October 25, 2010
It was while he was studying Josephus – the ancient Jewish historian who wrote about the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE – that the Chinese academic decided to devote his career to Jewish studies.
Now the head of the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, Song visited Israel earlier this month to learn about the biggest tragedy of the Jewish people in the modern era, the Holocaust. He was part of a group of 20 compatriots who took part in the first seminar for Chinese educators on the subject at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies that ended last Monday.
“Holocaust studies are important for every culture,” said Song in an interview at Yad Vashem’s cafeteria, where he and the Chinese delegation stood out even among the international crowd of visitors at Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial museum. “It’s a lesson we must all learn. In China most people have heard about the Holocaust, but I think it would be beneficial if they knew more. Personally, I’m interested in human perceptions of God in light of the Holocaust, but that may not be debated in this program.”
The two-week seminar was sponsored by the Adelson Family Charitable Foundation.
It’s aim is to provide information to educators from the Chinese mainland, and from the Chinese territories of Macau and Hong Kong, about the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II, so that they might pass it on to their students.
“We want to widen the circle of knowledge about the Holocaust in the world,” said Dorit Novak, Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies. “We started with Europe but in recent years there’s been an interest from countries further away, like China. Theirs was a very impressive group of intellectuals and their level of interest in the subject was outstanding.”
China experienced its own national trauma during World War II. In the 1930s and 1940s, millions of Chinese were killed during the brutal occupation of large swaths of the country by Japan, then an ally of Nazi Germany.
Beijing University’s Zhong Zhiqing, who lived in Israel for a decade and has a PHD in Hebrew Literature, said drawing parallels between the two wasn’t constructive. “Historically, the traumas are different and unique,” she said.
“What I can compare is national reactions, how this trauma was used in the context of nation-building.
Ziqing, who translated Israeli author Amos Oz’s Tale of Love and Darkness into Mandarin, said the decision to become an expert on Hebrew was not her own.
When Israel and China established diplomatic ties in 1992, her country needed Hebrew speakers and she was chosen by authorities to study the language. Asked whether she would pick Hebrew if she could choose again, the translator was hesitant.
“From an academic point of view I am happy with my choice, but if I had to choose, then maybe I would pick an easier language,” she said.
During their stay in Israel, participants got to know the country better by travelling to Tel Aviv, Masada and north.
“I love humus,” Martin Chung, a translator from Hong Kong who participated in the program, said. “Before I came, I had an image of Jerusalem’s Old City, I thought Israel would be like that. But it’s more modern.”
Novak said the seminar was a great success and that she hoped a new one will open next year. “I feel like what we’ve done with this seminar is cast a pebble into a pond, and that the ripples of what we’ve taught, the lesson of the Holocaust, will spread throughout China,” she said.