07 April 2010

Shanghai: Saving the stones

As is too often the case, Jewish gravestones are used for other purposes by people who live where Jewish populations no longer care for and maintain cemeteries.

Israeli journalist Dvir Bar-Gal, who arrived in Shanghai nine years ago, is the Jewish tombstone collector of the city, according to a CNNGO.com story.

Scattered in cauliflower patches, or sunken, mud-covered, in riverbanks, or sometimes used as washing slabs by villagers around the city, are the gravestones of old Jewish settlers of Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution, the gravestones were uprooted, smashed and scattered throughout the region. The cemeteries have long been paved over, with no recognition of the bodies buried underneath. The stones that remain are like historical islands, isolated and disconnected from their past.

For Israeli photo-journalist and documentary maker Dvir Bar-Gal, a first encounter with a headstone in a Shanghai antique store has become a decade-long quest to discover their origins. And what started as a journalistic project quickly turned into a personal mission. “I got more connected emotionally,” he says. “There’s a lot of energy involved every time we flip over the stones and read the mud-covered inscriptions.”

Bar-Gal's quest, now called the Shanghai Jewish Memorial Project, has seen him journey to numerous rural villages around Shanghai. There, he’d find old tombstones in fields, along rivers, or used as construction blocks for pathways and walls. His plan is to discover and restore as many stones he can and then display them, as a shrine to this nearly lost aspect of Shanghai's Jewish history.
Stones have been recovered by the Shanghai Jewish Memorial Project from bike path bridges, fields and riverbeds. Bar-Gal interviews local residents and tries to put the puzzle pieces together.

Bar-Gal says there may have been some 3,700 Jews buried in the city, but couldn't find gravestones or cemeteries other than the pieces he discovers. He's found some 85 stones over the past 10 years. He's contacted families of the deceased and asked architects to design a permanent home.

A few years ago, American Lily Klebanoff Blake joined Bar-Gal and they went to the rural location where he found her grandmother's stone in a riverbed.

“It was still covered in mud but I felt compelled to show my respect for my grandmother by washing the mud off the gravestone,” she says. “Touching the gravestone, I felt an uncanny connection to my grandmother, who died when I was four years old.”
The recovered stones remain in a few places: a storage space, a Buddhist cemetery and the journalist's own gallery.

He has a network of people who let him know when stones are found. In March, a neighbor told him some stones were found in a western suburb and he found two new ones.

His inspiration comes from days like that, and he's working on various projects: a documentary (not yet funded), a book about Shanghai's Jewish history, and as a tour guide and photographer.

Yanhua Zhang, research director for a non-profit heritage conservation group, believes that a permanent home for the stones can help people trace their family history, and would raise awareness of the former Jewish ghetto.

Read the complete story at the link above.

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