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On the Trail of the Carved Menorah from

The Beth Aharon Synagogue in Shanghai

By Xu Xin


Jews who lived in Shanghai during the second half of the 19th century constructed quite a few synagogues. Among them was Beth Aharon, built in 1927 with funding from Silas Aaron Hardoon (1851-1931), a Sephardic Jew who made his fortune in Shanghai in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It occupied a choice site on the once elegant and prestigious avenue running along the Bund, the waterfront thoroughfare of Shanghai, and became a house of worship for hundreds of Jewish refugees from Europe during World War II. From 1943-45, in addition to being a house of worship, it also served as a hall of study for the Mir Yeshiva, the only yeshiva in Eastern European to survive the Holocaust intact. The Yeshiva moved to Shanghai after its rabbis and students escaped from Poland and resided for a short time in Kobe, Japan. It is said that rabbis and students of the Yeshiva studied in the Synagogue 18 hours daily. 

In the late 1940s, the dwindling Jewish community sold the synagogue. In the1960s, it became a printing workshop for Wen Hui Boa, one of the major Shanghai newspapers. However, the paper demolished the building in 1985. According to Tess Johnston, an old China hand and then secretary to the US Consulate General in Shanghai in the early 1980s, only one of the two carved menorahs on both sides of the front of the synagogue was saved. This was due to her efforts and the help of two visiting professors (one of whose parents had fled the Holocaust and lived in Shanghai for a few years). The stone was last seen being lifted onto a truck waiting to be shipped and preserved, according to Johnston's article: "Consulate general helps to preserve Jewish relics in Shanghai," State (Jan. 1986, no. 285, pp. 30-31), published by the U.S. Department of State.

Since then, no effort has been made to locate the Menorah although some remember and are concerned about it. As Johnston wrote in her article: "This stone could be of historical importance to world Jewry. If preserved, it could perhaps serve as a monument to Shanghai's role as safe haven for the thousands of Jewish refugees who have passed through here."  

I had been concerned about its fate for years and even discussed it with friends in Shanghai, but not until July 1998 did I take real action. My effort was inspired during my research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum when I met Dr. Susan Bachrach, Chief Curator and Director of the Division of Exhibitions. I learned about a proposed exhibition, "on a history of the flight of Jewish Polish refugees on the eve of the Holocaust from Lithuania to Japan and Beyond." This will naturally include a segment on the life of those Polish Jewish refugees in Shanghai from 1941 through 1945. Bachrach asked if I could perform archival and artifactual research on their behalf when I returned to China. Nothing could make me happier than to provide assistance and service for this important project. Shortly after I returned, I started my research in Shanghai, with locating the carved menorah of the Beth Aharon Synagogue as a primary goal. 

My research started naturally with Johnston, literally the last witness when the synagogue was demolished. I had a wonderful meeting with her at her beautifully decorated apartment in Shanghai. She very kindly spent her time with me and provided as many details about that event as possible. She gave me a copy of her article, which not only records the event but also provides some important clues as to the fate of the stone. Perhaps the most valuable name I learned was that of Qian Zong Hao. Later, I discovered that he is an associate research professor and Director of the Department of Archives of the Shanghai Local History Museum. 

The next day, I went to that museum to seek Qian. He was working in his office when I arrived, introduced myself and told him my purpose. Unfortunately, he told me that although he had worked in the Museum for over 20 years, he had he never learned anything about the carved menorah. He said that he would have been informed if his museum had ever received it. We went through old records from the middle 1980s without discovering any records of the stone or reports of the demolition of the synagogue. Obviously, this Museum was not in charge of those activities, although the Museum holds an excellent exhibition of the history of modern Shanghai.

Next, I asked if he knew of any unidentified stones that had been collected by the museum in the past and learned that a few hundred were currently in storage. I was very happy to hear this and suggested I might go and have a look. I told him that I might be able to help the museum identify such objects. Instead of aimlessly searching, since I did not have any specific information (besides the fact that the storage facility lies far from the city; the weather was extremely hot -- about 95-100 -- and too many stone items are piled together), he suggested that I first go to the Shanghai Municipal Administrative Committee of Cultural Relics. They are in charge of the ground buildings of Shanghai. He suggested I find those who were in authority at that time, and he promised that he would give permission and even go with me to visit the storage place after I learned more. He also very kindly suggested a few other places to investigate, such as the office building of the Wen Hui Daily, which had replaced the Beth Aharon Synagogue. 

I followed his advice and went to the office building of the Daily in the hope of finding anyone who remembered the demolition. I was in luck! Cao Guohe turned out to be the very person in charge of the demolition. He recalled the event and remembered that a carved menorah was saved and turned over to the Shanghai Municipal Administrative Committee of Cultural Relics. However, when asked if he remembered the name of the person who was in charge at that time, he said that he had no memory of it at all. Nevertheless, his story matched Johnston's. I was very happy and encouraged. 

The Shanghai Municipal Administrative Committee of Cultural Relics might be the key place. At first, I had limited success. Then I met Li Kong San, Associate Professor of the Department of the Ground Buildings. He had handled the matter in 1985. When asked the fate of the menorah, he told me that the stone still existed and had been stored. When I requested seeing it with my own eyes, he agreed and was willing to accompany me. Immediately, I hired a taxi!

After about half an hour we arrived at the place. I recognized the Menorah as soon as I walked into the yard because the stone sat in an open space. I carefully examined it and discovered that it is not made of stone or of granite, as previously described (including Johnston's description), but of cement and bricks. The menorah pattern is on three sides. The stone, which is in a fairly good condition, is about 95 cm tall, 88 cm wide, and 60 cm deep. However, it is not well preserved as it lies in the open. Inclement weather might damage it in a long run. I took some pictures. I then saw a second piece, which it turned out to be the bottom part of the column where the menorah pattern was made.

The search for the carved menorah ended. My feeling was mixed: I was very happy to locate it and find it intact, but saddened to see it unprotected. Something must be done. I told Li that I hope his committee will do something about it. I also promised to provide necessary assistance to preserve it properly, if needed.

Recently, I learned that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is trying to borrow the Menorah from China for its 1999 exhibit. I sincerely hope that this action will attract attention and result in better protection for this invaluable carving.