The Jews Who Fought With Mao

They weren't many, but Jakob Rosenfeld was one of them; China later honored him by putting his picture on a stamp.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Tom Segev

The writer Orit Uziel loves history; five of her 10 novels for children and young people are set in the Spain of yesteryear. "We'll Meet Again" (in Hebrew, 2010 ) tells the story of volunteers from prestate Israel who joined the fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Uziel is on the staff of the music center at Beit Hatfutsot: the Museum of the Jewish People. A few months ago she got talking to two visitors, both Spanish-speakers. Uziel mentioned that her family had originated in Bulgaria, and one of the visitors said he once knew a Jewish doctor from Bulgaria who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and was married to a Chinese woman.

Uziel stood frozen; she suddenly remembered a story her mother used to tell - one of those stories about the wondrous fate of Jews.

One day in 1946, when Uziel's mother was around 18, guests arrived at her parents' home in Pleven, a city around 170 kilometers northeast of Sofia. A man was introduced to her as her mother's cousin, a doctor. He had brought along his wife and son: The wife was Chinese, which was also clear on her son's face.

Orit Uziel, who was born in 1952, knew the story but knew nothing about the Chinese relative. The visitor at Beit Hatfutsot knew the name of the doctor: Ianto Davidov Kaneti. All the rest was cleared up thanks to the Internet.

Uziel tracked down Kaneti's son in Sofia; it turned out he was indeed the boy her mother had seen back in 1946. Today he's a chemistry professor. Once he spent a sabbatical year in Jerusalem and tried in vain to find his relatives. Now everything became clear.

Ianto Kaneti was among the Bulgarian volunteers who helped the Republicans in Spain. In the summer of 1938 he was wounded near the Ebro River, one of the battles that marked the beginning of Franco's victory.

Defeated, some of them wounded, most of the foreign volunteers returned home. Kaneti and a few friends crossed the Pyrenees and reached France, where they were put in wretched internment camps. In 1939, Kaneti was freed with the help of the Red Cross and was granted asylum in Shanghai. There he met Zhang Sunfen, who would later become his wife. She was a graduate of Yenching University. The couple joined the Chinese army in the fight against the Japanese; Kaneti served as a military doctor and supported Mao Zedong.

Not many Jews fought on Mao's side, but Kaneti wasn't the only one - there was also the Viennese-born urologist Jakob Rosenfeld, whose aid to Mao earned him the rank of general and a job as health minister in the Manchurian government. From 1950 until his death two years later, Rosenfeld lived in Tel Aviv and worked at Assouta Medical Center; China honored him by putting his picture on a stamp.

Ianto Kaneti and his wife returned to Bulgaria after World War II. They settled in Pleven, and Kaneti got in touch with his Jewish relatives, the Uziel family. Relations between them were cordial; in 1950 Kaneti helped the Uziels immigrate to Israel.

Both members of the Kaneti couple easily found their places in the Bulgarian communist establishment: Zhang Sunfen worked as a translator at the Chinese Embassy and launched a Chinese school in Sofia. Ianto died in 2004 at 94. The Associated Press cited a Chinese newspaper story on the death of "the last Western volunteer who fought with Mao." A Chinese television channel produced a film about his life.

A paramilitary police officer stands guard in front of a portrait of the late revolutionary leader Mao Zedong in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.Credit: AP



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