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Tombstone Sleuth

Michal Ish Shalom

Jewish tombstones in the middle of a Chinese cabbage field? Hebrew inscriptions on slabs of stone used as sewer covers? Israeli photojournalist Dvir Bar-Gal discovered Shanghai’s graveyard secret: hundreds, maybe thousands of Jewish tombstones, are scattered around Shanghai’s outlying villages, used for everything from building beams to washboards.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

As the old, dilapidated villages around Shanghai are being redeveloped into upscale neighborhoods, Israeli photojournalist Dvir Bar-Gal is racing the clock, scouring swamps, construction sites, riverbeds and cabbage fields for the slabs of stone that mark the city’s Jewish past.

What turned into his mission of the decade began by accident, when he discovered a Hebrew tombstone in a Shanghai antique shop in 2001. Since then, he’s become Shanghai’s “gravestone sleuth,” unearthing burial markers in the most obscure places around the bustling Chinese metropolis.

Bar-Gal, a photojournalist from Tel Aviv, was in Shanghai to learn more about the city that served as a refuge for Jews for a century, when he hooked up with a tour led by fellow Israeli expatriate and Shanghai resident Georgia Noy. When the tour ended, Noy sent the journalist what she thought might be a story lead for him: a photograph of two Jewish gravestones, adding that she had found the stones in an antique shop in the city, where they were up for sale. The name Yachne bas Reb Shmuel Poliak was engraved on one stone; the other stone bore the name Raizel bas Reb Moshe Abramowitz, written in both Hebrew and Russian.

“At first I wanted to ignore the pictures,” Bar-Gal told Mishpacha. “Who is interested in graves today? But Georgia told me she received many inquiries from Jews looking for their ancestors’ burial places, and although Shanghai had a large Jewish community, there was a big mystery. There was not a grave to be found. I smelled a good story, and decided to check it out.”

Bar-Gal approached Mr. Shu, the store owner, but one of the stones had already been sold, although the dealer didn’t realize the significance of the large marble stones he was selling. When he learned that they were gravestones, his face clouded; the Chinese believe that gravestones bring bad luck. Nevertheless, his superstition did not prevent him from haggling over the price of the remaining slab — agreeing to part with it for an overpriced fifty dollars.

“I told Mr. Shu we would be interested in buying more such stones. He took my number and said he would be in touch in a few months.”

Apparently, money talks — and quickly. Within a few days, the dealer reported that he had acquired another tombstone. Bar-Gal realized there was a story here — the dealer knew the people who were harboring these stones. So, armed with a camera and an interpreter, he set out on the journey that would change his life. “I had no idea where that path would take me,” he adds. And so began his recovery mission.

Gao, Mr. Shu’s antique dealer, consented to bring Bar-Gal to the village where he had been purchasing the tombstones for pennies from local residents, then selling them at his store for a handsome profit. The village was located at the western end of Shanghai. He parked in the center of the village and inquired from passersby about gravestones, when the security guard of a small factory brought them down the road, where they found an old, cracked slab of marble leaning against a wall. The Hebrew and Russian letters — which the locals could not decipher — announced that this stone marked the grave of one Reb Zalman ben Ren Binyomin Wittenson, who had departed from this world at the age of 73.

Gao went to get a pail of water to wash the dust off the stone. Meanwhile, a number of local residents gathered around the visiting foreigners, curious to know what had brought them here. One of the villagers directed Bar-Gal to a nearby alleyway, where they found another gravestone. This one was even larger and more ornate, and it bore the name Chaim Rosenstein. The upper section of the stone, which contained the inscription in Hebrew letters, had cracked, and beneath it his name was inscribed in English and Russian.

The surprises, however, did not end there. Gao brought another pail of water to wash off this stone, and before the water even had a chance to dry, another bystander directed the group to a nearby courtyard. There, in the midst of a small cabbage patch, lay another two gravestones, used as stepping stones between the muddy rows of vegetables.

Gao brought a straw broom to scrape away the mud that had accumulated, and soon the inscription became legible: “Here, in this holy ground, is the grave of Moshe, a student in the yeshiva, the son of Rabbi Avraham Shochman, born in the city of Marinsk in Siberia.” That was a surprise to Bar-Gal – at the turn of the century, Shanghai – a bustling international city with a less-than-pristine reputation – was certainly no “holy ground.” 

With the help of John, a translator who had accompanied them, Bar-Gal began to question the villagers about how the tombstones got to their village, and why they were lying abandoned at the side of the road and in nearby courtyards.


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