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From Israel with love - for China

SARAH Ross spent 30 years of her life in Shanghai as one of 30,000 refugees during World War II. Now 96, the Jerusalem resident tells Dave Bender and Hao Fangjia of her happy years in China, her second home.

Sarah Ross, a 96-year-old citizen of Jerusalem, has been eyewitness to the birth of two modern nations, both led by ancient people: China and Israel.

She grew up as a Jewish refugee in Shanghai during World War II, and has lived in Israel since 1948.

Ross' experiences symbolize a durable connection between the two countries. In her simple home in Jerusalem, she proudly displays her extensive collection of Chinese furniture, wall hangings, paintings, vases and statues that represent her memories of Shanghai.

Fantastic city

"The best years of my life I spent in China, because people accepted us in a very friendly way," she recalls, smiling.

Ross sits in her wheelchair and watches the dimming of the day from her bedroom window. She wears an embroidered green satin Chinese robe, which reminds her of her days in Shanghai.

Ross and her family moved to China from Russia in 1915 when she was one year old. Her father was a horse-breeder and trainer, a skill that helped the family settle and prosper in their new home, where horse racing was a favorite pastime.

Ross grew up in Harbin in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, where she met and married her husband, a Russian Jew born in Harbin. After that, the couple spent an event-filled decade in Shanghai until they moved to Jerusalem.

"At that time, Shanghai was wonderful," she says. "It was a very difficult city, but, at the same time it was fantastic," she says.

"If you were rich, you might become poor, and if you were a poor man, you had a lot of chances to be rich in Shanghai," she muses of the tumultuous wartime era.

Ross was excited to learn about the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. She explains her attraction to the city, saying "Russian people say those who drink a little water from the Huangpu River will forever be in love with Shanghai."

Ross says her oldest memories are the most powerful, even as the years and decades fade.

"Since I remember, I remember myself among Chinese people," but for now, in a quiet Jerusalem apartment and surrounded by Chinese lanterns and calendars, porcelain and fading photos, Ross can only reminisce about Shanghai, and a colorful life in China long ago.

Some of her statues have been chipped and broken over the six decades, but she keeps them anyway. They are like old friends who have shared the same travails. "You see, it still is very beautiful," she says as she gently handles a tiny, cracked blue-glazed lion, "they are just old, like me."

Jews have lived in China since at least the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) in the 8th century. Many were traders, who made their way from Europe to Asia across the Silk Road. Since late 19th century, many Russian Jews made their way eastward to China.

These refugees prospered there and many like Sarah considered China a safe haven.

During World War II, many Jewish refugees flooded into Shanghai. "In Shanghai," Ross says, "you could meet people from all nations, of all ages."

It was "a very cruel war," she says of the clashes and horrors that engulfed millions of people. Reports of the horrors coming out of Nazi-occupied Europe that reached Shanghai still haunt her, 70 years later.

Her impeccable Russian-accented English falters as she describes the Holocaust.

"Six million people. I would not do to my panda what they did to Jewish people. Terrible," she tightly clutches a panda doll between her veined gnarled hands and grieves.

'I'm from China'

"In China, we lived safely," Ross says of the war years. She says the Chinese welcomed the Jewish refugees, and that she and her family felt at home in her adopted country.

Shanghai took in 30,000 Jewish refugees who managed to escape the Nazi onslaught, more than Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India combined.

Ross met many people from around the world in work as agent for a photography studio. She also gained practical experience.

After the war ended, Ross and her husband began working as photographers.

The couple continued their careers after moving to Israel. In a lucky stroke, both were soon hired by the Israeli government to photograph events at the presidential residence.

They have photographed the first five Israeli presidents in decades.

"It was very, very interesting. They are people who are now like a legend," Ross says.

Her photos show a panoply of world leaders who visited Israel, both in war and peace.

Many of the pictures catch the officials at ease and at unrehearsed moments, a sign of Ross' photographic skill.

On one occasion, soon after she began taking photos, an Israeli official was impressed by her abilities behind the lens and asked, "Hey, newcomer, where are you from?"

"I am from China! From Shanghai!" Ross replied with pride.

Her Chinese connection again came to the fore when she was tasked with photographing the first Chinese ambassador to Israel, Lin Zhen. She says her heart was pounding in anticipation.

"I was happy, and I told my husband, 'I am going to take that photograph'," she recalls, showing off a personal photo of her and the ambassador, encased in an ornate frame.

When she later presented Lin with the photos, she wrote on the back of one of them, "I never dreamed that, after 30 years, I would photograph the ambassador of the country where I happily lived much of my life!"


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