Shanghai’s Tombstone Raider Uncovers Forgotten Jewish History

As Shanghai busily flattens its distinctive, 80-year-old neighborhoods in pursuit of a high-rise future, Dvir Bar-Gal is scouring swamps, construction sites and cabbage fields for an all-but-forgotten past.

In sidewalks, ditches and piles of rubble, Bar-Gal, a 41- year-old Israeli photojournalist, searches for slabs with a sign — a Hebrew character, a Torah shape, a Star of David — that identifies the long-lost headstones of Shanghai’s once-thriving Jewish community.

His efforts have unearthed 85 gravestones from the 1870s to the 1950s. There’s Solomon Kapel’s marble slab, dredged from a stream, bearing the Hebrew epitaph a “great student of the Bible,” who died in 1946 at 28 “of tragic events.”

In a pavement, a book-shaped stone betrayed the Yiddish- etched grave marker of a Polish refugee author. The broken, 1958 white marble stone of Leeds-born optometrist Charles Percival Rakusen, a ladies’ man and member of the family that started British matzo-bakers Rakusen Ltd., covered a sewage drain.

In the late 1940s, Shanghai had a Jewish population of about 25,000 and four Jewish cemeteries with 3,700 graves. Sephardim from Baghdad and Bombay had arrived in the 1840s, building business dynasties on opium, tea and property, including landmarks such as the Peace Hotel.

The city later became a sanctuary for Russian Jews fleeing revolution and pogroms, followed by 20,000 European Jews escaping Nazi persecution, among them Werner Michael Blumenthal, who became Treasury Secretary under Jimmy Carter.

Smashed Gravestones

After the Communist Party seized power in 1949, China became isolated from much of the world. In 1958, foreign graves in Shanghai were transplanted to a newly designated international cemetery on the city’s western edge.

Then came the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The new cemetery was vandalized and gravestones smashed, hauled off or flung in nearby creeks.

In 2001, Bar-Gal learned of two Hebrew-inscribed slabs for sale at a Shanghai antique shop. He investigated, cracking the mystery of the missing tombstones, and began a recovery mission.

Thus far, the baritone-voiced headstone hunter has made most of his finds in the countryside west of the Shanghai Racquet Club. Many villagers simply gave Bar-Gal what they had used as washboards, sewer covers, tabletops and steps.

One wealthy farmer hid a doorstep-tombstone in a sheep pen. Bar-Gal said he plied the farmer, Shen Ji Long, with chatter and beer for a year before he agreed to sell the stone for 100 yuan ($12). The dirt-encrusted, Torah-shaped slab, inscribed in Russian and Hebrew, was for “the virgin” Lea Dukowazkaya.

Bridge Building

Shen, 63, said he’d uprooted a few tombstones in his day.

“Mao Zedong said ‘Take them,’ so we took them,” he said. Shen directed Bar-Gal to an algae-covered pond where a bulldozer subsequently excavated a couple more stones, including Bible student Kapel’s. The marker for Esther Robins was on the underside of a bridge, which had to be dismantled and reconstructed, wood replacing the gravestone.

Bar-Gal also has found headstones of gentiles, foreigners and Chinese, and said he has “no good answer” for leaving them. “They’re heavy and big. Who’ll take any interest in them?”

Even Bar-Gal’s efforts to garner interest from the descendents of the Shanghai Jews has had limited results. Just a few of the 20 families Bar-Gal located have replied, he said, including two that came to Shanghai to see the gravestones.

“It’s an enigma,” he said. “Maybe because it was closed so many years, maybe because the experience of the refugees was so miserable here, they have no real desire to come back.”

Harder to Find

After five years of searching, Bar-Gal said finding headstones has become increasingly difficult.

“I’m very pessimistic” about uncovering many more, he said. “Every time Hebrew or Jewish marks appear from the mud, it gives me a lot of energy to keep looking.”

The thousands of dollars in costs Bar-Gal has spent recovering the gravestones has been partly covered by donations from Stanford University’s Sino-Judaic Institute, the Israel Consulate, some Israel-based companies and visitors who take his guided tours of the former Jewish neighborhood in northeastern Shanghai’s Hongkou district, he said.

An Israeli businessman has been storing the tombstones in his Shanghai factory for free. Bar-Gal is applying for grants to finish a documentary and lobbying for a commemorative site in the old Jewish quarter to display the gravestones.

It is like David versus Goliath. China doesn’t officially recognize Judaism as a religion. Historical preservation is a low priority as Shanghai considers itself China’s showcase of modernity. Local authorities have spent years deliberating over the restoration of Hongkou and negotiating with potential developers, including overseas Jews, with little progress.

Bar-Gal said the commemorative site would remember all of the Jewish community that once lived in the city. “I’m hoping that building the site itself will be a memorial to the rest I didn’t find,” he said.

It would also be a marker of his own — one that would show his descendants: “This is something I did in this world.”

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