10 October 2012

Jewish Cemeteries in Prague and Nagasaki: A Comparison

Parts of the former Jewish quarter of Josefov in Prague, Czech Republic remain beautifully intact, including several synagogues, a Jewish cemetery said to be the oldest in Europe, and antiquated buildings housing the Jewish Museum of Prague. Nazi forces demolished much of Josefov after occupying Prague in 1939 but spared the cemetery and a few other structures, apparently intending to use them as reminders of an "extinct race."  Most of the Jewish inhabitants meanwhile were evacuated to the Terezin concentration camp and later to Auschwitz and other death camps.

I visited the museum and cemetery one sun-washed morning in late August this year.  Among the displays in the museum were drawings done by children on their way to and in the concentration camps, brightly colored at first but increasingly dark and desperate.  The cemetery, which visitors pass on their way out of the complex, is remarkable for its hundreds of gravestones of varying age literally squeezed together and piled on top of each other to save space.  It was here that I noticed connections with Nagasaki.

Although not widely known, Nagasaki had a small but prosperous Jewish community around the turn of the 20th century.  Jews of various nationalities including Russia, Austria, Romania and Turkey began to arrive here after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.  Many opened bars, tailor shops and stores on the back streets of the foreign settlement; others like Morris Ginsburg and Sigmund Lessner established successful businesses and contributed to the development of Nagasaki as an international port.

In 1892, Ginsburg led the Jewish community in purchasing space for a Jewish burial ground in the newly opened Sakamoto International Cemetery.  The plot was located at a prime location near the cemetery entrance and featured a distinctive stone gate and walls with a cast-iron fence.  The number of burials increased in proportion to Nagasaki's activity as a port, so rapidly in fact that the plot, just like the Jewish cemetery in Prague, became full and any new gravestone had to be placed in the aisles or between existing gravestones.

Nagasaki was also the site of Japan’s first synagogue.  In September 1896, Sigmund Lessner joined with Haskel Goldenberg and other prominent Jewish entrepreneurs in establishing the Beth Israel Synagogue at No.11 Umegasaki, a single-story brick building featuring Japanese-style ceramic roof tiles and distinctive pear-shaped window awnings.  The synagogue bustled with residents and visitors during the busy years around the turn of the century.  In 1901, Lessner also founded local branches of the Jewish Benevolent Society and the Anglo-Jewish Association.

It was war, not religious or racial intolerance as in Europe, that sent the Jewish community of Nagasaki into decline.  Morris Ginsburg and his brothers, who held Russian passports, had to suspend their business activities and leave Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.  Sigmund Lessner faced a similar ordeal during World War I because he was an Austrian national and therefore labeled an "enemy" by both the Japanese and British governments.  

Lessner managed to revive his store and auction business after the war, but his sudden death in 1920 -- along with other factors including the rising cost of living in Japan and Nagasaki's decline as a venue for foreign trade -- precipitated a sharp drop in the number of Jewish residents.  By 1924, most of the Jewish businesses in the port had closed.  The Beth Israel Synagogue came under the administration of a Jewish organization in Shanghai and was sold off and converted into a warehouse.  By the time the atomic bomb explosion smashed windows and tore tiles off the rooftops of the Umegasaki neighborhood, few people even remembered the original function of the odd-looking building.

Today, the former Jewish quarters of Prague and other European cities are gone, and the descendants of the people who thrived and suffered there are scattered around the world.  In Nagasaki, the only reminder of the former Jewish community is a few inscriptions on gravestones in Sakamoto International Cemetery -- and the stories tucked away in the heart of an international port.

The old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic.

The Jewish section of Sakamoto International Cemetery in Nagasaki, seen from the rear.  Like its counterpart in Prague, the plot is congested with gravestones.  At the front is a gate with an inscription in Hebrew and the year 5653, equivalent to 1892, carved on one of the pillars.

(Left) A gravestone in the old Jewish Cemetery of Prague shows a pair of hands carved in relief, a symbol of priestly blessing.  (Right)  The same symbol is evident on a gravestone in the Jewish section of Sakamoto International Cemetery in Nagasaki.

The Beth Israel Synagogue was built in the rear portion of No.11 Umegasaki in 1896, the first Jewish place of worship in Japan.  The single-story brick building (right) had high shuttered windows with characteristic pear-shaped awnings.

Woodblock print by Nagasaki artist Tagawa Ken (1906-1967) depicting the former Beth Israel Synagogue in Umegasaki.  Tagawa was fascinated by the buildings of the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement, abandoned but still exuding the atmosphere of an age gone by.

After being sold off by auction in 1924, the former synagogue was used as a warehouse until finally falling to the wrecker's hammer in the 1960s.  All that remain today are a few of the stone structures nearby: the stairs leading up the hillside and parts of the gutter and embankment wall to the left.

Small bronze plaque implanted on the sidewalk in front of a house on a busy shopping street in Amsterdam.  A man named Abraham Bilderbeek lived there with his family until being arrested by the Nazi Gestapo and dragged to the Auschwitz death camp -- for what possible crime or infraction?

Your writer walking in front of Anne Frank House on the Prinsengracht canal in Amsterdam in early September 2012, trying to figure the whole thing out.

03 January 2012

Nostalgia Britannica

The former British Consulate, completed in 1908, is one of 29 "Nationally Designated Important Cultural Assets" in Nagasaki city.  The 1992 designation ensured the physical preservation of the property but did not extend to the surrounding neighborhood.  As a result, the former consulate has become like "The Little House" in the famous Virginia Lee Burton story that sinks into the grime and shadow of urban sprawl.   Large-scale groundworks have erased the original line of the harbor, and the once narrow waterfront street is now a six-lane thoroughfare roaring day and night with traffic.  All of the other Western-style buildings that faced the harbor during Nagasaki's heyday as an international port are gone, leaving the consular buildings and gardens like an oasis of history hidden among a discordant cluster of modern office buildings, condominiums and hotels.

The former Nagasaki British Consulate (center, behind the trees) is surrounded by modern buildings and a wide thoroughfare.

Picture postcard (taken from approximately the same angle ca 1910) showing the British Consulate with old Western-style buildings on the left and right.

Launched in rented rooms at the Buddhist temple Myogyoji in 1859, the Nagasaki British Consulate was the first established in Japan after the opening of the country in the dying years of the Edo Period.  The consulate moved to a new building on the hillside at No.9 Higashiyamate in 1865 and watched over the development of the foreign settlement and the emergence of the city as a hub for commercial and cultural exchange.  The consulate moved again in 1882, this time to No.6 Oura, a prime location on the waterfront "Bund" in the center of the foreign settlement.  The British Commissioner of Works purchased the property two years later and acquired the perpetual lease.  Nagasaki enjoyed a golden age of prosperity between the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), and the British decided to demolish the old wooden building and to erect a new building that would better reflect the British presence in the region.

William Cowan, a government architect employed in the Office of Works in Shanghai, submitted plans for the new building in 1906.  Trouble ensued -- the local companies contracted to carry out the work failed to observe deadlines and constantly demanded more money -- but the new consulate began operation in November 1908 and went on to become a familiar landmark on the Nagasaki waterfront.

The Union Jack flies in front of the Nagasaki British Consulate ca 1912.  The consulate boat is hoisted on the seawall to the right,  and a flight of steps leads down to the water from the street. 

Visitors entered the compound through one of the two front gates and opened the front door into the main building.  To the right of the entrance vestibule was the public area comprised of a large drawing room and dining room; to the left was the administrative section including a waiting room, offices of the consul and assistant, storage space and closets for archives, stationery and utensils.  Each of the main rooms featured an English-style coal-burning fireplace with a decorative wooden mantel and iron canopy.  The consul and his family lived in the second floor rooms of the main building, including four bedrooms and a study, bathroom and antechambers.  Out the back door was a long single-story building with a boiler room, coal shed, kitchen and servants’ quarters flanked by gardens.  The two-story building at the rear of the property was separated into two parts: one a Western-style brick structure that served as living space for the British assistant and shipping clerk, the other a wooden building with rows of tatami-matted compartments and other facilities for Japanese employees and their families.

(Then) The daughters of Nagasaki Consul Oswald White frolic (in their father's clothes) in the garden behind the main building of the consulate ca 1922.  (Now) The site remains remarkably unchanged, although a layer of concrete has been applied to the back wall of the main building.  (Photograph by Saya Burke-Gaffney) 

The last consul, Ferdinand C. Greatrex, assumed the post in 1929 and kept the consulate functioning -- like a captain refusing to budge from the helm of a sinking ship -- until December 8, 1941 when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and military police surrounded the premises and placed Greatrex and his wife under house arrest.  The couple remained in Nagasaki until being repatriated by exchange ship in July 1942.  Greatrex's last request was that his savings and personal belongings in Japan be transferred to Konishi Kizo, his faithful former Japanese employee and the last remnant of the consular staff.

During World War II, the buildings stood abandoned and forlorn on the Nagasaki waterfront, but, despite the hatred directed at Britain and its allies, they were not vandalized or defaced.  In fact the greatest damage was inflicted by the atomic bomb, which exploded about five kilometers to the north but smashed in windows and crushed part of the roof.

After the war, the former consulate underwent superficial repairs but remained unused until 1955, when the British government sold the property in its entirety to Nagasaki City.  Over the ensuing years, the buildings housed the Nagasaki Children's Science Museum and later the Noguchi Yataro Art Gallery.  The latter closed in 2007, and the building was left -- once again in its century-long history -- closed and empty in the midst of a changing cityscape, waiting for the repairs and earthquake-proofing planned by the Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The date of completion is still unclear, but it is hoped that, this time around, the former consular premises will be used to convey information about the role of the British consulate in the boom years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the life and work of former consuls, and the contributions made by British residents to the industrial, economic and cultural development of Nagasaki.

To conclude, a few photographs:

The former Nagasaki British Consulate was being used as an art gallery before closing in 2007.  It is currently awaiting repairs and reinforcement work. 

Satellite photograph of the former Nagasaki British Consulate (blue box). 

The former Nagasaki British Consulate premises seen from the rear.  The brick building on the right accommodated the British assistant and shipping clerk, while the wooden building to the left served as living quarters for Japanese employees and their families.  The 1992 designation of the consulate as an "Important Cultural Asset" was based to a large extent on the excellent overall preservation of the property, including subsidiary buildings, stone walls and other structures. 

The entrance and gardens have changed little despite the passage of time and the roller-coaster ride of history.

The entrance vestibule seen from the inner staircase.

The fireplaces in each of the main rooms remain in remarkably good condition.  The mantlepiece in the former assistant's office bears the insignia "EviiR," an abbreviation for "Edward VII Regis."  King Edward VII was the reigning British monarch in 1908, the year the Nagasaki British Consulate reached completion.