Several years ago my Mother was visiting me and we went to see a documentary about the Jewish Refugees in Shanghai. So when I visited Shanghai a year ago I was interested in seeing where the Shanghai Jewish refugees had lived, but the tour that was recommended to me, Tours of Jewish Shanghai offered by Dvir Bar-Gal was not aavailable when I could go. Happily, I had a second chance this year. I found the tour fascinating and in depth, our guide passionate. Dvir Bar-Gal brought his stories to life with enthusiasm and energy. The tour members were made to feel a part of these stories in the way he used questions and humor.
Our tour group met in front of the Peace Hotel at 9:30 am. I took the subway to get there and was impressed by it’s efficiency and cleanliness, the extensive shopping below and how helpful people were. I stepped out of the subway and walked toward the hotel and was surprised when I saw a group of women doing Tai Chi as I walked along Nanjing Street. Tours take place rain or shine – in our case, it was rain. In our group there were people from Australia, Canada, USA and Israel who had, for the most part, been referred by friends who had enjoyed the tour previously.
Dvir Bar-Gal was born in Israel and after graduating from Tel-Aviv University in the Film department and the Art-Inter Disciplinary program in 1996 and became a journalist reporting on events in Shanghai for Israeli news outlets. In this capacity he followed up information about Jewish tombstones being sold in antique stores in the Shanghai area looking for a story. He found many stories, exchanged his journalism hat for that of tour guide and went on to write several books, mount photography exhibitions and help individuals looking for information about relatives that lived in Shanghai during WWII.
Dvir tells about the Jews of Shanghai between 1840 and about 1950. He tells about the Jews who came from Bagdad to England and then to Shanghai at the time when the Qing Dynasty (1644 A.D. - 1911 A.D.) China's last dynasty was forced out. A small group of Jews included the wealthy Sassoon family and families who came to work for that family and also became wealthy including the Kaduri and House families. Victor Sassoon built the famous Peace Hotel (once the Cathay Hotel) and others in this group built surrounding buildings and developed Nanjing Road, the center of Shanghai’s business area. They were an affluent and relatively small group of about 1000 and they maintained Jewish practices, building two synagogues of which one remains.
Shaghai’s Jewish history in the years between 1915 and 1930 was that of the 5000 Russian Jews who found their way to the Hongkou District (via the Trans Siberian Railway), which became known as the Shanghai Ghetto. We were taken to this area by bus and had time to explore it and learn about who had lived here. This group of Jewish immigrants was less affluent than their predecessors, but more focused on arts and culture. The main street in this area was know as Broadway, at one point, and was dotted with tailors, delicatessens, clothing stores, coffee shops, restaurants and so on. Movie theaters were used for live theater, beauty contests, high-holiday worship, and social events. Jewish worship was important and the Ohel Moishe Synagogue was established in 1907 to serve the Russian Jewish community that flourished in Shanghai. Newly renovated and re-opened to the public in 2008, it now serves as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
Dvir’s ability to bring the group into his stories with questions and personal anecdotes made this tour experience very meaningful. From 1937 through 1941 no other city saved more Jews. Jews came into the open port of Shanghai at the rate of 1,000 per month and crowded into the small dwellings the Russian Jews had occupied. Jews came from Eastern Europe and Vienna and Germany thanks to Feng-Shan Ho, who served as the Chinese consul-general in Vienna and issued visas for Shanghai to thousands. Thousands were also saved by Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara who was the first Japanese diplomat posted to Lithuania and also issued passports for Jews to go to Japan.
After 1937 with Shanghai under Japanese rule there were 100,000 residents confined to a kind of ghetto. It had checkpoints rather than walls but Jews were confined, nevertheless. Soup kitchens with funds from the Joint Distribution Committee provided food. The shops changed and the area was known for a while as “Little Vienna”.
We saw the ghetto area, some remnants of when the Jew lived there because by the late 1940s refugees left for the U.S., Australia, Canada and other places. We learned about Fanglian Wang who purchased a unit in this area from one of the Jewish families who left Shanghai in 1947. Unfortunately, this unit lost all of its value when Mao Zedong began ruling China in 1949.
Wang was an amazing man who spoke many languages including Chinese, Japanese, and English . His help was very important in negotiating with the Chinese government to establish the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. He worked there as a volunter guide in the museum from the time it opened and, sadly, passed away recently.
Our final stop was a visit to this unit where his family lived for a while and in which three poor Chinese families currently live. It was very small and sparse. We sat in the “living room” and watched a DVD on the TV in the room. The film told the story of the mysterious tombstones. You can see the DVD here http://www.shanghaijewishmemorial.com/
Four Jewish cemeteries in which there were 4,000 graves are known to have existed in Shanghai. During the period of the Chinese Cultural Revolution these graves were decimated and the markers on the graves removed and scattered to many locations and used in many ways, one being to wash clothes. A few of these stones began to be sold in antique stores and once Dvir understood their significance he attempted to obtain and store as many as he could. He has located 100 and has matched thirty of them family members who were searching for them.
It is Dvir Bar-Gal’a mission to use the grave markers he currently has and any he finds in the future to construct a memorial, hopefully in the park across from the museum and behind the dedication that is currently in place.
Returning home to Chicago, I discovered an article about the Shanghai Jewish Community in the Chicago Tribune from Section 1 on Friday, September 21, 2012 by Barbara Demick. I also learned that my sister and brother-in-law were the first visitors to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. They wanted to take Dvir’s tour but he was in Israel.
I had the chance to talk with Horst Abraham, an individual who was able to leave his home in Berlin, travel to Shanghai on an Italian vessel and with a letter from the American Consulate left for Chicago in 1949 where he lives in an assisted living facility. In 1939 at the age of 21 he arrived in Shanghai with $3.00. He was able to save his parents but he lost his sister and 60 family members in Auschwitz. He has written a book, “ Berlin-Shanghai-Chicago, Never Give Up” which he dedicated to his sister. He is a friend of the Kaduri family. He has received letters from Presidents Clinton and Obama, has received many awards, been a singer, an antique dealer and recently appeared in a documentary film. Talking with him in his apartment with photos, awards, letters surrounding him, the impact of his days in Shanghai and beyond come to life. His book can be ordered from amazon.com
Tours of Jewish Shanghai
Photos: B. Keer