A vanished Jewish community: Remembering the Jews of Tianjin

The Museum of Modern Art in Tianjin serve as a step toward commemorating the Jewish men and women – war refugees and children born there – who once passed through Tianjin.

The Museum of Modern History in Tianjin  (photo credit: THE MUSEUM OF MODERN HISTORY IN TIANJIN)
The Museum of Modern History in Tianjin
Israel Gal is CEO of Acoustiguide, a company specializing in multimedia content for museums and tour sites. He’s also an extraordinary history buff. When he comes across an intriguing topic, he makes it into a personal project.
Gal had read about the World War II diaries of Warsaw’s zookeepers, Antonina and Jan Zabinski. The couple sheltered Jews and resistance fighters in empty animal cages. He acquired the copyright to the diaries, had them translated into Hebrew, and made the couple’s story famous in Israel’s schools and cultural centers. For this contribution to Polish culture in Israel, Gal was awarded the Polish Knight’s Cross Order of Merit.
Another of Gal’s projects was restoring the house in Petah Tikva where early Hebrew author Y.H. Brenner once lived. The historic house had been rented out as a hair salon, but after Gal initiated its restoration and worked to make its history known and valued, it is now a museum.
Through Gal’s efforts, the history of a vanished Jewish community in China is about to come alive again. About a year ago, Acoustiguide began developing a project with Chinese partners: a multimedia smart bus tour guide app of Tianjin, a mega- city of 15 million inhabitants in North China. Through a coincidence, Gal became aware of a Jewish community that lived in Tianjin from 1920 to 1957.
“One of my Chinese partners, knowing my passion for history, sent me China Dreams, a book of memoirs by a Jewish woman, Isabelle Maynard, who grew up in Tianjin. I read it with great interest. Then on my next trip, I met with several Tianjin authorities, one of whom is the mayor. He immediately began talking to me of the old Jewish community there. He didn’t know of my passion for history; he simply wanted to tell me, a Jew and Israeli, of his city’s Jewish past.”
The Tianjin mayor turned out to be, like Gal, an ardent amateur historian. He gave Gal another key book, The Jews of Tianjin, a compilation of photographs and images documenting the history of Tianjin’s Jews.
Gal is open about common business interests between Acoustiguide and the Tianjin municipality, but adds, “It fits in with the genuine respect that the Chinese have for Jewish culture and heritage. The authorities were impressed by my record as a published author and the medal of credit I was awarded by the Polish government. I’m convinced that the Jews’ passion for literacy, culture and education speaks well to the Chinese, since they’re proud of the same things. They relate their long, rich history to that of the Jewish nation.”
Tianjin is a port city, a trade center since ancient times. Jewish merchants did business in Tianjin in the late 19th century, but left nothing to show they’d been there. This changed in the first years of the 20th century. Ten Russian Jewish families immigrated to the city and registered the community with the authorities. They formed the nucleus of the future community, acquiring land for a cemetery, establishing a place to worship, and founding a relief organization. More families arrived starting in 1917, fleeing the pogroms of the Russian Revolution.
Over the decade of 1920 to 1930, the Jews built a stately synagogue, a nursing home, a hospital, and a free school with a full curriculum in English and Hebrew studies. They organized charitable societies and a social club where the community enjoyed a variety of leisure activities, including a well-stocked library, a theater and a restaurant. The following decade saw the establishment of WIZO and Jewish Agency offices, as well as the important Hebrew Association of Tientsin, which organized and recorded the community’s activities. In 1935, Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany began coming to China, increasing the Tianjin community from about 3,500 to a peak of 5,000.
This richly layered community, formed by war, was to be dispersed again by war. In the 1940s, Tianjin was controlled successively by Japan, the US, and finally, Communist forces in 1949. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jews left Tianjin to emigrate yet again – mostly to Israel, but some to Australia and the United States. Small groups of ex-Tianjin Jews still exist in those countries.
Tianjin’s Jewish cemetery has long been destroyed. The school and hospital were put to new uses, bearing no trace of the people who built them. Jewish homes still stand around the city, but not many know them as such. The synagogue suffered damage and wasn’t repaired, although it is still in use as a clubhouse. Gal found the door open when he visited it with a guide provided by the friendly mayor.
“No one knew it was once a synagogue, not even the guide,” says Gal. The large Magen David once prominently displayed on the building’s front had been chipped away and replaced by a plaque. Another Magen David placed on the peak of the cupola had also been removed. “I looked up over the street door. There was the sign I was looking for: a magnificent, colorful glass menorah still adorns the front window.”
Gal began his negotiations with the Tianjin authorities, hoping to renovate the synagogue and preserve it as a museum.
“I sat with the Tianjin Tourism Group. They’re a huge enterprise with their own airport, tourist boats and travel agencies, partly owned by the government. They asked me to help increase tourism to Tianjin, so I introduced them to the Israel Ministry of Tourism representative in Beijing. I was happy to do so. The Acoustiguide Smart City app we’re developing will fit in with the smart city strategy of the local and central government.”
The digital guide will now include a tour of the synagogue and a description of the old Jewish community.
“This is very preliminary,” says Gal. “But I’m working to make it happen since it fits in both with Acoustiguide’s business in China and with my personal desire to commemorate the old community. I want to encourage Jewish, and especially Israeli, tourists to visit Tianjin and discover its Jewish history.
“Knowing that I’m looking for traces of the old Jewish community, the Tianjin Tourism Group put me in touch with the director of the Museum of Modern Art. The museum has a section dedicated to colonialism – English, Italian and French. And there’s a separate section about the Jews and their heritage, with photos, books, and certificates of all kinds.
“The director of the museum and her son, who curates the collections, are extremely interested in the topic of the Jewish presence in Tianjin. She told me that she met with the people from the Israeli embassy in Beijing years ago, asking for funds to help renovate the old synagogue as a museum or heritage house. The museum was willing to provide half the money, but there was no interest on the embassy’s side, so the project fell through.”
The director of the Museum of Modern Art in Tianjin and Gal, as sponsor, are working together to create an exhibit on the Jews who lived there, it will serve as a step toward commemorating the Jewish men and women – war refugees and children born there – who once passed through Tianjin.