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The Sino-Judaic Institute

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Detailed History of Harbin

By Jonathan Goldstein, Irene Clurman and Dan Ben Canaan

 

Early History
Harbin, China, is located 1500 miles inland in Heilongjiang Province, a region also referred to as Manchuria. The fundamental factor that explains Jewish settlement in Harbin is the city’s status as a railroad hub, constructed in 1898 by Czarist Russia on land leased from China.  It is located at a point on the Sungari, or Songhua, River where the railroad intersects with extensive river traffic.  Jews developed businesses ranging from the export of furs to maritime insurance to the management of hotels.  They exchanged goods and services with their kinsman in European Russia, China, Japan, Korea, and America as well as with ethnic Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and native Siberian peoples. 

 

By the end of the 19th century, Jews in Czarist Russia were desperate to escape the country’s poverty, pogroms and institutionalized anti-Semitism. Visas to America did not grow on trees, and Jews had trouble obtaining permits for any kind of travel, even within Russia. However, in a little known footnote to history, the Czar who plagued and reviled his Jewish subjects also offered them an out.
           

The Russian government in 1895 had leased a land concession from China to build the Chinese Eastern Railway across Manchuria as an extension of the cross-country Trans-Siberian line. Once the tracks were laid, the Czar was so eager to establish Russia’s economic hold along the route that he offered Jews a chance to live without restrictions if they moved to Manchuria. They could chose between small communities in the Manchurian outback or the larger settlement of Harbin, which means “place of drying fish nets” in Chinese. Originally a cluster of sleepy fishing villages at the confluence of the Songhua (known then by its Russian name, Sungari) and Heilong or Amur Rivers, Harbin had become the railroad’s administrative hub and was developing into a thriving frontier town.
           

The Czar’s offer had its drawbacks. Ukrainian Jews from the Pale of Settlement had to summon their courage, pack their possessions, turn their backs on all that was familiar and face several uncomfortable and uneasy weeks on the Trans-Siberian railroad to reach Harbin. Siberian Jews, just across the border from Manchuria, faced a shorter train trip but a similar plunge into the unknown. Harbin winters were bitterly cold, and in spring, gritty dust from Mongolia turned the skies yellow and covered every surface, animal, vegetable and mineral. In the early years, European-style amenities were few and far between, and Jewish institutions were nonexistent.
           

Despite these deterrents, waves of Russian pogroms provided Harbin with a steady supply of Jewish residents. Demobilized Jewish soldiers settled in Harbin at the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, and more Russian refugees, both Jewish and gentile, arrived during and after World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution.
           

Although desperation led many Jews to China, a large number new “Harbiners” also welcomed the opportunity to be pioneers in an uncharted land. The railroad brought prosperity and a need for all types of goods and services. Even better, local Chinese had no tradition of anti-Semitism. Word spread fast in the old countries: a Jew could live in Harbin without fear of persecution -- and make a nice living, too.
           

The railroad-engineering bureau moved to Harbin from Vladivostok in 1898 to begin construction. The first Jew, S.I. Bertsel, arrived in 1899.  Shortly thereafter, the first Harbin “minyan” took place. By 1900, the town had 45 Jews, and by the end of 1902, Harbin had 300 Jews and more than 10 Jewish-owned shops.
           

Although figures vary, the Harbin Jewish population may have topped 20,000 at its peak in the 1920s.  It is known that there were about 13,000 residents in 1931.  The population then began a precipitous decline, especially after the eruption of Sino-Japanese hostilities in 1937.  There were two major synagogues, the Main or “Old” Synagogue and the New Synagogue. The Jewish community also established a library, a Talmud Torah, an elementary and a secondary school, a cemetery, a women’s charitable organization, a soup kitchen, a home for the aged and a Jewish hospital, which treated both Jews and non-Jews.
             

Here Jews enjoyed residential permission plus an array of other economic and political rights unavailable in Czarist Russia. These fundamental rights remained when the Soviet Union acquired the railroad zone and when the Soviets, in turn, sold the zone to Japan in 1936. 

 

Jews were furriers, bankers, bakers, shopkeepers, restaurateurs, teachers and people of letters and the arts. They owned coalmines, lumber mills, breweries and candy factories. The Jewish-owned Hotel Moderne boasted a restaurant, a cinema, a billiard room, a bar and a barbershop. Because of its ornate, European-inspired architecture, Harbin became known as the “Oriental St. Petersburg” and the “Paris of the Orient”.  Its rich cultural life led to the nickname “City of Music.”

In addition to enjoying a “boom town” experience from an economic point of view, Jews helped turn Harbin from a cultural backwater into a sophisticated metropolis.  Between 1918 and 1930, about 20 Jewish newspapers and periodicals were published in Harbin. All but one – the Yiddish Der Vayter Mizrekh (The Far East) - were in Russian. Russian was the lingua franca for Jews and gentiles alike, as well as for their Chinese employees and business associates. Modern Mandarin speakers in Harbin still use a number of Russian loan words, such as lie-ba for bread, from the Russian khleba.
  
        

Twelve Russian-language Jewish periodicals were published in Harbin, including Evreiskaya Zhizn’  (Jewish life) and Gadegel (the Cyrillic rendition of the Hebrew “ha-degel,” literally meaning “the flag” and having specific reference to the blue-and-white Zionist flag).  The very freedoms that allowed those publications to flourish also enabled the left-leaning Yiddish-language newspaper Der Vayter Mizrekh (The Far East), edited by Meir Mendelevich Birman, to appear.

 

In the early twentieth century Moshe Levitin established a Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian publishing company. It brought out the Hebrew and Russian-language tractates of Harbin’s long-serving Rabbi Aharon Moshe Kisilev (1866-1949), who had embraced the pre-Herzlian religious Zionism of Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever while a student at the Volozhin Yeshiva.

 

Kisilev’s secular counterpart was Dr. Abram Yosifovich Kaufman (1886-1971).   Unable to study medicine in Russia because of the quota system, both Kaufman and his wife matriculated in medicine in Switzerland.  Kaufman then became a physician in Admiral Kolchak’s Siberian army.   Kaufman then became Director of Harbin’s Jewish hospital.   It was under the communal leadership of Kisilev and Kaufman that Harbin Jews became overwhelmingly Zionist.

 

The city hosted a variety of political movements ranging from the anti-Zionist Jewish Workers’ Bund of Lazar Epstein to the general Herzlian Zionism of Kaufman to the ultra-religiosity of the non-Zionist Agudat Israel. The Harbin Jewish Women’s Association, linked to the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), was established in 1922. Several Zionist youth organizations were active as well. The largest was Betar, which sponsored sports, scouting and other recreational activities as well as social action. Betar was the Hebrew abbreviation for Union of Trumpeldor, named for Joseph Trumpeldor, a Russian Jewish soldier who, on the way to a prison camp in Japan, passed through Harbin in 1905 and was killed in battle in Palestine in 1920.

Because Harbin was a Russian-speaking community, it also became the East Asian entry point for Vladimir Zev Jabotinsky’s Zionist Revisionist movement.  Most Revisionist literature in the late 1920s was in Russian.   Among the better-known Revisionists from Harbin were Israeli Herut Party leaders Eliahu Lankin and Ya’akov Liberman and the firebrand activist Judith Ben Eliezer, née Hasser.  Arguably the most famous Revisionist family to come from Harbin was that of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (see below).

 

Even Harbin’s two major Jewish sports organizations reflected the community’s ideological richness and diversity:  Maccabi for the General Zionists, and Betar for the Revisionists.  These two groups would occasionally cooperate to combat the virulent anti-Semitism of the openly Fascist White Russian organizations which also thrived in Harbin’s relatively unrestricted political climate. There were shouting matches and occasional scuffles between these groups. 

 

There was also a largely clandestine Communist Party in which some Jews were active, notably Lazar Epstein’s son Israel Epstein, who later becomes a member of the People’s Republic of China’s National People’s Consultative Congress, a largely advisory and ceremonial body.  Approximately fifty Jewish communists from Harbin repatriated to the Soviet Union in the late nineteen twenties and in the period 1945-50.

 

Harbin also had a tiny community of Karaites, who were not formally recognized as Jews in Israel until the mid-twentieth century.  Among the best-known Karaites were the tobacco merchants Eli Aaronovitch (1874-1936) and Abraham Aaronovitch (1877-1953) Lopato, originally from Trakai (Troki), Lithuania.  There were forty-one Karaite graves in Harbin’s Foreign Catholic Union Cemetery before its demolition in the 1950s.

 

In spite of their energy, enthusiasm and organization, Harbin Jews couldn’t avoid the dark clouds coming their way. World War I and the Russian Revolution brought scores of anti-Bolshevik White Russians to Harbin, along with a virulent strain of anti-Semitism. Although anti-Semitism was never institutionalized in Harbin as it was in Russia, bullying of Jews by Russian hooligans became common.
           

The Harbin Russian Fascist Party was established in 1931, the same year the Japanese Army invaded Manchuria. Japanese troops occupied Harbin in 1932, and the city became part of the puppet state of Manchukuo. The Japanese immediately began expropriating private property and terrorizing the civilian population. They recruited spies among the locals and allowed Russian fascists to spearhead anti-Soviet and anti-Jewish campaigns. Foreigners as well as Chinese were kidnapped, tortured and often murdered by the occupying army and its collaborators. Kaufman, who headed the Harbin Jewish community before and during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, was unable to offer ordinary citizens any recourse against these injustices.
           

Many of the incidents were muddied by double-dealing, with the Japanese using Russians gangsters and Chinese bandits as a front. One such case that occurred in 1933 was the kidnapping and murder of Simeon Kaspe, a brilliant young concert pianist and naturalized French citizen. Simeon was the son of Russian-born Joseph Kaspe, who owned the Hotel Moderne as well as a large jewelry store and a chain of theaters. When Joseph Kaspe refused to negotiate with the kidnappers, they sent him his son’s ears. Simeon was tortured for several months and eventually killed, while Japanese authorities ignored both the French consul’s protests and widespread international outrage.
           

Jews began fleeing Harbin and many Harbiners moved south to Shanghai, Tianjin and abroad after the Japanese took Manchuria in the early 1930s.  Inspired in part by its strong Zionist history, many Harbin residents made “aliyah” to Palestine/Israel both before and after World War II.

 

After World War II
By the end of World War II, only about 2,000 Harbin Jews were left to greet the city’s new authorities. The Soviet Army had taken over from the Japanese. Between 1945 and 1947, the Soviets arbitrarily arrested a number of Jews and “repatriated” them to Russian gulags, including Dr. Abram Kaufman and other communal leaders.  Some Jews with Soviet passports repatriated to the Soviet Union immediately after World War Two. 

 

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Harbin became part of the People’s Republic of China.  About 1,000 Jews left for the newly established State of Israel while others went to the United States, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Panama and Japan.  In the case of Israel, Ya’akov Liberman organized a formal seaborne exodus, which he has described in his book My China.  An association of former Jewish residents of China, the Igud Yotsei Sin, headquartered in Tel Aviv, was founded primarily by former Harbiners.  It has branches in all of the aforementioned countries to which Harbin Jews immigrated and includes former residents of other cities in China as well. 

 

By 1955, only 319 Jews were left to maintain community institutions. In 1982, the Harbin Jewish community consisted of one elderly resident, Anna Agre, who kept many of the communal archives under her bed.  She died in 1985.

In recent years, the Chinese government has officially recognized the historic importance of the Harbin Jewish community in an effort to promote tourism and deepen economic ties with other countries, including Israel. Some of the remaining Jewish-built structures sport multilingual historic plaques. Both synagogues have been refurbished. The Main Synagogue is now a “no-star” hotel and guesthouse of the Harbin Railway Department.

 

The New Synagogue houses the Harbin Jewish History and Culture exhibition. It contains exhibits on three Jewish personalities:  Albert Einstein; Harbin’s Israel Epstein; and Jacob Rosenfeld, a Jewish physician with Mao Zedong’s Eight Route Army, who subsequently went to Israel and is buried in Tel Aviv. 
           

About 600 graves from the original Jewish cemetery in central Harbin were moved to an eastern part of the city in 1952. Former Harbiners and their descendents from around the world have visited Huangshan Jewish Cemetery, the largest in East Asia, to pay their respects.

 

Perhaps the most recent expression of Harbin’s Jewish diversity and vitality was the well-publicized, ongoing saga of the Harbin connections of the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.  Olmert’s parents and grandparents reached Harbin from Samara, European Russia, at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.  In the summer of 2004, when he was Israel’s vice premier and trade minister, Ehud Olmert “returned” to China with a delegation of Israeli businessmen.  He and his brother, an agricultural attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing, were much photographed reciting the Jewish prayer for the dead at their grandfather’s tomb.  They set in motion the process of restoring the entire Jewish cemetery.   Their visit inspired a subsequent visit of about one hundred Israelis of Harbin origin in 2005.  This time the former residents held a gala reunion and historical conference their ancestral city. 

 

The Harbin Jewish Research Center was founded in April 2000 by the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences.  The Sino-Israel Research and Study Center, was established in 2002 at the Heilongjiang University, School of Western Studies, in Harbin, China. In 2002, an Israeli, Professor Dan Ben-Canaan, was proclaimed by the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences as the first Jew to settle in Harbin in the 21st century. He teaches in the School of Western Studies of Heilongjiang University and is director of the Sino-Israel Research and Study Center there, which maintains extensive archives on Harbin Jewish history. The center also produces films and articles and disseminates information throughout China and abroad on the subject of the Harbin Jewish community. In 2003 the Sino-Israel Research and Study Center established formal relationship with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for exchanging Doctoral candidates who will conduct their research in Harbin.

 

Also in 2003, the history and culture of the Jews of Harbin was approved as a new branch of science at a provincial level. Its major research areas cover the following aspects: development and use of the relics and sites of Harbin, promoting the process of reform and the opening up of Heilongjiang and attracting foreign funds.

 

Former Harbiners and their descendents have put down roots in the U.S., Israel, Europe, Australia, Canada and other countries. Many of them have maintained a connection with each other across oceans and continents. They also have preserved a deep respect for the Chinese people, who welcomed Jews without prejudice and provided asylum during difficult times.

 

In an expression of the ties that bind former Harbin Jews to their ancestral home, Abram Kaufman’s son Theodor, who is president of both the Tel Aviv-based Association of Former Jewish Residents of China and the Israel-China Friendship Society, and Heilongjinang Academy of Social Sciences Professor Qu Wei, collaborated on a volume appropriately entitled “The Homesick Feeling of the Harbin Jews.”  In a modern Jewish history replete with instances of butchering, pogroms, and Holocaust, the positive ties that bind Harbin Jews to their mother city are distinct and ongoing. 

 

[Adapted from the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora (2009) and the website http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/harbin/index.htm]