Write in Water

Harbin, China, is another of those impossibly remote locations that once had a thriving Jewish community, but that is no more.

Harbin - Chinese man writing 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harbin - Chinese man writing 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 mall.
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 stirring sight.
Oblivious to the throngs of Harbin residents and Russian tourists munching cotton candy and slabs of pineapple, a number of people, young, middle-aged and elderly, were doggedly drawing large Chinese characters on the plaza’s paving stones. They were not using chalk and were not scrawling graffiti. They were calligraphers, and they were composing poems. They used brushes, which ranged from standard size to broom-length.
The artists were not dipping their writing utensils into pails of paint or pots of ink. No, they were writing solely with water. The writing initially appeared as bold black lines of Chinese verse, but within minutes it all faded and disappeared. By this time, however, the calligrapher-poets had moved to other parts of the plaza to begin again. They never seemed to look back at their pavement compositions.
Naturally, this made me think of Jewish history.
Such a thought was not outlandish. Harbin after all is another of those impossibly remote locations that once had a thriving Jewish community, but that is no more. I seem drawn to such off-the-beaten-track places, whether a depopulated shtetl in Eastern Europe, or an outpost like Oudtshoorn in South Africa’s Little Karoo Desert, or a forgotten village in the Scottish Highlands or a way station on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. These are, to say the least, melancholy places, the far-flung discards of the Diaspora, sites where Jews tried to put down roots, often amid hostility or at best indifference, only to eventually disappear – their stories recorded in disappearing ink, inscribed on melting ice, or like John Keats’s name, writ in water.
HARBIN, 1,000 KILOMETERS northeast of Beijing, its jurisdiction including the edge of Outer Mongolia and its winters so fearsome that the rivers freeze deeply enough to support auto races, is among the most isolated and most unlikely of these temporary Jewish homes. To many a visitor, Jewish or not, Harbin calls to mind the phrase “the end of the world.” Originally a fishing village on the Songhua, 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 Railway, and if this meant Russia essentially annexing a huge chunk of territory away from a far distant Chinese empress, so be it.
The next step, in 1898, was to build a modern urban center in Harbin and to populate it with construction gangs, railway workers, engineers, architects, doctors, lawyers, merchants, schoolteachers, the whole lot. The city was duly erected, and in a completely Russian or European style. Even today, virtually no traditional Chinese architecture may be seen in Harbin.
Drawn by the new railhead and by the area’s vast reserves of timber, gold, diamonds, oil and rich black soil, settlers flocked to Harbin from Russia, Japan, Poland, Sweden, the US and elsewhere.
Among them came Jews, mostly from Czarist lands, either fleeing hostile environments or encouraged by the Russian authorities for their presumed business acumen and professional skills. More Russian Jews arrived in Harbin following the turmoil of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. By the mid-1920s Harbin was home to some 36 ethnic enclaves and included a prominent and influential Jewish community that numbered nearly 25,000.
In its brief lifetime of about two generations, many of Harbin’s Jews prospered to an astonishing degree. Some merchants became so wealthy they could erect villas that rivaled French chateaus. (One reminded me of the Frick mansion, now the Frick Museum, just off of Fifth Avenue in New York City.) Other businessmen built hotels, factories, a race track, office buildings and apartment houses notable for opulent, art nouveau elegance.
In 1909 a sizable synagogue was completed (now known as the “Old Synagogue”) and in 1921 an even larger one, seating 800, was built (the “New Synagogue,” and now a museum). A Jewish school covered an entire city block. Nearby were a Jewish hospital, welfare office, soup kitchen, music school, the offices of two Jewish newspapers and other institutions.
Zionist youth movements flourished, as did the Maccabi sports organization. Many of the Jewish structures may still be seen today, as can the refurbished Jewish cemetery. The labels on bottles of Harbin Beer, China’s first modern-era brew, still carry a Star of David.
INCREDIBLY ENOUGH, THIS OUTpost in a distant corner of China was also home to a number of Jews whose names would become known round the world. Some were born and raised in Harbin, while others found temporary refuge there from the various vicissitudes of the 20th century. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s father Mordechai grew up in Harbin, and the premier’s grandfather Yosef died and was buried there in 1941. (Ehud and his older brother Amram, one-time counselor at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing, visited Harbin more than once.) Yosef Tekoah, one-time Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and later the first chancellor of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, spent a good part of his youth in Harbin. The father of Israeli poet Dahlia Ravikovitch was from Harbin. Helmut Stern, a renowned German violinist, lived as a child in the city. Journalist and author Israel Epstein, once a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s inner circle and an intimate of Mao Zedong, also spent part of his childhood in Harbin.
Yosef Trumpeldor, who was among the hundreds of Jews who served in the Russo- Japanese War, recuperated from his wounds in Harbin’s Jewish hospital in 1905 before setting off for Palestine and becoming the tragic hero of the siege of Tel Hai in Upper Galilee, in 1920. And not least among Harbin’s native Jewish sons is Baron Robert Skidelsky, biographer of economist John Maynard Keynes and a member of Britain’s House of Lords.
But the history of Jewish Harbin was all writ in water. Although enjoying harmonious relations with the local Chinese, Harbin’s Jews were constantly victimized by others. They were frequently subjected to robbery, extortion, kidnapping and even murder, first at the hands of bourgeois-hating Bolsheviks and then at the hands of White Russian veterans of the Soviet Union’s civil war.
Things were no better after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931; the Japanese did not persecute Jews as Jews but as foreigners, with many suffering confiscation of property, expulsion, imprisonment and forced labor. (It was in Harbin’s Ping Fang district that the Japanese military in 1935 established its notorious No.
731 Army Force Headquarters for biological warfare research and medical experimentation.
In some 150 laboratories, thousands of Chinese, Koreans, Russians and later some Allied prisoners of war suffered hideous deaths, and Nazi doctors visited and took notes.
Today the headquarters is a museum for the strong of stomach.) At the end of World War II, victorious Soviet troops marched into Harbin and rounded up “enemy elements.” Most of these Russians, Jews and others, were shot to death, while others disappeared into the Siberian Gulag.
Indeed, by 1945 Harbin’s Jewish story was all but over. In the run-up to the world war, many of the city’s Jews fled – to Palestine (like Ehud 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 anomalous city. Twenty million Chinese inhabit the greater Harbin district centered around an urban setting that doesn’t look in the least Chinese. Beijing’s current mad dash into Marxist-capitalism further confuses the landscape – three Wal-Marts, agencies selling Land Rovers and Audis, and Col. Sanders peddling Kentucky Fried Chicken on every other street corner.
Yet while Harbin today is best known for its annual ice sculpture festival, numerous Jewish landmarks in the city are well preserved, with many bearing informative historical plaques.
Such preservation is thanks to the Chinese government, which hopes it might encourage Jewish tourism, to the Association of Former Residents of China in Israel, headed in Tel Aviv by the octogenarian Harbin native Teddy Kaufman, and to New York attorney and Harbin descendant Paul Kerson, who presides over the American Friends of the Sino-Israel Research and Study Center at the School of Western Studies in Harbin’s Heilongjiang University, That research center is headed by Dr. Dan Ben-Canaan, Harbin’s sole Israeli resident (and presumably the city’s only Jew). Born in 1948 on Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, near Petah Tikva, Prof. Ben-Canaan is married to a member of China’s Foreign Ministry and is essentially the curator of Jewish Harbin. For the past decade he has been conducting research, publishing books and articles, collecting artifacts, working to preserve buildings and grave sites, advising the city’s Jewish museum, organizing symposia and, amid these and other duties, serving as the unofficial tour guide to the odd Jew – such as your reporter – who happens to wander into Harbin.
Ben-Canaan, who holds degrees from the City University of New York and from the American University in Washington, D.C., is ebullient when talking about Jewish Harbin.
But this social scientist – he teaches Research and Writing Methodology at Heilongjiang University – is also scrupulously dedicated to historical accuracy. In books and monographs, such as his scholarly essay “Nostalgia vs.
Historical Reality,” Ben-Canaan argues against any attempt to romanticize the Harbin Jewish experience.
“Yes, Jews found refuge here,” Ben-Canaan says, “and many of them prospered. But people tend to downplay or forget that the Jews also suffered from the floods, the plagues, the political uncertainties, the violence and, yes, poverty as well. I’ve videotaped interviews with more than 100 former Harbin Jews. No one remembers any bad times.”
Ben-Canaan is also a determined critic of any physical manifestations of Jewish Harbin that ring false. He is quick to point out, for example, the Stars of David and other Jewish symbology that the local government placed on the street in front of the Old Synagogue on the occasion of an Ehud Olmert visit. (Sadly, the handsome old building, with abundant Jewish memorabilia and photos on the walls, today serves as a youth hostel, complete with a pizzeria out front [today’s special: bacon pizza] and a coffee bar [ham sandwiches] round the side.) Similarly, the lobby of the grandly refurbished Modern Hotel where I stayed – built by a Jew in 1909 and now operated by a government concern – has photos and display cases celebrating Harbin in the days when Jews provided much of the city’s cultural and social life.
But amid the artifacts of Harbin’s early 20th century café society and musicales and the like, Ben-Canaan is quick to point out a seder plate (labeled “sacrificial” plate) that is nothing other than one of those enameled and gold-rimmed items mass produced in the 1950s and 1960s in Israel strictly for the tourist trade.
A certain element of ersatz history is also found in Harbin’s Jewish cemetery. First of all, the cemetery, established in 1902, is no longer in its original location, which today is the site of the city’s fairgrounds. Along with other graveyards (Chinese, Russian Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim), the Jewish cemetery was relocated to a distant suburb in 1958 by local authorities for “reasons of sanitation.” All of these cemeteries are now immediately adjacent to each other, surrounded by vast corn fields and reached via a long driveway guarded by statues of lions, rams, elephants and mythical creatures in the Chinese style; the Chinese section for cremated remains, by far the largest, features a handsome structure in which burnt offerings to ancestors are made; the Russian graveyard has a special plot for Soviet troops who supposedly died fighting the Japanese in World War II (Ben-Canaan doubts any troops actually lie under these tombstones).
According to Ben-Canaan, fewer than 700 of the original Jewish cemetery’s 3,500 Jewish dead were reinterred here. Numerous tombstones disappeared (Ben-Canaan theorizes they were pinched by local farmers for building materials), and the stones one sees today are a mix of old and new. One monument, erected by Ehud Olmert, unaccountably incorporates part of a Masonic symbol with its Star of David (it was apparently copied by a Chinese 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. “The Chinese,” sighs Ben-Canaan, “somehow got the impression that a Jewish cemetery is supposed to contain a synagogue.”
Never used for religious purposes, the building currently functions as an elaborate garden shed for the cemetery’s groundskeepers. In all, although the Jewish cemetery is nicely maintained and landscaped, the place strikes this visitor as a source of more than usual sadness and melancholy.
RETURNING TO THE CITY, BEN-CANAAN POINTS OUT some 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 around the huge former Jewish school, and nearby Ben-Canaan shows me the former Jewish hospital, welfare agency, pharmacy, bank, watchmaker shop, insurance office, cinema, restaurant, on and on. Nearby courtyards conceal modest and sunless apartments that oddly recall Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox Me’a She’arim neighborhood. But the main thoroughfares boast gorgeously designed and decorated buildings that would not be out of place in Prague or Paris. Once again I’m staggered by the footprints of a Jewish community that suddenly thrived and just as suddenly evaporated.
Now it’s time for the museum, currently housed in the former New Synagogue. The Museum of the History and Culture of Harbin Jews (admission 25 yuan, about $3.50) is at 162 Jingwei Street, just off Harbin’s central pedestrian mall and a block from the Holiday Inn. The exhibition is in the largest synagogue, or former synagogue, in China and, following its renovation in 2004 by the municipality, the edifice remains a handsome and well-maintained affair with a soaring dome and colonnade. Its three floors of exhibits are well presented.
But although Ben-Canaan participated in the planning and cataloging and says he supplied about 80 percent of the museum’s photographs, he has his quibbles. One, he says, is an overemphasis on the Betar movement at the expense of Hashomer Hatzair, which he attributes to the influence of the Olmert family and of Teddy Kaufman of the Landsmannschaft group in Israel (such political carping is characteristically Israeli). Another complaint is the repeated theme of Harbin as a glorious welcoming refuge for Jews, which the historian attributes to the Chinese Communist Party. “You must understand,” he mutters, “everything here is done for propaganda purposes. Everything in China is political.”
Still, the exhibits are lavish, from the reconstruction of Jewish cemetery plots, complete with what appear to be real birch trees, to the recreations of Jewish households in Harbin’s past. Yet the pure-white mannequins in these tableaus – a businessman at his desk, a mother and child at a piano lesson, children playing with blocks – are spectral and spooky and serve to reinforce the melancholy I can’t shake in Harbin. The only other museum patrons who appear during my visit are two Chinese teenagers who are touring the city and “just happened to wander in.”
Ben-Canaan and I finish the day with a visit to his Sino-Israel Research and Study Center at Harbin’s Heilongjiang University. The university is a virtual city within a city, with 70,000 students and about half that number again in faculty, staff 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 endless avenues of rather shabby student housing blocs are depressing. Ben-Canaan’s offices are on the fifth floor of a nine-story Soviet-style building with no elevator and with the Office of Party Discipline just down the hall. “Every university department has one,” Ben-Canaan says in reply to my query.
In his office, Ben-Canaan introduces me to several of his students and research assistants, who among other things handle inquiries from Jews around the world seeking information about possible Harbin connections. He also discusses Jewish Harbin projects he is carrying out with scholars in Toronto and Heidelberg and the colloquia he sponsored with scholars from Bar-Ilan University and the Hebrew University. Lastly, Ben-Canaan shows me samples of the correspondence and documentation he constantly receives in the mail.
“People everywhere,” he says with weary happiness, “in the US, in Australia, in Israel, are forever coming up with old diaries and letters and memoirs written by relatives who lived in Harbin. They’re in Yiddish or Russian or some other language. People don’t know what to do with them. But fortunately they’ve learned to send them to me. I think they’re absolute treasures.
“The documentation grows. The facts get filled in. The history gets written.”
The history of a short-lived, far-flung Jewish community – writ in water.