Standing in the middle of Tiananmen square

posted 16 Oct 2018, 10:18 by Charles Greene

Where in the World is Rabbi Eli

Here I am. Again. Standing in the middle of Tiananmen square, all, like, "What are you looking at, eh? I belong here. Beijing is my home, can't you tell?"

Am I the first Jew to be more Chinese than Chinese? Hardly ever!

Enter exhibit A.

Morris (Moishe) Abraham "Two-gun" Cohen.

Born in Radzanow, near Warsaw, in 1887. (The family emigrated to England when he was 2 years old, and his later biography "relocated" his place of birth to London.)

As a child, little Morris frequently got in trouble, and in 1900 he was sent for five years to a correctional school for difficult Jewish boys (est. by the Rotschild family, btw).

Add to that a stretch of farming in Saskatchewan that followed, serious affinity for semi-professional boxing in shady environments and target shooting, and a cluster of (mostly legal) activities that included gambling, grifting, carnival talking, and real estate brokerage - and you will get a picture of a man of many talents. Young Morris ended serving in WWI in the Canadian Railway Troops, where his job involved supervising Chinese labourers. But unlike the "normal" people around him, insted of beating and humiliating his Chinese charges, this weird Jew befriended them, and even picked some Chinese (very rudimentary, a form of pidgin Cantonese at that). Later, in Saskatoon, he stopped a robbery of a Chinese restaurant by knocking the robber out cold; it was unheard of a white guy actively coming to the help of the Chinese community in that day and age. The Chinese welcomed Morris into their fold, and eventually invited him to join their Dr Sun Yut-Sen's anti-imperial resistance. Thus begins his relationship with Sun Yut-Sen; Cohen became his confidant, personal bodyguard, trainer of his troops, aide-de-camp, and later a colonel in Sun Yut-Sen's army. It was after having his ear grazed in a battle that he started carrying a second gun, getting his nickname.

After Sun died in 1925, Cohen stayed on to serve his wife Soong Ching-Ling and other southern KMT leaders. He was well acquainted with Chang Kai-Shek although never served him, as his commanders were in opposition to Chang. The Chinese called him Ma Kun, practically transliterating the name unusual for their ears.

With the 1937 Japanese invasion, Ma Kun the Jew joined the fight with vigour and enthusiasm. He worked for both the Chinese troops and the British intelligence until his capture in Hong Kong in 1941. The Japanese threw him in the war prisoners camp where he was badly beaten and starved until freedom came in the shape of prisoners exchange 2 years later.

He returned to Canada, settled down, got married, and went back to China on numerous visits, remaining one of the extremely few foreigners (if not the only one) who could freely move between Taiwan and mainland China as he wished.

In 1947, it was Cohen who flew to San Francisco to convince the head of Chinese delegation to abstain from voting against the Partition of Palestine, as they initially planned.

In his late years, Two-Gun Ma Kun settled in England with his siblings, and continued spinning impossible tales of his exploits (some of those impossible tales were even true).

He died in 1970, and was buried at the Manchester Blackley Jewish Cemetery.

How's that for a Chinese Jew? Are you not convinced? That's alright, I am not done yet.

Enter exhibit B.

Sidney Rittenberg, the only American to ever have been admitted to the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China.

Born in Brooklyn at the dawn of WWI, he first came to China as a regular US forces serviceman in 1944. The breaking point was when he was sent with a cheque for $26 to a local family whose young daughter was killed by an American soldier. As devastated as the family was, they insisted upon giving him $6 for his effort and his kindness. The way Rittenberg told the story later, at that point "something inside [him] shifted". After the end of the war, he refuses to go back and stays on as part of the UN famine relief program. A member of a communist party since his youth, he fits well in Mao's circles, and soon eagerly joins his personality cult.

He worked as Mao's personal translator and interpreter, twice appealing on the Chairman's behalf to president Truman for establishing good relationship between the two countries. Both times, president Truman rejected the appeal. Rittenberg, who just celebrated his 97th birthday 2 months ago, still believes that had Truman listened to him, it would avert in all likelihood both the Korean and Vietnam wars. (Alas, as we know, history does not tolerate the subjunctive mood.)

He was not immune to the party purges, and certainly did not come through them unscathed (oh, the merits of living under dictatorship!).

In 1949, he was sent to prison under charge of being a Soviet spy. He spent a full year in the solitary, in absolute darkness - and was released in 1954, apparently thanks to Stalin's timely if long overdue demise.

During the Cultural Revolution, he was radicalized and viciously attacked the "soft liberal foreigners with their right-wing sympathies".

It did not save his, however, from being accused of actions and criticisms against dictatorship and bureaucracy, and he was promptly arrested for the second time a year later. He was practically the last of the foreign prisoners to be released, in 1977, a full year after Mao's death.

In 1980, he returned to the US, and still lives in Tacoma, WA.

6 years ago, a documentary about Rittenberg saw the light. It is called "The Revolutionary", and is well worth watching: http://revolutionarymovie.com/index.html

While a living relic of the Jewish Chinese history, Rittenberg is indeed an American, born and raised in the US, and living there, too.

Enter exhibit C.

Israel Epstein was arrested at the same time as Rittenberg, and on much the same charges.

This Warsaw-born intellectual fled with his parents to China in 1917 at the age of 2, as the German army approached Poland. The family settled in the northern port of Tianjin. Epstein began working as a journalist at the age of 15, and while he found his calling, the Peking, Tiensin Times, and a number of smaller local papers were blown away by the powerful eloquent prose of this sharp teenager.

In 1938, he joined the China Defense League established by Sun Yat-Sen's wife Soong Ching-Ling (remember the lady whose patronage Two-Gun Cohen enjoyed?). In 1941 (the same year Cohen was captured in Hong Kong), Epstein neatly escaped the Japanese by faking news of his own death; his elegant self-obit even made its way into the New York Times, albeit shortened to a line and a half; following the article, he anonymously "checked himself in" to one of the Japanese interment camps, where they indeed never thought of looking for him.

He was married three times:

- Edith Bihovsky, every bit as Jewish as Epstein himself, divorced in the early 40s

- Elsie Fairfax-Cholmeley (pronouncedly WASP, high society; they went to live together in the US from 1944 till 1949, then returned to China. They had two children, before she died in 1984)

- Wan Bi, his Chinese wife who survived him.

Author of four major books (including "Tibet transformed", 1983) and uncountable essays and articles, he was imprisoned for 5 years on the charge of plotting against the Premier, Zhou Enlai. In 1973, Zhou apologized, Epstein was released. His party membership, rights and privileges were restored. Throughout imprisonment, never once did he waiver in his communist convictions.

Upon his death at the age of 90, Epstein was cremated with honours, and his ashes were buried at the Babaoshan Cemetery for the Revolutionary Heroes in Beijing. You can read his (real) obituary: http://en.people.cn/200505/31/eng20050531_187778.html

Wouldn't you agree he was as Chinese as they come?

I could go on and on here, telling you about Sidney Shapiro, the erudite translator and actor who played many Western villains during his 50+ years of life in China; Jakob Rozenfeld, a Holocaust survivor/early refugee commonly known here as General Luo, who served as the Minister of Health in Mao's provisional government in the late 40s, then repatriated to Israel in 1950, and has been honoured by a statue erected in his honour and a hospital named after him in the People's Republic; Manya Reiss, a Russian-born American communist who emigrated to Maoist China  and worked for the state press until her death of cancer in the early 60-s (yep; Babaoshan Cemetery, Revolutionary Hero, the whole megillah...).

But - just look at this picture instead; can't you tell how Chinese we are? Chinese-er than Chinese! In fact, the Chinese-est we could possibly get. In fact, can you even tell us apart here?

I rest my case, ladies and gentlemen.

Wishing you Shabbat Shalom

安息日好

RE


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