video camera next to a filthy, algae-covered creek, trying to get
a better look
inside a dark drainage system, Dvir Bar-Gal hit pay dirt: Hebrew
characters etched on a flat marble slab.
historic find to Shanghai's self-styled tombstone sleuth. "I
knew it was Jewish, so we dug it out," says the 37-year-old
Israeli, who is on a mission to reassemble a remnant of Shanghai's
Jewish past, one headstone at a time.
is discovering the story of Shanghai's tombstone Diaspora. Just
as more than 20,000 Jewish people who had found refuge in the city
during the late 1930s later dispersed to Israel and elsewhere when
China's Communist Party came to power, political tumult led to a
scattering of the headstones that once filled the city's four Jewish
cemeteries. Mr. Bar-Gal estimates their number at around 3,700.
So far he has
found 70 of them, as well as many Christian headstones, mostly in
poor villages among the crisscrossing canals surrounding Shanghai
that are home to migrants from all over rural China. They have put
the headstones to use as washboards, floors, tables, steps, bridges
and even parts of home foundations. "They see it as a useful
stone, [and] not as political or racist" to use them in those
ways, Mr. Bar-Gal says, noting that most are happy to take his standard
$10 payment for each stone.
attitude sits well with the shaven-headed photojournalist, who isn't
religious and has little time for questions about what some might
consider a ghoulish hobby. "I'm not collecting bodies, I'm
only collecting stones. They have no holiness."
Traces of the
cemeteries appeared lost until last year, when Mr. Bar-Gal's job
as a tour guide
specializing in Shanghai's Jewish ghetto and his instincts as a
journalist fused into an obsession.
Hebrew characters had been spotted on a headstone in a local antique
market, discounting the line he had been taught to use when tourists
asked about graves: that they could not be found.
whose September 2001 posting to Shanghai as an Israeli TV journalist
fell through after he arrived, has documented every step of his
yearlong headstone hunt. He has shot extensive video footage and
taken numerous photographs, both dwelling heavily on the rural recovery
process and negotiations with villagers.
him forward is "Jewish sentiment combined with Jewish history
and treasures." For him, the marble slabs, most topped with
a Star of David and etched with five Hebrew characters denoting
burial, are a physical reminder of Shanghai's rich Jewish heritage.
"The Jewish world is very small, and people feel a responsibility
for each other," he says.
He's also driven
by the thrill of a long-odds chase that he says sometimes makes
him feel like Indiana Jones. "The first time I twisted a stone
and saw the Hebrew writing, it was very emotional. I'm discovering
what a lot of people are looking for," he says, referring to
the families of the deceased, and also to the sense of mystery that
has long surrounded the apparent disappearance of the city's Jewish
Jewish community, Sephardic traders from Baghdad, arrived in the
1840s, many building fortunes on tea and opium, and leaving landmarks
that stand today. They include the Gothic-style Peace Hotel, built
in 1929 on Shanghai's Bund by the Sassoons, who at the time were
among the city's most prominent families, and the sprawling Kadoorie
mansion, built by one of Asia's wealthiest business dynasties in
the former French Concession.
however, thinks Shanghai has a greater significance as a safe haven,
starting with the 1917 arrival of Jewish people fleeing the Bolshevik
Revolution in Russia. He also thinks of the late 1930s when, even
under Japanese occupation, the city offered sanctuary from Nazi
persecution to thousands from Eastern Europe. "We Jewish people
regard Shanghai as a city of refuge," he says.
But in 1958,
nine years after coming to power, the Communist Party ordered all
foreign graves dug up and relocated to a new "international"
cemetery, where the Jewish ones were mixed into a Muslim burial
ground. The following decade, during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution,
the headstones were removed from the graves and dumped in the vast
wetlands surrounding Shanghai.
is now trying to round up funding to propel his pet project forward,
envisaging everything from a documentary and book, to a Web site
and even a museum. He is getting some help along the way from benefactors
in Shanghai's tiny Jewish community, and the Israeli consulate.
"The main thing is to display them in Shanghai," he says.
ownership of the stones, now stored in a benefactor's warehouse,
Mr. Bar-Gal says they belong to families. The problem is that not
all of the families want them. One tombstone, that of eye doctor
Charlesworth Percival Rakusen, who died in 1958, was easily traced
to the European matzo bread empire.
"According to his sister, he had a big social life, a lot of
ladies. He drove a Rolls-Royce and Einstein visited his home,"
he says. "I got a lot of information from [the family], but
nothing about what they want to do about the stone."
Mr. Areddy is
a correspondent in the Shanghai bureau
of Dow Jones Newswires.