This article was published in The Jerusalem
Report on June 21, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.
THE CITY OF HARBIN (population 11 million) is the capital of China’s far
northeastern Heilongjiang Province, close to the Russian border in the area
formerly known as Manchuria. With the end of the long Siberian-like winter,
during which temperatures customarily plunge to minus 35 C (minus 31 F),
Harbin’s central Zhongyang Avenue becomes a busy and festive pedestrian
The street leads to an expansive plaza on the edge of the Songhua
River, still partly iced over in spring. On the plaza, below the elaborate
monument to flood victims of eras past, I saw on a recent evening a most
Oblivious to the throngs of Harbin residents and Russian
tourists munching cotton candy and slabs of pineapple, a number of
young, middle-aged and elderly, were doggedly drawing large Chinese
on the plaza’s paving stones. They were not using chalk and were not
graffiti. They were calligraphers, and they were composing poems. They
brushes, which ranged from standard size to broom-length.
were not dipping their writing utensils into pails of paint or pots of
they were writing solely with water. The writing initially appeared as
black lines of Chinese verse, but within minutes it all faded and
By this time, however, the calligrapher-poets had moved to other parts
plaza to begin again. They never seemed to look back at their pavement
Naturally, this made me think of Jewish
Such a thought was not outlandish. Harbin after all is
of those impossibly remote locations that once had a thriving Jewish
but that is no more. I seem drawn to such off-the-beaten-track places,
depopulated shtetl in Eastern Europe, or an outpost like Oudtshoorn in
Africa’s Little Karoo Desert, or a forgotten village in the Scottish
or a way station on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. These are, to say the
melancholy places, the far-flung discards of the Diaspora, sites where
tried to put down roots, often amid hostility or at best indifference,
eventually disappear – their stories recorded in disappearing ink,
melting ice, or like John Keats’s name, writ in water.
KILOMETERS northeast of Beijing, its jurisdiction including the edge of
Mongolia and its winters so fearsome that the rivers freeze deeply
support auto races, is among the most isolated and most unlikely of
temporary Jewish homes. To many a visitor, Jewish or not, Harbin calls
the phrase “the end of the world.” Originally a fishing village on the
Harbin was chosen by bureaucrats in late 19th-century Russia to be the
hub of a railroad stretching from Moscow to Vladivostok. Its
trains would run a more southerly route than that of the Trans-Siberian
and if this meant Russia essentially annexing a huge chunk of territory
from a far distant Chinese empress, so be it.
The next step, in
to build a modern urban center in Harbin and to populate it with
gangs, railway workers, engineers, architects, doctors, lawyers,
schoolteachers, the whole lot. The city was duly erected, and in a
Russian or European style. Even today, virtually no traditional Chinese
architecture may be seen in Harbin.
Drawn by the new railhead and
area’s vast reserves of timber, gold, diamonds, oil and rich black soil,
settlers flocked to Harbin from Russia, Japan, Poland, Sweden, the US
Among them came Jews, mostly from Czarist lands,
fleeing hostile environments or encouraged by the Russian authorities
presumed business acumen and professional skills. More Russian Jews
Harbin following the turmoil of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. By the
Harbin was home to some 36 ethnic enclaves and included a prominent and
influential Jewish community that numbered nearly 25,000.
lifetime of about two generations, many of Harbin’s Jews prospered to an
astonishing degree. Some merchants became so wealthy they could erect
that rivaled French chateaus. (One reminded me of the Frick mansion, now
Frick Museum, just off of Fifth Avenue in New York City.) Other
built hotels, factories, a race track, office buildings and apartment
notable for opulent, art nouveau elegance.
In 1909 a sizable
was completed (now known as the “Old Synagogue”) and in 1921 an even
seating 800, was built (the “New Synagogue,” and now a museum). A Jewish
covered an entire city block. Nearby were a Jewish hospital, welfare
soup kitchen, music school, the offices of two Jewish newspapers and
Zionist youth movements flourished, as did the
sports organization. Many of the Jewish structures may still be seen
can the refurbished Jewish cemetery. The labels on bottles of Harbin
China’s first modern-era brew, still carry a Star of David.
ENOUGH, THIS OUTpost in a distant corner of China was also home to a
Jews whose names would become known round the world. Some were born and
in Harbin, while others found temporary refuge there from the various
vicissitudes of the 20th century. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud
father Mordechai grew up in Harbin, and the premier’s grandfather Yosef
was buried there in 1941. (Ehud and his older brother Amram, one-time
at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing, visited Harbin more than once.) Yosef
one-time Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and later the first
of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, spent a good part of his youth in
The father of Israeli poet Dahlia Ravikovitch was from Harbin. Helmut
renowned German violinist, lived as a child in the city. Journalist and
Israel Epstein, once a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s inner
an intimate of Mao Zedong, also spent part of his childhood in
Yosef Trumpeldor, who was among the hundreds of Jews who
in the Russo- Japanese War, recuperated from his wounds in Harbin’s
hospital in 1905 before setting off for Palestine and becoming the
of the siege of Tel Hai in Upper Galilee, in 1920. And not least among
native Jewish sons is Baron Robert Skidelsky, biographer of economist
Maynard Keynes and a member of Britain’s House of Lords.
of Jewish Harbin was all writ in water. Although enjoying harmonious
with the local Chinese, Harbin’s Jews were constantly victimized by
were frequently subjected to robbery, extortion, kidnapping and even
first at the hands of bourgeois-hating Bolsheviks and then at the hands
Russian veterans of the Soviet Union’s civil war.
Things were no
after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931; the Japanese did not persecute
Jews but as foreigners, with many suffering confiscation of property,
imprisonment and forced labor. (It was in Harbin’s Ping Fang district
Japanese military in 1935 established its notorious No.
Headquarters for biological warfare research and medical
In some 150 laboratories, thousands of Chinese,
Russians and later some Allied prisoners of war suffered hideous deaths,
Nazi doctors visited and took notes.
Today the headquarters is a
for the strong of stomach.) At the end of World War II, victorious
marched into Harbin and rounded up “enemy elements.” Most of these
Jews and others, were shot to death, while others disappeared into the
Indeed, by 1945 Harbin’s Jewish story was all but over. In
run-up to the world war, many of the city’s Jews fled – to Palestine
Olmert’s parents), to Shanghai, to North and South America, to anywhere.
Apparently the last Jewish family in Harbin, the Podolskys, emigrated to
Israel in the early 1960s. The very last Harbin Jew reportedly died
in an old-age home in the city in 1986.
Today Harbin is an
city. Twenty million Chinese inhabit the greater Harbin district
an urban setting that doesn’t look in the least Chinese. Beijing’s
dash into Marxist-capitalism further confuses the landscape – three
agencies selling Land Rovers and Audis, and Col. Sanders peddling
Chicken on every other street corner.
Yet while Harbin today is
known for its annual ice sculpture festival, numerous Jewish landmarks
city are well preserved, with many bearing informative historical
Such preservation is thanks to the Chinese government,
hopes it might encourage Jewish tourism, to the Association of Former
of China in Israel, headed in Tel Aviv by the octogenarian Harbin native
Kaufman, and to New York attorney and Harbin descendant Paul Kerson, who
presides over the American Friends of the Sino-Israel Research and Study
at the School of Western Studies in Harbin’s Heilongjiang University,
research center is headed by Dr. Dan Ben-Canaan, Harbin’s sole Israeli
(and presumably the city’s only Jew). Born in 1948 on Kibbutz Givat
near Petah Tikva, Prof. Ben-Canaan is married to a member of China’s
Ministry and is essentially the curator of Jewish Harbin. For the past
has been conducting research, publishing books and articles, collecting
artifacts, working to preserve buildings and grave sites, advising the
Jewish museum, organizing symposia and, amid these and other duties,
the unofficial tour guide to the odd Jew – such as your reporter – who
to wander into Harbin.
Ben-Canaan, who holds degrees from the
University of New York and from the American University in Washington,
ebullient when talking about Jewish Harbin.
But this social
he teaches Research and Writing Methodology at Heilongjiang University –
scrupulously dedicated to historical accuracy. In books and monographs,
his scholarly essay “Nostalgia vs.
against any attempt to romanticize the Harbin Jewish experience.
Jews found refuge here,” Ben-Canaan says, “and many of them prospered.
people tend to downplay or forget that the Jews also suffered from the
the plagues, the political uncertainties, the violence and, yes, poverty
well. I’ve videotaped interviews with more than 100 former Harbin Jews.
remembers any bad times.”
Ben-Canaan is also a determined critic
physical manifestations of Jewish Harbin that ring false. He is quick to
out, for example, the Stars of David and other Jewish symbology that the
government placed on the street in front of the Old Synagogue on the
an Ehud Olmert visit. (Sadly, the handsome old building, with abundant
memorabilia and photos on the walls, today serves as a youth hostel,
with a pizzeria out front [today’s special: bacon pizza] and a coffee
sandwiches] round the side.) Similarly, the lobby of the grandly
Modern Hotel where I stayed – built by a Jew in 1909 and now operated by
government concern – has photos and display cases celebrating Harbin in
when Jews provided much of the city’s cultural and social life.
the artifacts of Harbin’s early 20th century café society and musicales
like, Ben-Canaan is quick to point out a seder plate (labeled
plate) that is nothing other than one of those enameled and gold-rimmed
mass produced in the 1950s and 1960s in Israel strictly for the tourist
A certain element of ersatz history is also found in
Jewish cemetery. First of all, the cemetery, established in 1902, is no
in its original location, which today is the site of the city’s
Along with other graveyards (Chinese, Russian Orthodox, Protestant,
Jewish cemetery was relocated to a distant suburb in 1958 by local
for “reasons of sanitation.” All of these cemeteries are now immediately
adjacent to each other, surrounded by vast corn fields and reached via a
driveway guarded by statues of lions, rams, elephants and mythical
the Chinese style; the Chinese section for cremated remains, by far the
features a handsome structure in which burnt offerings to ancestors are
the Russian graveyard has a special plot for Soviet troops who
fighting the Japanese in World War II (Ben-Canaan doubts any troops
under these tombstones).
According to Ben-Canaan, fewer than 700
original Jewish cemetery’s 3,500 Jewish dead were reinterred here.
tombstones disappeared (Ben-Canaan theorizes they were pinched by local
for building materials), and the stones one sees today are a mix of old
One monument, erected by Ehud Olmert, unaccountably incorporates part of
Masonic symbol with its Star of David (it was apparently copied by a
artisan from some other grave). “In fact,” says Ben-Canaan,” I’m pretty
certain many of these graves are empty.”
Also on the
grounds is a near-full-scale reproduction of Harbin’s Old Synagogue.
Chinese,” sighs Ben-Canaan, “somehow got the impression that a Jewish
is supposed to contain a synagogue.”
Never used for religious
the building currently functions as an elaborate garden shed for the
groundskeepers. In all, although the Jewish cemetery is nicely
landscaped, the place strikes this visitor as a source of more than
sadness and melancholy.
RETURNING TO THE CITY, BEN-CANAAN POINTS
of the villas built by Harbin’s Jewish millionaires, this one turned
into a Mao
Zedong Museum, that one a rest home for Communist Party bigwigs. We walk
the huge former Jewish school, and nearby Ben-Canaan shows me the former
hospital, welfare agency, pharmacy, bank, watchmaker shop, insurance
cinema, restaurant, on and on. Nearby courtyards conceal modest and
apartments that oddly recall Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox Me’a She’arim
neighborhood. But the main thoroughfares boast gorgeously designed and
buildings that would not be out of place in Prague or Paris. Once again
staggered by the footprints of a Jewish community that suddenly thrived
as suddenly evaporated.
Now it’s time for the museum, currently
the former New Synagogue. The Museum of the History and Culture of
(admission 25 yuan, about $3.50) is at 162 Jingwei Street, just off
central pedestrian mall and a block from the Holiday Inn. The exhibition
the largest synagogue, or former synagogue, in China and, following its
renovation in 2004 by the municipality, the edifice remains a handsome
well-maintained affair with a soaring dome and colonnade. Its three
exhibits are well presented.
But although Ben-Canaan participated
planning and cataloging and says he supplied about 80 percent of the
photographs, he has his quibbles. One, he says, is an overemphasis on
movement at the expense of Hashomer Hatzair, which he attributes to the
influence of the Olmert family and of Teddy Kaufman of the
in Israel (such political carping is characteristically Israeli).
complaint is the repeated theme of Harbin as a glorious welcoming refuge
Jews, which the historian attributes to the Chinese Communist Party.
understand,” he mutters, “everything here is done for propaganda
Everything in China is political.”
Still, the exhibits are
the reconstruction of Jewish cemetery plots, complete with what appear
real birch trees, to the recreations of Jewish households in Harbin’s
the pure-white mannequins in these tableaus – a businessman at his desk,
mother and child at a piano lesson, children playing with blocks – are
and spooky and serve to reinforce the melancholy I can’t shake in
only other museum patrons who appear during my visit are two Chinese
who are touring the city and “just happened to wander in.”
I finish the day with a visit to his Sino-Israel Research and Study
Harbin’s Heilongjiang University. The university is a virtual city
city, with 70,000 students and about half that number again in faculty,
and service personnel. Begun in the 1940s, the campus was built in the
Stalinesque style of the university that perches up in the Moscow Hills.
Heilongjiang University does have some sparkling new buildings, but the
avenues of rather shabby student housing blocs are depressing.
offices are on the fifth floor of a nine-story Soviet-style building
elevator and with the Office of Party Discipline just down the hall.
university department has one,” Ben-Canaan says in reply to my query.
his office, Ben-Canaan introduces me to several of his students and
assistants, who among other things handle inquiries from Jews around the
seeking information about possible Harbin connections. He also discusses
Harbin projects he is carrying out with scholars in Toronto and
the colloquia he sponsored with scholars from Bar-Ilan University and
University. Lastly, Ben-Canaan shows me samples of the correspondence
documentation he constantly receives in the mail.
says with weary happiness, “in the US, in Australia, in Israel, are
coming up with old diaries and letters and memoirs written by relatives
lived in Harbin. They’re in Yiddish or Russian or some other language.
don’t know what to do with them. But fortunately they’ve learned to send
me. I think they’re absolute treasures.
“The documentation grows.
facts get filled in. The history gets written.”
The history of a
short-lived, far-flung Jewish community – writ in water.