 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria escape to Shanghai.
  • 1939-40 Approximately 1,000 Polish Jews escape to Shanghai, including about 400 teachers and students of the Mir Yeshiva.
  • 1941-45 Japanese occupying powers intern recent Jewish immigrants from Allied countries in Hongkou ghetto for “stateless refugees.”
  • 1949 Communists win civil war; by now most of 24,000 Shanghai Jews and other Jewish populations across the country leave China.
  • 1978 Deng Xiaoping announces China’s “open door policy” with the West.
  • 1980 First community seder in Beijing is led by founders of the liberal Kehillat Beijing minyan.
  • 1992 Israel and China establish diplomatic relations.
  • 1995 Kehillat Beijing begins regular Friday night services in permanent home, Beijing’s Capital Club.
  • Oct 25, 1996 The first community bar mitzvah is held in Beijing for Ari Lee, the son of community founders Elyse Silverberg and Michael Lee.
  • 1998 The “Jewish Shanghai” guided tour begins; it is currently being run by Israeli journalist Dvir Bar-Gal (” title=”Dini’s”>Dini’s
  • May 2008 Israel donates 90 tons of medical supplies, more than $1 million, for Sichuan earthquake relief.
  • VIDEO: The Last Jews of Shan-Chai, China


    Their family has been there for 1000 years, eating Chinese food on Christmas and all year ‘round—the Last Jews of Shan-Chai

    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.

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    Councilman Jack Weiss, Kathleen Brown, and Duke Helfand.

    7 Days in the Arts


    Saturday, March 26

    Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels makes an effort at inclusiveness with its new exhibit, “Passion/Passover: Artists of Faith Interpret Their Holy Days.” On view through the month of April, the show features works by seven Jewish and seven Christian artists, including Barbara Drucker, Laurie Gross and the Rev. Michael Tang. Drucker’s contribution is a “Song of Songs”-inspired piece, while Gross’ incorporates the tallit into a work called, “Miriam and the Women.”

    6:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.), 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (Sat.), 7 a.m.-6 p.m. (Sun.). 555 W. Temple St., Los Angeles. (213) 680-5224. www.olacathedral.org.

    Sunday, March 27

    Anne Frank would have been 75 years old this year, had she lived. Celebrate her words and her memory through the play written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” on stage now through April 17 at the Chance Theater.

    8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.), 2 p.m. (Sun.). $17-$20. 5552 E. Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. (714) 777-3033.

    Monday, March 28

    Newly released on DVD is the documentary, “Shanghai Ghetto.” Martin Landau narrates the film about the Jews of Shanghai, who escaped Nazi persecution in the Japanese-controlled city, one of the only places that would allow them to enter.

    $26.95. www.docurama.com.

    Tuesday, March 29

    George Washington gets his mug on a dollar, but what did Martha ever get for her troubles? Cokie Roberts corrects the oversight in her book, “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation,” which becomes the topic of conversation when she visits the Skirball this evening. A book signing follows.

    7:30 p.m. $5-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.

    Wednesday, March 30

    American icon photographer and icon in her own right, Annie Leibovitz, displays her stills of musicians at Fahey/Klein Gallery’s “American Music” exhibition. Images of Willie Nelson, Beck and Michael Stipe are just some you’ll see.

    10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). 148 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-2250.

    Thursday, March 31

    Catch the new Murray Mednick trifecta beginning tonight at Electric Lodge. The first two of his four-part series, “The Gary Plays,” premiere tonight, with the third premiering tomorrow. They follow Gary, a poor former actor dealing with his son’s murder. Stay tuned for news on part four….

    8 p.m. (both premieres). $20 (one evening), $30 (both evenings). 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. (310) 823-0710.

    Friday, April 1

    The first Israeli feature to be screened at Sundance, “Nina’s Tragedies,” premiered in 2004 – then took another year to make it into L.A. and New York theaters. But the wait may well be worth it. The film about a 13-year-old boy’s crush on his beautiful and recently widowed Aunt Nina, and about the other quirky characters that surround him, opens today in Laemmle theaters.

    Laemmle Sunset 5, Los Angeles; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena. www.laemmle.com.

    Escape to Shanghai Saved Refugee’s Life


    At a time when the world shunned them, an estimated 20,000 Jewish refugees from Russia, Germany, Austria and elsewhere made their way to Shanghai before World War II. Jews in this forgotten corner of the world survived on donations from the Joint Distribution Committee, whose financial support paid for three meals a day, then two and then one.

    As difficult as life was for Shanghai’s Jews, it was certainly better than the alternative, said Michael Berenbaum, director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute, which explores the religious and ethical implications of the Holocaust. The Jews in China "didn’t know the language and were impoverished," he said. "But comparatively speaking, they were free. The people they left behind died."

    By the late 1940s, Shanghai’s Jews had largely immigrated to the United States and Israel, closing a little-known chapter in Jewish history. Most of them have since succumbed to old age and illness, taking their memories to the grave.

    In San Juan Capistrano though, 80-year-old Kurt Wunderlich remembers. The spirited, retired music shop owner — "I like the Beatles and Stones, but most of the stuff today is crap" — recently described his wartime experiences to a visitor at his modest but comfortable Orange County home.

    Wunderlich, a diminutive man with a strong, direct gaze, escaped from Germany in 1939 with his lawyer father, Felix. They fled soon after the Nazis sent his father to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin for one week for the crime of being Jewish. The elder Wunderlich was released only after promising to leave Germany within six months.

    But where to go? Almost no countries, including the United States, wanted Jewish refugees. China was an exception. So Wunderlich and his father were among the 459 Jews who chartered a ship built for 200 and sailed on an arduous, nine-week journey to Shanghai. The Nazis permitted each passenger to leave with only one suitcase and $4.

    Wunderlich’s mother, Margarete, had planned to meet up with her son and husband within months. She never made it. Through a German friend, Wunderlich later heard that she had died in the death camps or poisoned herself before boarding a train bound for them. No one is really sure.

    In Shanghai, the bewildered 14-year-old and his father settled in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, teeming with 5,000 other refugees. They lived in abandoned schoolhouses, 120 to a room. Wunderlich said he endured those grim conditions for nine years.

    Shanghai’s Jews, as best they could, though, tried to recreate the rich cultural lives they had left behind.

    "Jews opened operas, nightclubs, restaurants," Wunderlich said. "There were clubs. There was soccer. We found things to do."

    But life was by no means carefree. Violence and danger lurked.

    Wunderlich remembers a young friend who used to bicycle around Shanghai. A truckload of Japanese soldiers grabbed the boy and his bike; he was never seen alive again. Another time, a Japanese soldier put a gun to Wunderlich’s head for violating the prohibition against gambling. Instead of killing him, the drunken soldier punched him in the back.

    In 1943, American bombs destroyed a Japanese radio station in Wunderlich’s neighborhood, killing 17 Jews and wounding 53 others. He remembers pulling limp bodies from the rubble. Around the same time, Wunderlich said he contracted dysentery and nearly died after losing 20 pounds from his already skinny 100-pound frame.

    A couple years later, chaos descended on Shanghai, when the Japanese evacuated the city after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that ended World War II. For three days, Chinese looters ravaged the city, stealing everything they could, Wunderlich said.

    "Nobody wanted to stay there one day longer than necessary," he said.

    But stay he did. In 1948, Wunderlich and his father finally emigrated and arrived in San Francisco, where the younger Wunderlich met his future wife, Jane. The couple, who married in 1950, later moved to Houston and then Mexico City, before making their way to Southern California. The Wunderlichs had three children. His wife did in 1994.

    Today, Wunderlich lives a relatively quiet life. He remarried in 2001, wedding Nenita, a Filipina he met on the Internet, who is in her 40s. He lives on dividends from mutual funds, a monthly Social Security check of $836 and reparations from the German government.

    Looking back, he finds it difficult to believe that he survived when so many others perished.

    "I’m not a religious person, but I think God has looked out for me," he said.

    A Mazel Tov in Shanghai


    This cosmopolitan Chinese city of Shanghai has witnessed what is believed to be its first Jewish marriage ceremony in more than 50 years.

    Peter Cohen, originally from New York, met Anna Podtoptannaya, who hails from the Ukraine, when he worked there as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer.

    Seeking adventure, the two later moved to China, ultimately settling in Shanghai, home to some 300 to 400 Jews. Cohen works there as a management consultant and Podtoptannaya runs a brand management company.

    Their wedding, which took place less than a month after the opening ceremony of Shanghai’s Jewish community center, highlighted the international flavor of the Chinese city. Guests arrived from the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia.

    The ceremony itself turned out to have a wider-than-expected audience.

    Many of the employees and guests at Shanghai’s Cyprus Hotel — used to Chinese weddings, but unfamiliar with the Jewish ceremony — watched through the hotel’s windows.

    The last Jewish wedding in Shanghai took place in 1950, Cohen said.

    The wedding had three parts: The chuppah was raised and a traditional ceremony held; then, a representative of the Ukrainian Consulate registered the couple; lastly, the bride and groom read their vows to each other.

    The leader of Shanghai’s Jewish community, Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, and his wife, Dina, had difficulty arranging all the Jewish aspects of the ceremony, including having documents proving the couple’s Jewishness sent from overseas.

    Since the mikvah, or ritual bath, at the new Jewish center is under construction, Dina Greenberg took the bride to Lake Tai Hu for the prewedding immersions. As a natural body of water, Tai Hu, one of China’s largest lakes, qualifies as an acceptable mikvah, she said.

    For Podtoptannaya, going into the lake’s cold waters was something of a shock.

    The trip to the natural mikvah wasn’t the only symbolic part of the wedding: The post-wedding reception and dinner were held in the Sassoon halls, named after Sir Victor Sassoon, one of the leaders of Shanghai’s Jewish community in the early 20th century.

    The couple plans to live in Shanghai for the next few years.

    Shanghai Shuls 2nd Wind


    Shanghai resident Seth Kaplan got tired of celebrating the High Holy days in rented hotel spaces while the city’s oldest intact synagogue sat empty, deteriorating just a few miles away.

    So along with others in his congregation of expatriates, Kaplan, 34, began advocating for the restoration of Ohel Rachel, which the Chinese Communists had turned into a warehouse.

    Their efforts came to fruition recently when the World Monuments Fund added the synagogue, built in the 1920s, to the 2002 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The fund, which publishes the list to bring attention to threatened cultural sites around the world, revises its list every two years. The 2002 list includes one other synagogue, Subotica Synagogue in Yugoslavia, built in 1902. The list includes well-known sites such as the Great Wall of China as well as more obscure ones such as a Gothic church in Poland.

    According to Henry Ng, the fund’s executive vice president, Ohel Rachel was chosen because it symbolizes the long history of the Jews in China. "This is really the only active synagogue left in all of China that’s authentic," he said.

    Ohel Rachel is urgently in need of repair.

    For nearly 50 years, the building has been used by various state and local governmental bodies. Reoccurring leaks and vegetation growth threaten its structural fabric.

    Perhaps the most important factor in the fund’s decision to include Ohel Rachel on the list was the energy and commitment of Shanghai’s Jewish community. The synagogue "has that local, on-the-ground group that’s willing to be advocates for the building and to basically ensure its long-term future," Ng said.

    While inclusion on the list will likely draw international attention to the site, there are no immediate financial rewards.

    Kaplan, who was born in New York, said his community plans to undertake a campaign to raise money for the repairs.

    Ohel Rachel is one of only two remaining synagogues in Shanghai. The other, Ohel Moshe, has been turned into a museum.

    When the Ohel Rachel Synagogue was built, Shanghai had a population of approximately 1,700 Jews.

    It was constructed to accommodate a community of approximately 600 Jews from Baghdad living in Shanghai at the time.

    With a seating capacity of 700, the Sephardic synagogue had a walk-in ark that once held 30 Torah scrolls. The synagogue is part of a small compound that at one time included a Jewish school, library, playground and mikvah.

    Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon, a Baghdadi Jew living in Hong Kong, endowed the synagogue in memory of his wife, Lady Rachel.

    The first major wave of Jews, arriving primarily from Baghdad and Bombay, came to Shanghai after the city was opened to foreign traders in 1842, following the Opium War.

    A second wave of Jewish emigrants came from Russia in the decades following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

    The third wave of Jews moved to Shanghai from Central Europe in the 1930s and during World War II. Because the city was the only place in the world not to require a visa for entry, approximately 20,000 Jews escaped to Shanghai between 1938 and 1945.

    After the Communist takeover in 1949, Shanghai’s Jewish community dwindled.

    The new government confiscated Ohel Rachel in 1952, removing its furniture and decorations.

    During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Ohel Rachel’s windows, chandeliers and ornaments were smashed, and the building was then used for a variety of government functions.

    Most recently, the Shanghai Government Education Commission used it for offices and storage.

    In 1993, the city of Shanghai declared Ohel Rachel a historic landmark, which granted it some protection, but continued to use it as a municipal building.

    After then-U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of State Madeline Albright asked to visit the building during a 1998 visit to China, the city cleaned up and painted the building, but little structural repair was done.

    Ohel Rachel is still owned by the city government, which lets Shanghai’s Jewish community of approximately 300 — which is served by a Lubavitch rabbi — use it only a few times a year.

    Kaplan and the rest of his congregation hope that the Monuments Fund listing will encourage the city to return the building to his congregation.

    He said he wouldn’t mind if the city used it as a museum — as it has said it wants to — as long as the congregation is able hold services there.

    "It’s a symbol of Jewish-Chinese relations," Kaplan said. "It’s also a symbol of what the Chinese people have done for us in the past, such as for the refugees during the war," he added.

    "This synagogue represents the past. It represents the future. It needs to be restored."

    The Melting Wok


    It was Friday night in Shanghai, a major linchpin of the Jewish Diaspora, and folks from all over the world were dropping in to wish Rabbi Greenberg "Shabbat shalom." But in the fastest-changing city in the world, we were gathered for worship in a skyscraper instead of one of the lovely old synagogues that served a 30,000-strong community less than a century ago.

    Shanghai, where so many foreigners made their fortune before the Communist clampdown, is once again a melting pot for merchant adventurers, many of whom find common ground at Greenberg’s services and haimish Friday night dinners. Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi dishes are served, symbolic of the town’s dual-pronged Jewish heritage: the Sassoons, Hardoons and Kadoories whose fortunes built synagogues, schools and hospitals, and the second wave who took refuge here from pogroms and Nazi persecution.

    Although religion is still not quite PC here, the churches are open again now that China has opened up to the world, even if the synagogues have been appropriated by the civil service. And the Shanghainese are once again doing what they do best — trading their socks off and partying till dawn.

    This fabulous metropolis of 20 million has awakened from a half-century of sleep and reclaimed its reputation for wicked fun. Dubbed the Paris of the East when the British and French ruled the roost, today’s Shanghai is the New York of Asia, fast overtaking Hong Kong in importance.

    Its great delight is that it’s so accessible and user-friendly, looking like Europe with a touch of Chicago, full of tree-lined boulevards for strolling and skylines for gawping at. Thanks to a wealth of world-class architecture, the past and future are present simultaneously in Shanghai, which makes for heady viewing.

    The elegant former French Concession is as famous now as in the roaring ’20s for its smart shops, fashionable clubs and magnificent Art Deco buildings lining its main thoroughfare, the Huaihai Lu (formerly Avenue Joffre). Stroll east towards Fuxing Park, where locals touchingly celebrate the new liberalism with ballroom dancing in the open air beneath statues of Marx and Lenin, in whose names such decadent pursuits were once banned.

    More traditional sights are concentrated in the Old Town, where most Chinese lived when Shanghai was a treaty port and the posher neighborhoods were reserved for foreigners. Beyond the tourist circuit of the Yu-Yuan Garden with its teahouse pavilion and nearby bazaar full of cheap and cheerful souvenirs lie the attractions of real life — a huge cluster of convivial old men kibbitzing around a single game of Chinese checkers, a stall selling props for ancestor worship.

    Shanghai’s older generation is fascinating in every respect, not least its members’ passion for keeping fit, which drives them into the parks and squares at first light to join tai chi sessions or perform their own keep-fit routines, oblivious to passersby. A common sight is the elderly lady flexing her leg into a high-kick atop a railing and the grandpa studiously walking backwards (they say it’s good for the brain).

    A good place to see all this action is around People’s Square, a race course in Shanghai’s heyday and now home to the world-class Shanghai Museum and Grand Theatre as well as charming little Renmin Park. It is approached from the Nanjing Lu, which runs from the famous Bund past endless department stores to the Shanghai Centre and beyond.

    The Centre houses not only Greenberg, who hails from Brooklyn, and a whole host of apartments, shops and offices serving the ex-pat community, but the posh Portman Ritz-Carlton, which offers the city’s most Western-style welcome. The "Porterman," as it’s known in local parlance, boasts one of the world’s finest Italian restaurants and a fabulous jazz bar; its caring staff is a welcome buffer against initial culture shock, and best of all are the private tours given — for a price — by the general manager in the sidecar of his vintage motorcycle.

    The Ritz-Carlton is up against stiff competition from an equally glitzy establishment that enjoys the added luster of being the world’s tallest hotel. The Grand Hyatt Pudong sits on the far shore of the Huangpu River, dominating a neighborhood that was wasteland just a few years ago and is now home to a whole clutch of futuristic, Blade Runner-type buildings, including the shocking pink baubles of the Oriental Pearl tower.

    Owned by the Chinese government, the Grand Hyatt is less cozy than the Portman, but its views and facilities are unparalleled. No visitor to Shanghai should miss a visit to its 87th floor Cloud Nine bar, whose 21st century architecture is softened by traditional entertainment from magicians, Chinese fortune-tellers and paper-cutters who recreate your silhouette in seconds. The third-floor Pu-J’s disco is one of the most hopping clubs in town, while Cucina, complete with wood-fired oven, recalls the buzzy brasseries of Milan, albeit with a fabulous view of the Bund.

    To really experience Shanghai, it’s vital to spend a good stretch of time on the Bund, ogling the splendid old buildings while gazing across the river at the new (and ideally, cruising between the two at night, when the buildings are floodlit with more wattage than Las Vegas). The spectacular Peace Hotel was built as the Cathay by Victor Sassoon in the ’20s, when it was the site of the city’s most fabulously glittering parties. However, in spite of its sumptuous Art Deco interior and famous jazz band, it is perceived as a tad overpriced for the level of service.

    One hostelry on the Bund that is pricey but worth every penny is Australian Michelle Garnaut’s fabulous restaurant M on the Bund. World food is served here amidst international buzz on the seventh floor of an old shipping building, with a huge terrace where it’s possible to take drinks, with or without dinner, enjoying the best view in town.

    Good food is not hard to come by in Shanghai, and the best native fare is also served in spectacular surroundings at Meilongzhen on Nanjing Lu, a 1930s building once Communist HQ and still a feast for the eyes, its wood-floored rooms ablaze with carved dragons, Chinese lanterns and waiters expertly dispensing chai — the fragrant, leaf-laden brew served everywhere — from teapots with two-foot spouts.

    Getting around is cheap and safe, though not necessarily foolproof. Taxis are plentiful, with rides costing only a pound or two within the city; a recorded message provides an English welcome and reminds travelers to pay what’s on the meter and demand a receipt. However, as drivers do not speak English, it’s vital to get the hotel doorman to write your destination in Chinese and procure a driver who knows where he’s going.

    A great antidote to this frenetic city is a day trip to Zhouzhuang, the region’s Little Venice, where you can cruise the canals, explore historic houses and find phenomenal bargains, especially in the side streets. A recent haul included silk devore scarves for $1.25 and evocative "antique" advertising posters for a similar price. In Shanghai itself, go with a guide to Huating Market, where fabulous fake designer handbags cost less than $15, or to Amy’s Pearls in the suburbs, where real freshwater pearls, jade and silver are spun into fabulous confections.

    But don’t expect to fight the locals for the best bargains — they’re all at work aspiring to top-end goodies by Versace, Polo, Prada, Gucci and all the other international designers bullish enough to have set up shop in Asia’s most happening city.

    Travel


    A traditional market in Beijing shows some new American influence. Photo by Tom Tugend

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Shanghai Jewish community leader Seth Kaplan. Photo by Tom Tugend

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Wang Fa Liang shows landmarks of the city’s era under Japanese occupation to visitors. Photo by Tom Tugend

    Assimilating Jewish Life in China

    By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

     

    As workmen hastily restored the former Ohel Rachel synagogue in Shanghai for the anticipated visit of First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the spotlight turned on the small but reviving Jewish communities in China.

    In China’s capital, for instance, a communal Passover seder was attended by 280 celebrants, and to get the culinary part right, they naturally turned to the Bubbe of Beijing.

    The bubbe is Elaine Silverberg, who moved to Beijing 10 years ago from Long Island, N.Y., to join her resident daughter, Elyse Beth Silverberg, a successful businesswoman.

    Since then, the bubbe has devoted much of her time to coddling her Beijing-born grandson, Ari, and in training some of the city’s top chefs in the art of Jewish-style cooking. For the seder, her lesson plan included instructions on the making of tasty matzo ball soup and charoset.

    The seder was a huge success, setting an all-time record for a Jewish holiday observance in Beijing. Joining the festive occasion were Israeli embassy personnel and some foreign tourists.

    With the accelerated opening of China to the Western world, a steady trickle of Jewish businessmen and entrepreneurs from the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and Israel have established a Jewish presence in Beijing and are reviving the long dormant Jewish community in Shanghai.

    Their numbers are augmented by resident diplomats from Israel and other countries, and by young men and women looking for a different clime and often finding a first foothold as teachers of English.

    Hong Kong, the outpost of the British empire until its incorporation into China last year, remains by far the largest Jewish center in the country, with some 3,500 residents. But the formation of Kehillat Beijing by the city’s 250 Jews, and of the newly established B’nai Ysrael congregation by Shanghai’s 150 Jews, prove once again that it takes only a small critical mass of Jews to trigger a chain reaction of communal activities — and rivalries.

    Elyse Beth Silverberg came to Beijing as an exchange student in 1979, married a Chinese businessman, and after founding a medical instrumentation company has just opened her Beijing United Family Hospital. She has been the sparkplug and steady anchor in a community whose Western business and diplomatic members rarely stay in place for more than three years.

    Although Kehillat Beijing has no synagogue, the small congregation has standing ritual and continuing education committees, and holds occasional retreats led by a rabbi from Hong Kong. There is also a constantly refilled pushke (collection box) to pay for Purim parties and book purchases.

    “We have no formal membership, our policy is ‘pay as you fress (eat),'” Silverberg said.

    She explained what keeps the community together and growing: “We live in an alien place and during the week we are very busy trying to integrate into the local environment. So on Shabbat and holidays, we feel a particularly strong need to bond as Jews.”

    A recent American newcomer to Beijing is Joseph (Joey) Rubens, who has taken it upon himself to spread the reputation of Kehillat Beijing via the Internet, and alert Jewish tourists to its services.

    He teaches English in a business college and brought along some of his Chinese students to a dinner he hosted for my wife and myself. We asked the students whether they had ever met any Jews, besides Rubens, (they hadn’t), and if not, what they had heard about them. All answered in a phrase we were to hear in other Chinese cities and in a similar tone of admiration: “Jews are very smart and very rich.” In addition, the Chinese feel a kinship to Jews as fellow bearers of an ancient and surviving civilization.

    Shanghai has a much longer history of Jewish life than Beijing, but its present community is of even more recent origin.

    When the port city was opened to international trade in the 1840s, Jews from Iraq and India — the Sassoons, Kadoories and Hardoons — established themselves as the city’s foremost merchant princes and constructed many of its still existing landmark buildings. A new wave of some 4,500 Jews arrived in the first two decades of this century as refugees from Czarist pogroms and later the Bolsheviks. During the Nazi era, when Shanghai was just about the only place in the world to admit refugees without a visa, some 20,000 central European Jews settled in the city’s Hongkou district.

    All the wartime refugees left for Israel, the United States or Australia after the war. Organized Jewish life disappeared until the founding of the B’nai Ysrael congregation some 18 months ago.

    The revival owes much to Seth Kaplan, a 31-year-old entrepreneur from New York, who served as first president of the congregation, and who sees a parallel between the current influx and the arrival of Jewish merchants 150 years ago.

    “Jews make up less than 2 percent of Shanghai’s non-Asian population, but they represent 30 percent of the non-Asian entrepreneurs,” Kaplan said.

    Last April, the city’s 150 Jews, representing 11 different nationalities, celebrated Passover, but were unable to agree on one joint communal seder. Instead, there were three seders, one organized by Chabad, one by the Israeli consulate and one by a private family.

    Accordingly, Kaplan said, the toughest part of his volunteer job is to keep the Jewish community going and to prevent it from splintering into even smaller parts.

    On a personal level, Kaplan noted the difficulty of finding a Jewish mate in Shanghai and agreed, only half-jokingly, that he may have to import an American mail-order bride.

    Two buildings that formerly served as synagogues, the Sephardic Ohel Rachel and the Ashkenazi Ohel Moishe, still stand and the municipality has promised for years to renovate them and return them to the Jewish community.

    Despite repeated requests by the Israeli government and American Jewish organizations, there have been “no practical progress in the matter,” said Yaacov Keidar, the Israeli consul general in Shanghai.

    The former Ohel Moishe houses a permanent photo exhibit commemorating the Jewish enclave and its inhabitants during World War II. The genial Chinese caretaker, Wang Fa Liang, who shared life in the ghetto with the refugees during the Japanese occupation, doubles as historian of the era and guide to points of Jewish interest. When we visited Ohel Moishe during the last week in May, it was getting a long-overdue coat of paint to welcome Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his entourage two days later.

    Although enclaves of ethnic Chinese practicing Judaism existed in past centuries, particularly in Kaifeng, they have melded into the general population and none are found among the members of the present congregations in Beijing and Shanghai. There is, however, a growing interest in Judaism and Israel among Chinese academicians. They have established a Center of Jewish Studies and the China Judaic Studies Association in Shanghai, and a four-year curriculum in Hebrew language and literature at Beijing University.

    Formal diplomatic relations between Israel and China were established in 1992, and reports on Israel in the controlled Chinese press have become more balanced in recent years, said Orna Sagiv, the information officer of the Israeli embassy in Beijing.

    Both the embassy and the consulate in Shanghai spend considerable effort in expanding trade relations between the two countries. Currently, the two-way trade amounts to about $300 million per year, with China holding a two-to-one edge in the balance of trade.