Dvir Bar-Gal: Cultural Exchange: Preserving the relics of Shanghai’s vanished Jewish population

JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ

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Source: LAT, 7-17-11

Gravestones, many plundered or built over, are symbols of a forgotten group. Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli expatriate, works to preserve them.

Cultural ExchangeJewish gravestones being unearthed from Shanghai villages. (Dvir Bar-Gal)
By Dan Levin, Special to the Los Angeles TimesJuly 17, 2011

Reporting from Shanghai ——

The green fields on the western outskirts of this vast metropolis are dotted with ripening ears of corn, trash and the skeletons of half-built villas abandoned by bankrupt developers. But Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli expatriate and photojournalist, saw none of these as he trudged toward a putrid creek, his eyes scouring the ground. Rather, he was looking for something far older: gravestones buried in the mud — the lost relics of this city’s vanished Jews

“When I go out to these villages filled with peasants it’s almost like I’ve gone back to another era,” he said. “Sometimes I’m lucky. Suddenly I’ll see Hebrew letters or a Jewish star poking out. Then I have to dig it up.”

Since finding one for sale at a Shanghai antique shop 10 years ago, Bar-Gal, 45, has made it his mission to find the Jewish tombstones that once stood in four cemeteries belonging to the real-estate barons, bankers and penniless refugees who settled here before the Communists took power in 1949 and expelled China’s foreigners. During World War II, around 30,000 Jews fleeing Hitler found safe haven in the open port of Shanghai, where they built synagogues, Yiddish theaters and yeshivas even as the occupying Japanese forced many to live in a cramped ghetto.

If the Nazis failed to wipe out these Jewish lives, China’s Communist Party succeeded in erasing their deaths. In 1958, the government relocated all foreign graves to one international cemetery, which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, when locals plundered the gravestones to use in construction. Although the Jewish bones are irrevocably lost, Bar-Gal, a blunt, balding man who left behind a job covering the chaos of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to devote himself to documenting Shanghai’s Jewish history, refuses to allow the elaborately carved markers to be consigned to the trash heap.

“It’s harder and harder to find them now because of all the development,” he said, pointing to new houses rising nearby.

In collaboration with the Israeli consulate, Bar-Gal has so far found 105 gravestones and has created the Shanghai Jewish Memorial Project tracking down the descendants of those who died and documenting their lives. He hopes one day the gravestones will become part of a Jewish memorial in the city’s Hongkou district, which once housed the ghetto and the Ohel Moshe synagogue, now a museum of Shanghai’s Jewish refugees. But, according to Bar-Gal, the district government has denied his request, claiming the gravestones would bring bad luck.

So they languish, cracked and broken, stored in a warehouse and piled up in a parking lot at the city’s Buddhist cemetery, which was once the international cemetery. With no one to look after his collection, the gravestones sometimes go missing. In April, Bar-Gal received word that two were on display at the Shanghai Burial Museum, which also functions as a crematorium….READ MORE

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