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  1998-10-30 Shanghai Jews



Visit by Chinese scholar sparks Jewish memories

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, Oct. 30, 1998:

By Donald H. Harrison

San Diego (special) -- While most San Diegans were watching Game 4 of baseball's World Series last week, about 50 San Diegans who are world serious about international Jewry attended a lecture featuring the People's Republic of China's leading expert on Sino-Jewish relations, Prof. Pan Guang.

The Shanghai-based scholar was accorded an emotional introduction at United States International University by Ya'acov Liberman who recalled that China gave sanctuary to Jews who fled nazi persecution in Europe.

"Even in mandated Palestine, the promised land, and even in the United States, the land of promise, Jewish refugees were refused a welcome," recalled Liberman, a former general secretary of Israel's Herut party who now resides in San Diego.

"But there was one country in the world, one people in the world, that accepted every Jew that came their way, and as a result some 20,000 Jews from Germany and Austria were saved...Today there are still thousands of us around the world who are carrying the memory, the beautiful memory, of our lives and the hospitality of our hosts deep in our hearts."

Liberman, whose own family had immigrated to China from Russia a generation earlier than the German and Austrian refugees, asked Pan to please convey on his return to China "the gratitude of all of us for the wonderful hospitality, for the generosity of the Chinese spirit, that we experienced throughout the generations that we lived in your country."

Most Chinese Jews departed China either in 1949, following the creation of the State of Israel, as Liberman did, or in the 1960s in response to the tumult accompanying China's Cultural Revolution.

Pan's appearance at USIU attracted not only students, but also a small number of "old China hands," who like Liberman had lived the early part of their lives in that country. Some of these former Jewish residents of China will attend a reunion this weekend at the Holiday Inn at the Embarcadero.

Additionally, Wang Gewu, the Tijuana-based consul general of the People's Republic of China, crossed the Mexican-U.S. border to "hear my countryman." Pan lectured in English--which Wang understands only a little. Wang's Spanish, on the other hand, is excellent and, of course, both men were able to converse in Chinese before and after the lecture.

Pan, dean of Shanghai's Center for Jewish Studies and guest in San Diego of the American Jewish Committee, said the total number of Jewish refugees taken in by China was more than the combined total accepted by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

He said he believed there were three main reasons why relationships between the Chinese and Jewish peoples always have been good.

In his view, anti-Semitism arose from "religious differences in western Europe," which China never experienced owing to its background of Buddhism and Confucianism. 

Also, Chinese and Jewish cultures have numerous commonalities including an emphasis on family, a belief in education, and the ability to survive in exotic cultures, Pan said. There is a document from the former Jewish community of Kaifeng dating to the 15th century which notes both Chinese and Jews "respect parents, venerate ancestors, and call for harmony with wives and children," he said.

Thirdly, he said, both communities have experienced great suffering. "Thirty million Chinese were killed and wounded by the Japanese, so this experience gives Chinese deep sympathy for the Jewish people," he said.

After China was occupied by the Japanese, who were allied to Germany during World War II, Germans asked the Japanese to set up concentration camps in Shanghai "and promised to give all equipment to help Japanese kill Jews," Pan said. "They even asked the Japanese to arrest all Jewish people during Rosh Hashanah, in September of 1942, because all Jewish family members get together during the New Year."

"Japanese didn't agree with this due to the differences in dealing with the Jews between Japanese and German authorities," Pan said. "But the Japanese had to do something because Hitler was an ally, so finally the Japanese proclaimed that they would 'designate' an area for 'stateless persons.' The Japanese didn't mention 'Jews'; they called this area a 'designated area for stateless persons.' Everyone who had arrived from Europe since 1937 had to move into this area. "

Despite increasing German pressure on the Japanese to kill Jews, the Japanese resisted. In their ghetto known as Hongkew, the German and Austrian Jews were aided by Jews who had freedom of movement in Shanghai because they had arrived prior to 1937. 

These included Russian families like Liberman's, as well as Sephardic families who had migrated to China from Baghdad and Bombay in the 19th Century. Additionally, said Pan, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, through intermediaries, gave help to the refugees, and there was help "also from the Chinese people."

Pan, born in 1947, had some Russian Jewish neighbors as a boy, and "I really could not believe why the Holocaust had happened in Europe when I heard about it. The same thing that happened to me, now happens to my students. 

"In my lectures, I talk about Jewish history and they frequently ask me why there was such repeated anti-Semitism in Europe. They really could not understand...and it is difficult for me to explain. Many times I have to trace back history from the Bible time to today to explain the answer to their questions."

Japanese acted cruelly toward Jews at the prompting of their nazi Allies. Even earlier, White Russians who migrated south to China after Russia's Communist revolution brought their anti-Semitism to China with them.

However, said Pan, "no spontaneous or indigenous anti-Semitism has ever taken place on Chinese soil." What anti-Semitism there was, "I call 'imported' or 'imposed' anti-Semitism."

Some Jews are celebrated in China for the help that they gave in the struggle against the Japanese, Pan said. Among these was Dr. Jacob Rosenfeld, who came as a refugee and served in the Chinese Army 10 years, attaining the rank of a general. 

Eventually, Rosenfeld went to Israel to try to find any relatives who had survived the Holocaust. China lost touch with him, and not until after it established relations with Israel, was it able to officially inquire as to what had happened to him. 

"They found his grave in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv," Pan said. "Now every Chinese leader that goes to Israel gives a flower at this grave." And Rosenfeld's memory is kept alive in China. "There is a Dr. Rosenfeld Hospital" named in his honor, he said.

In the question-and-answer session following Pan's speech, Taiwan-born Tony Sun said he and his wife Sunny drove three hours to San Diego from their home in Commerce, because he wanted to learn more about the ancient Jewish colony of Kaifeng, China, his family's ancestral home.

He said he believes Jews may have been his ancestors because members of his family have whiter skin and rounder eyes than most Chinese, and because family lore said that his great-grandmother spoke Chinese with a pronounced accent.

Pan replied that Jews were known to have lived in Kaifeng since the 9th century, and said most researchers believe that they migrated from ancient Persia. He said Chinese emperors gave Chinese names to Jewish families to honor them, thus the "Levy family became Li" and the "Ezra family became Ai." 

Those who could pass an imperial examination were allowed to serve the government and at least one member of a Jewish family became a governor, the scholar said.

Later Chinese emperors closed the door to foreigners, Pan said, making it impossible for the Kaifeng community to obtain a rabbi who could teach the Torah. Eventually, he said, knowledge of the religion disappeared. The Jews intermarried with Chinese and became almost indistinguishable from the surrounding populace.

Today, said Pan, there are between 200 and 300 descendants of the Kaifeng Jews, none of whom today can be considered Jewish because they no longer follow Jewish ways. But "they still remember something," he said, telling about his trips there in 1992 and 1994. "I found a mezuzah, with nothing inside, and I asked what it was," he recalled.

The people told him the mezuzah was from their "grand, grand, grand grandfather, so we keep this." He said they also were aware that Friday evenings had been special to their ancestors.

Sun, who owns a Los Angeles-area moving business, said he has not been able to establish whether his own ancestors similarly followed Jewish customs. "I have an uncle in Taiwan who I might be able to ask some questions about this," he said.

What will it mean to him if he finds out his ancestors were indeed Jewish? I asked.

"This means that I am proud of the Jewish (people) because I am part of them" he said. "That is why I look so smart."   He laughed self consciously, then added because he always had to work, "I don't have education."