China: A visit to Kaifeng

The one thing I really wanted to do, on my recent visit to Hong Kong, was arrange a visit to Kaifeng. It was impossible this time, but will be number one on my next visit – whenever that will be.

Matthew Fishbane recently visited the city and recounted his experience in the New York Times Travel Section, “China’s Ancient Jewish Enclave.” He also provides details for making a successful trip, mentions two guides and offers an interesting look.

One guide mentioned in the story is Shi Lei, 31, who studied at Bar Ilan University in Israel. We met when he spoke to a Ra’anana branch meeting that attracted nearly 100 attendees.

Through a locked door in the coal-darkened boiler room of No. 1 Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Kaifeng, there’s a well lined with Ming Dynasty bricks. It’s just a few yards deep and still holds water. Guo Yan, 29, an eager, bespectacled native of this Chinese city on the flood plains of the Yellow River about 600 miles south of Beijing, led me to it one recent Friday afternoon, past the doormen accustomed to her visits.

A mezuza at the doorway of Guo Yan’s house in Kaifeng, where traces of a thriving Jewish community remain.

The well is all that’s left of the Temple of Purity and Truth, a synagogue that once stood on the site. The heritage it represents brings a trickle of travelers to see one of the more unusual aspects of this country: China, too, had its Jews.

Ms. Guo, who identifies herself as a Jew, says she hears it from scholars, visitors and Chinese people alike: “ ‘You Chinese Jews are very famous,’ they say. ‘But you are only in the history books.’“

That seemed a good enough reason to come looking, and I quickly found that I was hardly alone.

Ms. Guo and I were soon joined by a 36-year-old French traveler, Guillaume Audan, who called himself a “nonpracticing Jew” on a six-month world tour of “things not specifically Jewish.” Like me, he’d found Ms. Guo by recommendation, and made the detour to see what the rumored Kaifeng Jews were all about.

Earlier, Ms. Guo had brought us into a narrow courtyard at 21 Teaching Torah Lane — an alley once central to the city’s Jewish community, and still home to her 85-year-old grandmother, Zhao Cui, widow of a descendant of Chinese Jews. Her one-room house has been turned into a sort of dusty display case, with Mrs. Zhao as centerpiece. “Here are the Kaifeng Jews,” Ms. Guo said, a little defiantly. “We are they.”

Fishbane says, as does my own research over nearly two decades, that for 150 years following the death of the last rabbi, there was still a spirit:

Grandparents told their grandchildren, as Mrs. Zhao told Ms. Guo: “You are a Jew.” Without knowing why, families avoided pork. And at Passover, the old men baked unleavened cakes and dabbed rooster’s blood on their doorstep.

Read the complete story, at the link above, which tells of the visit to Mrs. Zhao, Judaica, and the 50 or so descendants of this ancient Jewish community as they are relearning their heritage. Fishbane also provides a good capsule history of Kaifeng as well. Their synagogue, damaged by floods, was never rebuilt.

And, if this story inspires you, view the details, resource books and possibilities of arranging such a visit to Kaifeng. Most visit only for a day as there are few sites to see that exist, and a visit relies on how the visitor and guide explain what once was.

If you do plan a trip, you might want to do it sooner than later. The street where Shi’s grandfather lived – where Shi keeps a one-room mini-museum of photographs, documents and donated objects – is scheduled for re-development. We all know what that means and Shi doesn’t know where the museum will move. Read the story for details on a Kaifeng visit planned for October 2010 by a group that specializes in such trips.

Melbourne: The conference opens

Although Melbourne suffered from a 100-year rain, with flooded streets, damaged and leaking roofs, hail (from marble-size to much larger!), nothing stopped these intrepid genealogists from arriving at the Beth Weizmann community building in Caulfield South.

Sallyann Amdur Sack-Pikus gave the keynote address and focused on “Jewish Genealogy: Past , Present and Future,” as she detailed the history and growth of Jewish genealogy in the US and worldwide.

After a coffee break, I was up next with our “Iberian Ashkenaz DNA Project: So You Think You’re Ashkenazi.” It generated many questions and people were talking to me all day about their family’s stories. The point was to raise awareness of the possibilities and it certainly seemed to do just that.

I hadn’t known previously, but I was to lead a Sephardic SIG group next, with another group of interested people with even more interesting stories to tell and questions to be answered.

Following lunch (complete with felafel, potato salad and the rest), I then presented “The New Technology Frontier: Social Networks and Blogging,” which also encouraged questions and comments, as I covered Facebook, Twitter, Blogging and genealogy social networking sites. Several people at the session and ater during the day mentioned that their trees had been hijacked at Geni.

There were several concurrent sessions. I attended Jenni Buch’s Belarus session and Peter Nash’s excellent “China: Resources for Family Research,” which offered some rather amazing sources discovered by Peter. Attending Peter’s talk was our new friend Helen Bekhor of Melbourne, whose Sephardic family – originally from Baghdad – was interned by the Japanese in Shanghai. Peter attended the Kadoorie School in Shanghai and it sounded like they knew some of the same people way back then. Rieke Nash’s session on JRI-Poland was next.

What I missed: Krystyna Duszniak’s “Unearthing the Polish Past by Necessity: The Historica Journey to a Poish Passport,” Todd Knowles’ “British Holldings of the Family History Library,” Daniela Torsh’s “Finding Hilda: An Austrian Genealogy Story,” and Prof. Martin Delatycki’s “Genetic Disease Among Jewish People.” There were also SIG groups on researching early Australia, German research, Hungary and the Netherlands.

In the evening, a reception was held at the nearby Glen Eira Town Hall, complete with wine, sushi and more. A moving address was given by the young mayor, Steven Tang, who described his trip back to Poland and search for his mother’s Jewish roots, as well as his father’s Chinese roots. Awards were given to hardworking society members.

The society lost some time ago one of its major movers and shakers – Les Oberman – a good friend of mine. A meeting room was dedicated with a plaque bearing his name.

Ziva Fain and I are now out the door to day two of the conference.

Photos and more will be posted tonight.

San Francisco: ‘Jews in China’ series during March

Jews in Modern China is a series of programs touching on the Jewish experience, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee San Francisco.

The exhibit of photographs, documents and memorabilia portrays a little known chapter in Chinese and Jewish history. It follows three ethnic streams of Jewish communities that lived in harmony with their Chinese neighbors in Shanghai and other Chinese cities, 1840-1949:

— Sephardic merchants, originally from Iraq, who played a significant role in the commercial and real estate development of Shanghai. Settling mainly in the British sector of the city, they built synagogues and established Jewish social service agencies, schools and other institutions that laid a foundation for Jewish communal life.

— Russian Jews escaping czarist pogroms from the 1880s to World War I and after World War I, the Russian Revolution. This community brought Zionist organizations, Yiddish publications and other cultural activity to Shanghai’s French Concession, as well as to Harbin, further north.

— European Jews escaping the coming Holocaust. Shanghai was an open city that did not require visas or passports to enter. Despite the Japanese occupation of Shanghai when they arrived, Jews lived in relative comfort, thanks to the previously settled Jewish community. However, in 1942 the Japanese, bowing to the wishes of their German allies, confined Jews who had come from Europe since 1937 to a squalid ghetto area until the end of the war.

The program is part of the Shanghai Celebration, a year-long program for the San Francisco Bay area, with exhibitions, films, performances, lectures. and other events. It also includes the Asian Art Museum’s major Shanghai exhibit (February 12-September 5).

“Jews in Modern China” series includes:

Tuesday, March 2, 5:30pm – Officers Club, the Presidio, San Francisco

Exhibit viewing and a conversation between Professor Pan Guang, dean of Center for Jewish Studies, Shanghai; and Professor Thomas Gold, UC-Berkeley. Sponsors: American Jewish Committee San Francisco Office, Asia Society of
Northern California.

“Shanghai Jews: Art, Architecture and Survival”
Thursday, March 4, 7pm – Contemporary Jewish Museum

From the mid-19th-mid-20th centuries, Shanghai was transformed into a multi-cultural, international city. Presented by Nancy Berliner, Chinese art curator, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. Sponsors: Asian Art Museum, Holocaust Center of Northern California, American Jewish Committee San Francisco Office.

“Remembering Rena”
Sunday, March 7, 2pm – Officers Club, Presidio, San Francisco

A program honoring the late Rena Krasno, a Shanghai native whose books, lectures, and archival projects crafted a legacy of connection to the Jewish experience in China. Speakers will include colleagues, friends and family. Sponsors: The Sino-Judaic Institute, Pacific View Press.

“A Young Man in Shanghai: Troubles and Triumphs”
Wednesday, March 10, 7pm – Officers Club, Presidio, San Francisco

Author and educator Audrey Friedman Marcus, who will discuss the Shanghai experiences of her late husband, Fred Marcus, who fled Germany at age 15. His recently published diary depicts the challenges and struggles that he and some 20,000 fellow Jewish refugees encountered. Sponsors: American Jewish Committee San Francisco Office, Bureau of Jewish Education of San Francisco.

“Founders of the Shanghai Jewish Community: The Sephardic Story”
Sunday, March 14, 2pm – Officers Club, Presidio, San Francisco

Presented by Shanghai-born Leah Jacob Garrick – the fourth generation of her family to live there. She will discuss the history and legacy of Sephardic families who laid the foundation of the Shanghai Jewish community while playing a significant role in the business and architectural development of the city itself. Sponsors: China International Cultural Exchange Center, American Jewish Committee’s San Francisco office.

Lehrhaus Judaica will also sponsor the related “Jews in Modern China” lecture series, at 4pm, March 21, at Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, and at 7pm April 29, at the Officers Club, Presidio. The series features Bay area residents who represent the Sephardic, Russian and Holocaust-refugee communities of China (1840-1949). Speakers include Rabbi Theodore Alexander, Leah Jacob Garrick and Inna Mink. Moderator: Linda Frank.

For more information, visit the AJC San Francisco.

Shanghai: Polish citizen registration book online

JRI-Poland now features the 918 index entries of Polish Jewish refugees who visited the Polish Consulate in Shanghai from 1934-41.

For more on the database, click here to learn more about the records and Jews in China.

In a 1992 visit to the Polish Consulate in Shanghai, Dr. Jonathan Goldstein, then a research associate at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, and three other scholars, were shown a 200-page register listing Polish citizens who passed through Shanghai between January 9, 1934 and December 16, 1941.

This register was the standard one used by Polish diplomatic missions around the world to record their citizens who called on the Consulate, whether they were visiting or residing in the country. Typically, these records enabled the missions to provide consular services, invite its citizens for celebrations of national days, or contact them for other official reasons.

The following information was recorded in the register in Polish:
Registration number
Registration date
Full name of registrant (maiden name, if provided)
His or her profession
Religion (Mojzeszowa for Jewish)
Birth date and place
Marital status
Last known address in Poland (non-existent for most Jews)
Address in the consular region
Documents submitted (usually a passport)
Name and birth date and place of wife and children
Passport expiry date

The register covers two pages; here is a sample page:

The JRI-Poland Index includes the following fields:

Registration Number
Date entered in register
Maiden Name (if provided)
Given Names
Place of Birth as Written
Place of Birth – Current Name (if different)
Current Country of Place of Birth
Date of Birth
Marital Status

In line with the the cooperative arrangement with JewishGen, which hosts JRI-Poland’s database and website, the Polish citizen database will also be included in the All Poland Database and the JewishGen Holocaust Database.

JRI-Poland has created digital images of the register pages and will send electronic copies of the relevant pages to interested researchers. Contact Mark Halpern to obtain a copy of the page for individuals in the database.

JRI-Poland volunteer Peter Nash (of Australia) has documented and shared his knowledge of Jewish research in China. He and his parents were German refugees in Shanghai. JRI-Poland has reprinted Peter’s excellent paper (presented at the New York 2006 international conference on Jewish genealogy), “China – Unusual Resources for Family Research.” Read it here.

Projects like this cannot be accomplished without the input, hard work and cooperation of numerous individuals. Mark Halpern of JRI-Poland specifically thanks Selma Neubauer (Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia) and JGSGP volunteers for creating the database.

Former Sino-Judaic Institute president Dr. Albert Dein provided copies of the Shanghai Consulate register, Peter Nash reviewed the database and the webpages, Michael Tobias for placing the database online, and Hadassah Lipsius and her web team for creating the webpages.

Connecticut: Jews of Shanghai, Feb. 14

Learn about Shanghai’s Jewish community, past and present, at the next meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Connecticut (JGSCT), on Sunday, February 14.

The event begins at 1.30pm at the Godfrey Memorial Library, 134 Newfield St., Middletown.

JGSCT president Georgia Haken will speak on “The Jewish Community In Shanghai, China Yesterday And Today.” The meeting is free.

She’s been researching her family history for many years, especially in Germany and Austria. Since 2005, she has lived for several months at a time in Shanghai, and has researched the Jews of China.

Jewish communities have lived there since the early Middle Ages, and were cited by Marco Polo, in 1286, as an important element in the life of the country. The Shanghai community has been a linguistic, cultural, and religious mosaic, especially in the 20th century.

Founded in 1988, the JGSCT holds its meetings and houses its library at the Godfrey Library.

The Jewish Genealogical Society of Connecticut, formed in 1988, houses its library at the Godfrey.

For directions and more information, visit the JGSCT.