Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli photographer and writer in Shanghai, is on a mission that the fictional Lara Croft would be proud of.
Over the last 18 months, he has been a kind of "tomb raider," a la Croft, and has so far collected 70 Jewish tombstones in the suburbs, in an "effort to reassemble the Jewish past of Shanghai."
"I am not collecting the headstones as a hobby, but also so that more people will know about the long-term relationship between Shanghai and the Jewish people," said Bar-Gal, 37, who runs his own studio here.
In his eyes, Shanghai used to be a good place for Jews, while they also contributed to the city's development. That's why he has voluntarily taken up this task for the Jewish community.
According to Bar-Gal, more than 20,000 Jews who had found refuge in the city during the late 1930s later dispersed to Israel and elsewhere.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the headstones, filling the city's then four Jewish cemeteries, were mostly scattered in the western suburbs.
With help from the local Jewish community and the Israeli Consulate, Bar-Gal has so far found 70 headstones. There is no estimating the total number of stones.
According to Ilan Maor, Consul General of Israel in Shanghai, the stones not only represent a fascinating heritage for Jewish people but are part of local history that people here should be proud of.
"Our consulate has supported (Bar-Gal's) project from the very beginning. I have myself visited the tombstone sites in Qingpu District several times," he added.
"Both the city government and the Qingpu District government have been very cooperative. The latter has provided staff to collect some headstones and bring them to the district cemetery, where it has designated a special area for them," said Maor.
While searching for Jewish tombstones, Bar-Gal also came across many Christian headstones. Most of them were found in villages in the western suburbs where migrant workers have settled.
The workers had put the stones to various use such as washboards, floors, tables and even as a base for homes.
"The villagers have been very kind and cooperative with us," Bar-Gal said. "Though sometimes we had to buy the slabs from locals, they asked for a low price."
Bar-Gal, whose parents never lived in Shanghai and who grew up in Israel, said he developed his fascination for the city out of his own "Jewish sentiment."
For him, the marble slabs, etched with Hebrew characters, are a physical reminder of Shanghai's rich Jewish heritage.
"Shanghai played a significant role as a safe haven for Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe," he said. "Even during the late 1930s under Japanese occupation, the city offered sanctuary from Nazi persecution to thousands from Eastern Europe."
"On the other hand, the Jews also did a lot for the city's development. Today, we can find many landmark constructions built by Jews," said Bar-Gal, who pinpointed the Art Deco-style Peace Hotel built in 1929 along the Bund by the Sassoons - one of the city's most prominent Jewish families then.
Bar-Gal, who insists the stones belong to the families, is trying to set up a Website and has plans for a museum.
(eastday.com June 5, 2003)