Friday, April 17, 2009

One man's race to save Shanghai headstones

The first Jews to settle in Shanghai were Baghdadi merchants. But traces of all Jewish settlement are vanishing as the city develops dizzyingly fast. JTA reports on an Israeli photojournalist's race against the clock to salvage headstones from the Jewish cemeteries (with thanks: Pablo):

SHANGHAI, China (JTA) -- 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 told JTA. “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.

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