Unearthing history

By Alexis Chiu

Shanghai Star. 2004-10-21

IN his three-year quest to recover the lost Jewish gravestones of Shanghai, Dvir Bar-Gal has worn many hats: archaeologist, documentarian, detective, historian. He's added a new one: curator.

The Israeli photojournalist unveiled his "Carved History" exhibition last weekend at a small art gallery he runs on Moganshan Lu. Nearly 200 people, including artists, architects and members of the local Jewish community, squeezed into the small second-floor space to view the conceptual designs - drawn up by nine prominent international architects - for a Jewish memorial in Shanghai.

"Shanghai was a place that hosted the Jewish people during their darkest days, when they couldn't go anywhere else. This is something that should be remembered and publicized," said Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, director of the Shanghai Jewish Center, at the exhibition's opening October 16. "For the Shanghainese, it's important for people to have a memorial, so future generations can recognize the beautiful history of this city."

That history has become Bar-Gal's raison d'etre since he first learned about two Jewish headstones for sale in a Shanghai antiques market about three years ago. Since then, he has single-handedly tracked down 85 headstones, most of them in the villages of western Shanghai. Though they represent a fraction of the estimated 3,700 stones that once filled four Jewish cemeteries in the city, the grey slabs are physical proof of a largely forgotten period of Shanghai history.

Some prominent Sephardic Jews settled and prospered in Shanghai in the mid-19th century, including the Sassoon family (builders of the Cathay Hotel, now the Bund's famed Peace Hotel). But more than 20,000 Jews later came to Shanghai fleeing persecution - first in Russia, and later under the Nazi regime - during the 20th century.

In 1958, the stones were removed from the four cemeteries and placed in an international cemetery in Shanghai's western suburbs. During the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), that cemetery was demolished, and the headstones disappeared.

With some assistance from the Israeli Consulate, a grant from Stanford University and some private donations, Bar-Gal devised a plan two years ago to track down as many of the stones as he could. Most of those he found had been put to practical use by villagers who had no idea of the stones' historical significance; many gave him the objects for free or a small price. Some were used as laundry washboards; others as part of the foundations of houses or as stepping stones along muddy riverbanks. One farmer had used several of the gravestones to pave the floor of a storage shed.

"It's very hard to find them," said Bar-Gal, who - aided by locals - pulled many of the stones from the ground himself. "But if you don't work quickly, they'll disappear again."

The gruff former cameraman for Israeli news has been dubbed "Tomb Raider" by some local media, but he prefers references to a modern-day Indiana Jones. Though he'd like to continue searching, Bar-Gal isn't optimistic about finding many more of the relics. He has watched as new building complexes have risen over sites he knows contain more lost tombstones.

That is why the recovered stones figure prominently in Bar-Gal's idea for a permanent memorial in Shanghai. About six weeks ago, he asked architects from all over the world to contribute ideas for a permanent Jewish memorial in Shanghai. The only guideline was that the memorial site somehow incorporate the headstones.

"Like the Chinese, the Jewish people have great respect for their forefathers and for the dead," said Bar-Gal, who hopes the exhibition might persuade local authorities to consider setting aside land for a Jewish memorial in the Hongkou District, site of the old Jewish Ghetto. "It's important for me to tell this story to the Chinese, and also to give Jewish people a place to come to remember their ancestors."

The nine architects who participated did so knowing this was not a competition, and that their concepts may never become reality. "It's not about having your design built," said architect Corvin Matei. "It's about putting ideas out there. It's food for thought."

Though Matei's time is mostly consumed by the task of running his Matei Studio, with offices in New York and Shanghai, he didn't hesitate to take part. "What inspired me most was the stones," said the 32-year-old architect. "They have to be respected, and placed in a dignified way."

Matei, drawing from the idea of the Hebrew writing carved into the tombstones, envisioned a memorial that makes unique use of hollow space, and called his proposal "The Presence of Absence".

Other architects - who include James Wood of Wood + Zapata, which designed Shanghai's Xintiandi area - came up with designs including a "Wall of Memory" and a "Jewish Memorial Island".

All are on display at the "Carved History" exhibition, which runs through November 13 at the Artsea Studio & Gallery.

Meanwhile, Bar-Gal is working on yet another gravestone-related venture: filmmaking. He captured much of the work with his own still and video cameras, and hopes to release a documentary about the project.

Bar-Gal, whose Chinese is passable, becomes close to fluent when discussing his tombstone crusade, throwing out terms like mubei (tombstone) and gongmu (cemetery).

"Jewish people around the world appreciate Shanghai because it welcomed the Jewish people here," said Bar-Gal. "I have a feeling the Shanghainese don't know that Jewish people like them so much! It's important to tell this story to the Chinese."

He added: "Shanghai is the city of the future. But you can't have a future if you ignore your past."

Copyright by Shanghai Star.