The Jews of Harbin
Russian Jews in the City of Ice
In honor of the Blizzard of 2015, we dedicate this issue of the China Orientations Newsletter to the Jews of Harbin, China's "City of Ice."
Russian Jews built Harbin's first modern hotels, banks and shops, as well as synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. The Hotel Moderne, which celebrates its 110th anniversary in 2016, was described as a "glittering showcase, lined with expensive shops and fancy eateries." Founded by the Russian Jew Iosif Kaspe, it boasted a theatre which could seat 700 and was the focal point of Russian social life for decades.
While Harbin is famous for its annual Ice Sculpture Festival, few know that it was once also home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Far East. Located in present day Heilongjiang Province along the Sungari River, Harbin became a multi-ethnic transportation hub once the Russians commenced construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway in 1898.
Between the time the first Russian Jew, S.I. Bertsel, arrived in 1899, and the last Jew, Hanna Agre, died in 1985, it is estimated that over 20,000 Jews spent all or part of their lives in Harbin.
At the turn of the century, Harbin was an international metropolis with scores of Russian immigrants. Jews escaping Russian pogroms and civil wars came to Harbin to build the Chinese Eastern Railway. Demobilized Jewish soldiers settled in Harbin at the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and again after World War I. They were soon followed by over 100,000 White Russians who fled the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. For the Jews, Russian Manchuria was the land of opportunity, free of restrictions on where they could live or quotas limiting their enrollment in schools.
Between 1918 and 1930, over 20 Jewish newspapers and periodicals were published in Harbin. All but one -- the Yiddish Der Vayter Mizrekh (The Far East) -- were in Russian. During the 1920s and 1930s, renowned Jewish artists and performers, including the young German refugee and violinist Helmut Stern, came to the city and promoted the spread of Western music in China. Harbin was soon renamed "the City of Music."
Most of the elegant old Western-styled buildings built by the Jews have been well-preserved. Former Jewish schools, streets, houses and synagogues have been renovated, and the largest Jewish cemetery in the Far East, with over 600 gravestones still bearing Hebrew inscriptions, has been kept intact.
Among the Jews who once called Harbin home were the writer and translator Boris Bresler; Abraham Kaufman, Medical Director of Harbin's Jewish Hospital and President of its Hebrew Association; Teddy Kaufman, former Chairman of Igud Yotzei Sin (the Association of Former Residents of China in Israel); and Rabbi Aharon Kisilev, who came to Harbin in 1913 and continued to serve Harbin's Jewish community as its Chief Rabbi until his death in 1949 at the age of 83.
The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo led to a mass Russian and Jewish exodus southward to the cities of Tianjin and Shanghai. By the end of the war only 2,000 Jews remained, and within the next decade, they, too, left for Israel and elsewhere.
Recently the Harbin government allocated over $13 million to restore the Old Synagogue, with the goal of attracting more tourists to the city. In 2004 the New Synagogue was renovated and transformed into a Museum of the Jewish History and Culture of Harbin.
In June 2014 the Old Synagogue, originally built in 1909, was reopened with the help of Israeli scholar Dan Ben-Canaan, who was officially appointed advisor to the project by the Chinese government. Ben-Canaan has lived in Harbin for the last decade and is Director of the Sino-Israel Research and Study Center at Heilongjiang University.
He is now the only Jew living in Harbin.
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CHINESE JEWISH TRIVIA QUIZ
Which well-known Israeli politician's grandfather is buried in Harbin?
(Answer appears at the end of this newsletter.)
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Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, former rabbi of the Jewish community of Japan, and co-author of The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story About the Japanese and the Jews During World War II, will lead a kosher tour to Siberia, Manchuria and China June 13-25, 2015. For those who like to daven and dine, Tokayer's tours are a must.
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Beil, Dolly. Growing Up Jewish in China. BPS Books, 2012.
Bowman, Zvia. "Unwilling Collaborators: The Jewish Community of Harbin under the Japanese Occupation, 1931-1945," in Roman Malik, ed. From Kaifeng ... to Shanghai: Jews in China. Monument Serica Monograph Series 46. Nettetal, Germany: Stealer Verlag, 2000.
Bresler, Boris. "Harbin's Jewish Community, 1898-1958: Politics, Prosperity and Adversity," in Jonathan Goldstein, ed., The Jews of China: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1999: 200-215.
Lieberman, Yaakov. My China: Jewish Life in the Orient, 1900-1950. Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 1998.
Qu, Wei. The Jews in Harbin. Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2006.
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TRIVIA QUIZ ANSWER
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
J.J. Olmert went to Harbin in 1919 shortly after World War I. When he died in 1941 he was buried in the Huangshan Jewish Cemetery in an eastern suburb of Harbin. J.J.'s son Mordechai became one of the founders of Betar, the Revisionist Zionist Youth Organization, before making Aliyah to Palestine in the early 1930s. According to Former Prime Minister Olmert, when his father died in 1998 at close to 90, his last words were in Chinese.
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Schedule a talk on the Jews of China today!