The marks left by their mezuza are still visible on the doorpost of the Trachtenbergs’ home in Shanghai, traces of a lifestyle that ended 60 years ago.
Lena Trachtenberg Feld has only been back to China once — in 1988 — since her family was forced out after the communists took over in 1949, and couldn’t bring herself to approach the house. But her cousin, who lives in San Francisco, is married to a Chinese American woman, and she was able to get them a photograph of their spacious childhood home, divided now to house two families.
Feld, who lives in Metuchen, described her exotic childhood to an audience at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains on July 12. Her talk was part of the active adults/seniors summer program offered by the JCC of Central New Jersey, and based at the synagogue. About 40 people came, including a contingent from the Martin and Edith Stein Assisted Living Residence in Somerset.
Feld, a vivacious retired medical librarian, explained the waves of Jews that formed the Chinese community.
It started with traders traveling the Silk Route, who built the first synagogue in Kaifeng in 1120. Next came the so-called Baghdadi Jews, Sephardim from Iraq but also from Syria, Iran, and India, and then Jews — like her own family — fleeing from persecution in the Soviet Union. They settled in Harbin, and then many moved on to Shanghai, where they made their homes in the International Settlement.
“If you had money, you could live wherever you wanted,” she said, but there they had the protection of international law.
Feld’s mother and father had both come from Russia, fleeing pogroms. She was born in Shanghai and grew up in the Jewish community of around 7,000 people, speaking Russian and English, because she was sent to the British school.
The only Chinese she remembers, she admitted with a smile, were numbers and street slang “that I was advised not to use.”
Though their departure from Shanghai was traumatic, their life in China was privileged and pleasant, with servants, summer vacations in the mountains, and total religious freedom.
The boys all had bar mitzva ceremonies (the girls had no religious training). Though her grandfather in the 1940s helped establish the second of the city’s two synagogues, her parents were not observant. They maintained their identity, however, and their culinary traditions, and their Passover seders were attended by 25-30 people. “It was the one time our cook let my mother into the kitchen,” Feld said.
Vendors came by with baskets swinging from the bamboo pole on their shoulders, and cobblers stitched silk and leather shoes for them. Under the watchful eye of her Chinese “baby ama” or nanny, Lena played with her beloved Shirley Temple doll, and her Shanghai-oriented Monopoly set.
With the rise of the Nazis, another 18,000 Jews arrived in Shanghai, and for them life was much harsher. The Japanese were in control by then, and to show their solidarity with their German and Italian allies, they isolated the Jews in a slum. “It was only after the war, when these Jews heard what had happened to those left behind in Europe, that they understood that Shanghai had been a refuge,” Feld said.
Her family weathered the war in relative comfort, but when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic in 1949, they were forced to leave. They were allowed to take “only their children and one suitcase,” and a packing case of possessions — which the 10-year-old Lena was responsible for. They went to Australia, and nine years later moved to the United States.
In the States, Feld said, she connected with Judaism as she had not done before. She had a bat mitzva ceremony in 1984, and she and her husband are members of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen. “I recaptured what my grandfather had,” she said, beaming.