Taipei's Jewish community has deep roots

MAKING A HOME: Taiwan has had a small Jewish community since the 1950s. The nation's only rabbi tells of its history and touches on links to the Holocaust

By Cody Yiu  /  STAFF REPORTER

Mon, Feb 14, 2005 - Page 2

As the world watched Holocaust survivors gathered at Auschwitz last month in memory of the 60th anniversary of its liberation, thousands of kilometers away in Taiwan, members of Taipei's small Jewish community still felt the sting of horror that has haunted their families for more than half a century.

The existence of a Jewish community in Taiwan may be little known to locals. However, it has been here since the 1950s, when US troops were stationed in Taiwan.

The current community dates as far back as the mid-1970s, when foreign corporate executives began bringing their families with them to Taiwan while on international assignments.

Dr Ephraim Einhorn, Taiwan's one and only rabbi, has dedicated himself to serving the Jewish community for decades.

Even in Taiwan, it almost seems difficult to come across a Jewish person who cannot tell of a family tragedy that is linked to the Holocaust.

The massacre ended the lives of 6 million Jews, almost one-third of the Jewish population prior to World War II.

The rabbi's granddaughter every year pays homage in Auschwitz to a great-grandparent -- Einhorn's mother -- that she never managed to meet in person.

In addition to his mother, Einhorn's father was killed in Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp outside of Berlin.

Einhorn condemned governments for turning their backs on desperate Jews.

"The world stood by and did nothing. All countries, by and large, shut their doors, [while] people were desperate to get visas to go to other countries," Einhorn said in a low tone, a marked contrast to his normally cheerful demeanor.

But the Austrian-born rabbi also tells the story of Dr Fengshan Ho (何鳳山), a Taiwanese diplomat to Vienna and Germany between 1937 and 1938 who issued 1,200 visas to desperate Jews.

Ho's unwavering sense of righteousness helped rescue thousands of Jews, many of who managed to flee to Shanghai.

`Chinese Schindler'

"Dr Ho was `the Chinese Schindler.' He was honored by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial with the title `Righteous Among the Nations,'" Einhorn said.

Another congregation member, Don Shapiro, who is editor in chief of Topics, a magazine published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, said members of his family who had survived the Holocaust usually kept mum about the pain and sorrow of their past.

But as the number of living survivors able to recount the tragedy is decreasing as years go by, he said, passing on these memories in other ways is crucial.

"In another 10 years, maybe no one [will be] there to directly tell the stories. However, that incident is something that every generation should know," Shapiro said.

synagogue at the Ritz

When Einhorn started his work in Taipei it was at the US Military Chapel. Later, he moved to the President Hotel, which no longer exists.

"And then they built the Landis. Some of the people who used to stay at the President started to move into the Ritz [Landis] Hotel," Einhorn said.

So the rabbi made a proposal to the chairman of the Ritz Hotel Chain, asking if he could move the service over there.

That was some 25 years ago.

Every Friday and Saturday Einhorn performs Sabbath services at this one and only synagogue in Taiwan.

The present-day synagogue, which is complete with a Torah and a Holy Ark, is located in a small room in the Ritz Landis Hotel on Minchuan East Road.

In addition, the rabbi also keeps a private library of Jewish works at the hotel, which he proudly claims is the largest in Asia.

The congregation is diverse.

"The [Jewish] community consists of an unusual community. It consists of three groups: People who live here -- that includes people who have lived here for many years, and people who have lived here for a few years on assignments, [as well as] business people who come here regularly," Einhorn said.

Einhorn, who is in his 80s, is a man of many talents. In addition to his work as a rabbi, he has helped the Taiwanese government achieve ground-breaking work in seeking diplomatic relations with Eastern Europe. He also runs a successful trading company of his own, is an honorary member of the Rotary Club and is chairman of Republicans Abroad Taiwan for the US Republican Party.

For the services, Jewish people from all over the world -- Americans, Canadians, English, Israeli, Brazilian, Costa Ricans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, Moroccans and Germans -- gather in one special room in the five-star hotel .

The makeup of congregants has significantly shifted over the course of time. There were the American GIs, followed by long-term foreign businessmen in manufacturing industries such as textiles, shoes and toys. These businessmen have now been replaced by high-tech professionals.

Diplomatic representatives and expatriates working for multinational corporations may also be found in the congregation.

In addition to Jewish people, Christians as well as Taiwanese who are interested in Israel or Judaism, also turn up at the synagogue.

"It is a wonderful experience to see and hear a Jewish service or to hear someone talk about Judaism," Einhorn said.

A Taiwanese who used to attend the services has since converted and joined Jewish faith, Einhorn said.

Einhorn also told of a local Catholic priest who once brought together leaders of all faiths to sit in on a Jewish service at the hotel.

On High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), a congregation numbering 60 to 100 may be counted on.

The average weekly turnout is about eight to nine people.

Shapiro notes: "It is quite a small room -- 10 [congregants] is our goal. Certain prayers are to take place if at least 10 people are present."

Shapiro has been an active member of Taipei's Jewish community.

Festivals

During the Jewish festivals, such as Hanukkah (Festival of Lights), Passover and Purim, the community comes together to have dinner, sing songs and do readings of the ancient tales, Shapiro said.

Purim, mentioned in the biblical book of Esther, is the day where the Jewish celebrate their ancestors' survival against an attempt to wipe out all Jews in ancient Persia, by a villain called Haman.

"On that day, we read the story of Esther in Hebrew. When the name of the villain is mentioned, we will yell out loud to drown out his name," Shapiro said.

Some Difficulties

While the weekly services offer the Jewish community a place to come together, when it comes to daily living, there can be problems. Getting kosher food in Taiwan, for example, can get a bit tricky.

"The Ritz prepares kosher food. Every Friday, they bake special bread to serve after service. And those [congregants] in particular can also have it sent to their rooms. Of course, they know how to prepare: no meat or shellfish," the rabbi explained.

For meat to be classified as kosher, the animals must be slaughtered in a specific ritual fashion by trained specialists.

"Not everyone keeps kosher," Shapiro said.

For those who do, pork and shellfish are especially off-limits; meat and dairy are to be set apart.

According to Shapiro, a kosher meal is served on double tinfoil instead of on a plate, which may be contaminated by previously having pork served on it.

The Bible designates some animals as unclean, including pigs, rabbits and horses.

When receiving kosher inquiries from people who visit Taiwan, Shapiro sometimes recommends following a Buddhist vegetarian diet.

Hsu Yang-ya (徐央芽), the owner of the YY Steakhouse in Taichung, is one of the few chefs in Taiwan who knows how to prepare kosher food.

The restaurant was very popular among the Jewish community in Taipei until it was relocated to Taichung four years ago.

According to Hsu, his Jewish clientele has dwindled significantly over the years, as many foreign Jewish tradesmen have moved to China to seek business opportunities there.