Around the world: Looking for Jews

When we traveled much more than we do now, Tracing the Tribe always looked for signs of Judaism.
Many years ago, when we lived in Iran, we visited Isfahan, from where my husband’s family had migrated to Teheran in the mid-1850s. Our itinerary included the various Jewish quarters and old synagogues of Isfahan and I convinced my husband to travel 30km on a gravel road in a mini-bus to the ancient Jewish cemetery at Pir Bakran (below). Unexpectedly, we even met a very distant cousin on the mini-bus that day and were invited to share eggs cooked over a fire, tomatoes and bread.

Some years ago, I wrote about our visit to this cemetery here for the IAJGS Cemetery project. For more outstanding photos of the cemetery, view here. One of these days, I will scan in my own photos of our trip.

In Shiraz, we visited cousins by marriage, walked through the old Jewish quarter, visited synagogues and community institutions.

In Teheran, I accompanied American visitors to the old Mahalleh – the old Jewish neighborhood – when it was really most unfashionable to go there.

In Guadalajara, Mexico, we ran the gauntlet of phone calls to be approved to attend a Shabbat service at the guarded Jewish club.

In Catalunya – Barcelona, Girona (see image right), Besalu, Lleida and elsewhere – we visited the silent stones of once important Jewish communities.

Massachusetts resident Lynn Nadeau does much the same, and detailed her travels in this story in the Jewish Journal Boston North. The story covers Rome, Palermo, Belize and Argentina.

— Split, Croatia: She found a third-floor room in Diocletian’s Palace that the only Jews in the city – six men – used as a synagogue. the nearest rabbi was 300 miles away in Zagreb.

“In Argentina (and wherever I travel), I look for the Jews. I go down streets called “the Jewish quarter,” but often the streets are empty of Jews and contemporary Jewish life. My Jewish tour of Palermo, Sicily, was paltry. Although there was lots of history, I was able to find only one Star of David and one candelabra in a Norman palace.”

— Hania, Crete: Nadeau walked through narrow alleys on Succot to pray with a handful of local Jews.

— Syracusa, Sicily: A closed abandoned mikvah – no sign of a synagogue.
She also finds existing vibrant communities, such as in Rome, in a heavily guarded Munich shul, in a Sephardic synagogue with a sand-covered floor on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, on Barbados, and in the third largest Jewish community in the world, Buenos Aires.

She describes the museum of Temple Libertad, built in 1897, with photographs, wedding gown displays, information on Jewish gauchos, and also covers the 1970s wave of anti-Semitism and the “disappeared,” as well the tragic bombings in 1992 and 1994.

Nadeau sums up her searches:

“But my searches have resulted in a deeper identification with Jews of other nationalities, in a feeling of pride because of the depth and breadth of our Jewish family throughout the world. My searches have added the excitement of a detective novel to my travels, and a deep satisfaction in finding that the spirit of Jewish studies and customs live on, despite all the global obstacles we have faced and overcome.”

What have you discovered on your travels?

Read the complete story at the link above.

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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.

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.

Holocaust: Galician deportation films now online

The Museum of Family History’s Film Series short films will be online through April 4.

The first film incorporates three geographic locations; one is allegedly a Galician village during he war. The last 90 seconds appears to be the deportation from the Lodz Ghetto.

Steve Lasky of the Museum of Family History is asking Tracing the Tribe readers for confirmation of these details:

“While watching the end of this film, I felt that I was in the railroad car as people were boarding.

“It’s one thing to read about the deportations, or see still photos, or even see films about the Lodz Ghetto, but another to see actual footage.

“I am hoping that someone who once lived in these areas or is otherwise familiar with the landmarks in these towns will be able to identify the town.”

If you can do this for Steve, he will send another post and inform everyone.

Also, while it is unlikely that readers may recognize anyone in the film, one never knows, so do take a look.

The 8 1/2-minute clip name is “Deportations of Jews” (aka “Deportation to the Death Camps”), and was allegedly shot by a Nazi cameraman.

The second film is 3 1/2-minutes and shows deportation of Jews to the Krakow Ghetto. The title is “Deportation to the Krakow Ghetto.”

Take a look at both clips. If you can help Steve, send him an email. You can also access Steve’s blog.

London: Romanian synagogue exhibit opens Feb. 3

London’s Spiro Ark will open a photo exhibition – The Last Jew of Sighisoara and Transylvanian Synagogues – on Wednesday, February 3.

The exhibit will be of interest to those researching Romania or in the restoration of Eastern European Jewish sites in Eastern Europe. The synagogues in the photographs – where Jews are no more – will become Jewish historical and cultural centres.

The exhibit opening will include a talk by Jessica Douglas-Home on the Mihai Eminescu Trust’s restoration work on historic buildings in Romania.

The Trust, chaired by Douglas-Home, was founded in 1987 and works in Saxon Transylvania, where its goals are to conserve and restore the region’s historic built heritage, to revive the economic life of its village communes and to train indigenous craftsmen in new or forgotten skills.

Freelance journalist Petru Clej, with a special interest in Jewish Romanian history and the Holocaust, will speak on “Attitudes towards the Holocaust in Romania – from frank admission to ugly denial.”

The film “Gruber’s Journey,” by Radu Gabrea, will be screened.

Doors open at 6.30pm; the program begins at 7pm. Fee: £5 (+£1 online booking fee)

Spiro Ark is a London-based charitable organisation which organises Jewish cultural events and courses in Jewish history, culture and languages. Its tag line is “inspiration through Jewish history and culture.”

Learn more about Spiro Ark, which aims to teach Jewish history and culture. It believes both are important as it combines Jewish education, history and culture to maintain Jewish identity in the 21st century.

The Spiro Ark also has a blog which covers events, reviews and history. Co-founder Nitza Spiro authored a post on the upcoming exhibit, raising some interesting questions:

The question whether old and dilapidated synagogues, which are no longer in use should be restored and maintained, is in our view a rhetorical one. For us Jews whose life-line to things Jewish is Jewish history, the answer is obvious. The question however remains whose responsibility it is to bear the cost.

Should it be an individual whose ancestors came from the specific area or used that particular synagogue; should a Western community adopt a restoration as their memorial to those who perished leaving us with the obligation to remember, or should it be the responsibility of the State where the synagogues are found?

She includes more information on the Mihai Eminescu Trust’s restoration of the Medias synagogue which will become a national heritage center to teach visitors, including students, about Transylvania’s Jewish history.

Thanks to Saul Issrof of London for this tip.

Poland: Lodz ghetto Cemetery list online

Steve Lasky of the Museum of Family History has added two lists, including 1,400 names of Jewish residents who perished in the Lodz Ghetto and buried in its cemetery.

Later this year, he will announce a large online exhibit on the Jewish ghettos of Europe.

View the Lodz Ghetto cemetery list here; all names are on a single web page.

For each person buried, the fields are: the grave number, name and surname, death date and age, along with the Polish and Hebrew forms of father’s given name (as well as the surname and given name variant transliterations and spellings). Section one has only the English date of death, while the second section has both English and Hebrew dates; there are other differences between the first and second lists.

For example: Goldsztajn Gawryl Arja, son of Mojsze is also noted as Goldstein Gavriel Arye, son of Moshe in the first list. This should help researchers who know the contemporary surnames but not the original Polish name forms. In turn, this will assist them to check other online resources using the original spellings.

These lists are by no means complete, as there were no doubt many more of our ancestors who died in the Ghetto and were buried there. However, these lists might just help some of you who had family in the Ghetto during World War II with your Lódz family research. The lists give the names of the deceased, and often the father’s name, the date of death and age at death.

The lists come to you courtesy of the Lódz Jewish community through the agency of Yad LeZehava (YZI) in Kedumim Israel and with the dedicated cooperation of the officers and men in the IDF ‘Witnesses in Uniform’ Program.

Visit the Museum of Family History.

Read Steve’s blog for frequent updates on the Museum. Questions? Ask Steve.

New York: Beth Moses cemetery surname lists

The online Museum of Family History has added gravestones and photographs for burial society plots of towns in Ukraine, Belarus and former Yugoslavia.

The complete list has some 200 shtetls, towns and cities

Although there are additional society plots for each town located within other Metro New York cemeteries, the new additions are only from Beth Moses Cemetery (Pinelawn, New York). There are no plans to photograph the other plots for the towns noted., according to Museum creator Steve Lasky.

Find the links to these lists here.

For the vast majority of the 200 shtetls, towns and cities (and some other organizations) listed at that page, every society plot has been properly photographed and databased. The list of some 105,000 names from more than 30 Jewish cemeteries in New York and New Jersey, is available only through the Museum of Family History.

As just one example of the various plots, click on Mogilev, Belarus on the museum page link. The Name List contains some 280 surnames – many familiar to Mogilev researchers – of those buried in three of the five Mogilev burial society plots in the Metro New York area.

Readers who find a surname of interest and would like to receive the gravestone photo, should email the Museum. Remember to list the surname and town.

Here are the recently added towns:

UKRAINE:
Budanov
Lokachi
Khoshchevatoye
Stavishche
Pomoryany
Shargorod
Raygorodok
Shumskoye
Voynilov

BELARUS:
Pukhovichi
Divin
Novogrudok

YUGOSLAVIA/MACEDONIA:
Bitola/Monastir

Steve Lasky’s continuing achievement at his cyberspace Museum of Family History is to be commended. Visit the Museum and sign up for his blog to learn about new exhibits which may provide a break-through in your research.