Letter from Shanghai: Guest Post from BJ Epstein

Remember BJ Epstein‘s guest post about her experiences as a Jew in Sweden? BJ is an intrepid traveler, and now she has graciously agreed to share impressions (and photographs) from her recent trip to China.

Earlier this month, when I went to China for a translation conference, I didn’t expect to learn some Jewish history. I vaguely knew that some Jews had taken refuge in Shanghai during the Second World War, but I didn’t think too much about it. However, a chance meeting at the breakfast buffet in our hotel with another American Jew convinced me and my trusty sidekick (a.k.a my mother) to make learning about the Jews in Shanghai a priority.

With that in mind, on our last full day in the country, we headed off to the old Jewish quarter, a small area centered around the synagogue. The Jewish Refugees Museum is in what used to be Ohel Moishe Synagogue. There, a young Chinese college student enthusiastically told us about how Shanghai warmly welcomed Jews from Europe during World War 2. Ho Fengshan, called the “Chinese Schindler”, was a diplomat in Vienna who gave visas to Jews so they could enter Japanese-controlled Shanghai and come to safety. My mother and I were told that at the height of the war, there were 25,000 Jews in Shanghai, many of whom had Ho to thank for being alive. After he died, he was named a Righteous Among the Nations by Vad Yashem. After the Holocaust, most of the Jews left China to settle in Israel, Australia, and the U.S., and today there are only around 3,000 Jews left, and they apparently have no synagogue. Some of them are descendants of refugees while others are business people who settled in Shanghai to take advantage of the booming Chinese economy.

Our guide also informed us that there is a close partnership today between China and Israel, and this was illustrated at the museum by many pictures of Chinese and Israeli dignitaries shaking hands and exchanging knowledge. Most of the captions were in Chinese, however, so although I could tell that Israel was, for example, sharing knowledge about cows with the Chinese, the circumstances were unclear.

The museum also had photographs showing the small synagogue in use during the 1930s and 40s as well as some artwork created to show the connection between Jews and the Chinese.

It must be said that China is not the most religion-friendly country in the world, so it makes sense that few Jews are left there today. Nevertheless, the people are extremely, and rightfully, proud of their role in saving Jews during the Holocaust. There was testimony at the museum from families who had been turned down by a dozen or more embassies before receiving a visa that allowed them to leave Europe for China and it is sad to think about what would have become of them without Shanghai’s open arms.

Tamar Yellin in New York City

(Happy to spread the word about this for the folks at the Jewish Book Council):

On Monday, August 4th at 7PM Tamar Yellin, Winner of the Jewish Book Council’s Inaugural 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, will be reading from and discussing The Genizah at the House of Shepher at the Barnes and Noble on 82nd and Broadway (2289 Broadway).

From the Rohr Prize Judges:

“Yellin combines formidable Jewish scholarship with soaring lyricism. And, if scholarship and lyricism aren’t enough, she also displays a wonderfully quirky sense of humor. This is a writer who can do it all, bring history lovingly into the present and conjure an art of beauty and light out of the ardors of scholarship.”
—Rebecca Goldstein, author of The Mind-Body Problem

“Beautifully textured, as if it were made of Jewish threads woven through the English language. Its theme of dislocation and wandering
is the central story of Jewish history.”
—Ruth Wisse, Professor of Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature, Harvard University

Genizah at the House of Shepher follows Shulamit Shepher’s return to Jerusalem after an extended absence. She quickly becomes embroiled in a family feud over possession of the so-called Shepher Codex, a mysterious and valuable Torah manuscript discovered in her grandparents’ attic genizah, a depository for old or damaged sacred documents. In unraveling the origins of the codex, Shulamit uncovers not only her ancestors’ history but must reconsider her own past, her present and ultimately, her choices for the future. The tale of the family Shepher, their aspirations, feuds and love affairs, is a haunting one of exile and belonging, displacement and the struggle for identity.

Please join St. Martins Press and the Jewish Book Council in celebrating Tamar Yellin and The Genizah at the House of Shepher on August 4th.

Notes from Around the Web: Sadness and Solemnity

Here are a few links to coverage of yesterday’s sad and solemn return of Israeli soldiers to eternal rest at home:

Jeffrey Goldberg (1)
Jeffrey Goldberg (2)

Photo: Honoring the remains of Ehud Goldwasser, murdered by Hezbollah. Mrs. Goldwasser is on the photo’s far left side. (IDF/BPH Images)


A Visit to the Mémorial de la Shoah

In my last post, I mentioned that I was leaving for vacation. What I didn’t say there was that I was on my way to France, where I participated in the Paris Writers Workshop and tried to begin transforming a failed short story into a novel.

Beyond that, I was able to stroll around my beloved Paris. Many years ago, I made my first visit to the Mémorial de la Shoah located there, and I returned to its museum last week.

This time, I went to the museum especially to see a current exhibition titled “ALYAH-BETH: L’Emigration clandestine des juifs depuis la France vers la Palestine.” As you might discern even without knowing French, this exhibition focuses on Jewish emigration from France to Palestine, particularly in the years between the end of World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel.

If you can read French, and plan on being in Paris before the exhibition closes on September 28, I highly recommend a visit. If you’re limited to a virtual tour, you can get a sense of what the exhibition offers here (but you’ll still need to read French).

It’s also worth mentioning that on the English version of the museum’s Web site, Anglophones will find the following note: “For the benefit of a growing number of English-speaking visitors, the Shoah Memorial is organizing on the second Sunday of every month, a guided tour in English, free of charge. Start of the tour at 3.00 pm in the lobby. Prior reservation is not required.”

Terrorist Attack in Jerusalem

Today’s attack in Jerusalem was nothing less than an act of terrorism. (Not that CNN.com or NPR.org were ready to concede that as I checked their sites throughout the day. Infuriating. But unfortunately, given the anti-Israel bias in so-called progressive media, not all that surprising.)

I’m not bothering to rely on CNN or NPR for news on this. I’m going instead to Ha’aretz, JTA, and Ynetnews. You should, too.