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Historian in race against time

BEFORE Pan Guang, the professor of History and Political Science at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, founded the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai (CJSS) in 1988, the area around Changyang Road and Huoshan Road was considered a normal community. Few people knew the area was a haven for Jewish refugees, who fled Nazi persecution in Europe, during World War II. Now this area of Shanghai is known as "Little Vienna."

Pan has dedicated his career to recording and representing the history of Jewish refugees in China. One of his biggest finds was uncovering Ho Fengshan, also called "China's Schindler," a Chinese diplomat in Vienna, Austria. Ho saved more than 1,000 Jews by issuing them visas to leave Europe during WW II.

Pan Guang, through his academic achievement in Jewish studies, has received several important awards including the James Friend Annual Memorial Award for Sino-Jewish Studies in 1993, the Special Award for Research on Canadian Jews from China in 1996 and the Saint Petersburg-300 Medal for Contribution to China-Russia Relations in 2004, which was awarded by then Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The center has organized dozens of reunions of Shanghai Jews and exhibitions of the accomplishments of famous Jewish individuals.

Pan said studying history is a race against time since witnesses to past events are hard to find - some move and can't be tracked down while others die.

"I firmly believe there are other Chinese who helped save some Jewish people. Hence, I will never give up in this race," he said.

Similar story

Pan said his own family's history bears some resemblance to what happened to the Jews.

Pan's grandfather at one time owned a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. His grandfather worked hard, had good business sense and the restaurant prospered. But his grandfather was eventually forced to shut the restaurant by Vietnamese who disliked the Chinese. Pan's father fled Vietnam when he was 18 years old and moved to Shanghai. When Pan was young, his father often told him stories of how his close relatives in Vietnam faced discrimination from the Vietnamese and the family was forced to split up.

"Compared with others, I can better understand what 'disperse' means," Pan said. "Actually, there are so many similarities between overseas Chinese and Jews."

So many whys

Pan admitted his childhood memory indirectly led him to start researching the history of Jews in Shanghai, but his interest in international politics played a more decisive role.

"When I was a middle school student, the media was not well-developed, international news was limited," he said. "But I still tried to learn more about the world by reading newspapers and listening to the radio. Everything I learned led me to ask more questions. For example, why was there so much divergence between China and the Soviet Union when the two countries had similar political systems?"

He chose to major in international politics for his undergraduate degree. However, he gradually found that many current events could not be thoroughly analyzed and explained without referring to history.

"International politics can only tell us what happens while history explains why it happens," Pan said, "For example, only by knowing how the city Jerusalem was established 2,000 years ago can we understand why there's a conflict between Palestinians and Israel."

Therefore, when it came time to do a postgraduate degree, Pan opted to study history. At that time, he wrote an essay about Napolean's obsession with conquering Egypt. This essay, he said, was the real beginning of his fascination with Jewish history.

"Napolean at that time emancipated large numbers of Jews, giving them religious and cultural respect," Pan said. "I was curious why Jews were always being suppressed but not others. Therefore, I started studying their history, religion and culture."

Pan said his interest in the Jews goes beyond politics and that he loves a great deal of music written by Jewish composers.

"Besides doing research, listening to music also pleases me," he said. "I really appreciate the pieces composed by Jewish musicians, especially Vladimir Ashkenazy and Gustav Mahler. Their melodies and styles seemingly inherit the classical European way. However, when you listen to the pieces more than once, you can hear a hint of sadness that is filled with melancholic beauty."

Jewish friends

When asked who he has found to be the most impressive person in his life, Pan spoke of two of his friends, who are both Jewish.

"The attractiveness of my job is that I can meet various people from all over the world and many of them have become close friends," he said.

He first talked about his Jewish friend Michael Blumenthal, the former US Secretary of the Treasury.

Blumenthal visits Pan at his research center every time he comes to Shanghai. After that, they usually visit Blumenthal's former residence in Hongkou, which is now opening to the public.

"He is very grateful to Shanghai for giving him a warm and safe childhood. I still remember the first time he visited the room he once lived. He was very excited, showing me how his family of four lived together in the room, which was no more than 10 square meters.

"The room is too small," Blumenthal told Pan. "Each of us had one corner of the room."

Pan also spoke of his friend Seth Bernstein, a Jewish rabbi.

"Although Bernstein hasn't been to Shanghai, he donated 4,667 Jewish books to our center. He told me, 'I choose here because I trust here.' This trust is precious because it implies he recognizes the importance of out work at the research center."

Pan said he has no interest in retiring as there is much to be done.

"I love what I do," Pan said. "There's no such word as retire in my life dictionary. There are so many things waiting for me to do, including contributing to a film about Jews in Shanghai.

"There are more than 40 documentary films about their history in the city but no feature film like 'Schindler's List.' However, there should be one.

"Many Hollywood producers and directors, including Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee, are planning to make a film about this topic," he said.

"They sent me the scripts, asking for advice. Frankly, none of the stories is eligible. The scripts were either written by Chinese who know nothing about Jews or by Jews who have never been to Shanghai. But Hollywood film producer Michael Medavoy, who produced 'Black Swan,' (Natalie Portman won as Oscar for best actress for her role in the film), brings me some hope because he is Jewish and was born in Shanghai."


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