Returning to a Chinese Refuge, And Recalling Its Rich History

By Jonathan Goldstein

Published September 24, 2004, issue of September 24, 2004.
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HARBIN, China — A near-forgotten cycle of Asian Jewish history was brought to a close September 2, when Tel Aviv businessman Teddy Kaufman came to Huangshan Cemetery, in the Chinese city of Harbin, and recited a memorial Kaddish prayer at the grave of his boyhood teacher, Rabbi Aharon Kisilev.

Kisilev died in 1949 after serving for nearly four decades as chief rabbi of what was once China’s second-largest Jewish community. But Kaufman’s trip was more than just a graveside visit; Kaufman is president of the Israel-China Friendship Society and is a onetime Harbin resident, and he was here for a four-day seminar on the history of the Jews of Harbin, sponsored by the local authorities with the help of the Chinese government. A delegation of more than 100 former residents, their children, grandchildren and scholars of Chinese and Jewish history from Israel, Australia, England, America and China accompanied him.

Some of the guests, such as Freddy Heyman, former general manager of Israel Railways, had not visited their parents’ graves since leaving China a half-century ago, following the 1949 communist revolution. Others never left China. Israel Epstein, a Beijing-based journalist, returned to his childhood home in a government limousine, in his capacity as a member of the National People’s Political Consultative Congress, China’s toothless parliament. Chinese policemen snapped to a smart salute when Epstein’s red-flagged vehicle and police escort sped by.

Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province in the chilly Manchurian region of northeast China, is an industrial metropolis of some 3 million, 570 miles northeast of Beijing and 300 miles west of the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok. Tucked in between Mongolia to the west, Siberia to the east and north, and North Korea to the south, it was a sleepy village in an isolated region until the Chinese Eastern Railway came here in 1898 and turned it into a boomtown.

The Harbin Jewish settlement, like the better-known Jewish community of Shanghai far to the south, began when Russian Jews started fleeing eastward to escape pogroms and persecution at the turn of the 20th century. Local records show that the first Jewish settler came in 1899; by 1908, the community had grown to some 8,000. A religious school was opened in 1907, a grand synagogue in 1909. A high school, hospital and cemetery soon followed. Kisilev, a Russian Torah scholar, was named chief rabbi in 1913.

During and after World War I, the Harbin community played an active role in mobilizing aid to pogrom victims in Russia and Poland, occasionally coming into conflict with Russia’s communist regime. The Jewish community grew to some 15,000 by the mid-1930s, and the city, occupied since 1931 by Japan, became a center of Jewish publishing, theater and politics, mostly in Russian.

At the historical seminar, held in downtown Harbin’s Shangrila Hotel and organized by the Harbin Jews’ Research Center at the provincial Academy of Social Sciences, participants rose one after another to tell horrific tales of their families’ lives outside this city of refuge. Lily Klebanoff described her uncle’s return to Leningrad in 1936 to study music. He was promptly arrested and shot by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, on a trumped-up charge of heading a Harbin-based spy ring. Many of Mara Moustafine’s returning relatives suffered a similar fate at the hands of the NKVD, on suspicion of being Japanese agents. Frankfurt-born Ze’ev Rubinson and his family fled the horrors of Hitler’s Germany, only to wind up in limbo in the coastal city of Port Arthur, then under Japanese control. Teddy Kaufmann’s father, director of the Harbin Jewish Hospital, intervened and found sanctuary for the Rubinsons in Harbin.

Returnees recalled a vibrant cultural life. Ex-Harbin violinist Peter Berton delivered a paper on “Contributions of Jews to the Musical and Cultural Life in Harbin in the 1930s and early 1940s,” describing his ensemble’s regional tour of Korea and Japan. Epstein, the parliament member, remembered a 1936 concert by the visiting Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin. Epstein’s businessman/journalist father wrote for the city’s Yiddish newspaper, Der Vayter Mizrekh (The Far East). There also were more than a dozen Russian-language Jewish periodicals and a Hebrew-language publishing house.

Sitting in the shadow of Stalin’s regime, Harbin became an international center of Russian-language Zionist activity in the 1930s. A stronghold of anticommunist sentiment, it produced a number of leading figures in what would become Israel’s Likud party. One was Mordecai Olmert, an ally of Likud founder Menachem Begin and the father of Israel’s current deputy prime minister. Another was Yaakov Liberman, onetime Begin chief of staff, who attended the seminar and publicly thanked the Chinese people for giving European Jews a haven from Stalin and Hitler. Liberman’s handshake with Epstein, the Beijing lawmaker, was captured on film and became a symbol of the delegation’s historic mood of reconciliation.

Most of Harbin’s Jews left in 1950 and 1951, fleeing the communist revolution for America, Australia and Israel. For a half-century afterward the communist authorities ignored this energetic constituency, until the entrepreneurial leadership of post-Mao China embraced it. Qu Wei, president of the social science academy, promised participants “a world-class research center on the lives of the Harbin Jews” and an exhibition that “we will send to Israel, Australia, U.S.A., England and Germany.” Pan Chun Liang, the provincial vice minister of public relations, praised the “history of cooperation between Chinese and Jews in Harbin.” He cited the province’s efforts to maintain Harbin’s Jewish cemetery, with more than 600 graves, as “the biggest and best-protected” in East Asia. The provincial vice governor announced that Harbin’s monumental synagogue is undergoing major restoration and that “we have great potential for developing tourist resources.” Israel’s ambassador to China, Yehodaya Haim, responded that “Harbin is a city we love and admire because of their attitude toward us Jews.”

As the ex-Harbiners filed out of the Jewish cemetery, many were preparing for their imminent El Al flight back to Tel Aviv. Epstein, who had just celebrated his 89th birthday, observed that “in the one country in which there was no persecution of Jews, there is a new birth of friendship, which corresponds with the lives of many of the people here today.” He predicted that this friendship “will have a fine future.”

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