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China's Harbin Harbors Jewish Memories

October 12, 2005 By:
Ben G. Frank, JE Feature
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The Harbin Jews Research Center advertises its exhibit - in four languages

China - the Middle Kingdom, the heavenly land, the sweeping plains, the rice fields in the spring, the glorious mountains and the wild, cruel rivers. Add to that 1.3 billion people, an economy growing at almost 10 percent a year (as well as a challenge to U.S. global hegemony), and you know that when you visit this People's Republic, you're not only visiting an historic tourist destination but a major power.

Touring China 20 years ago meant the usual views from an old-fashioned hotel room: rickety, crowded buses; bicycles by the thousands; people dressed in dark-grey Mao jackets and caps with the familiar Red Star. No longer. Available today is Western food, Western dress and Western conveniences.

The 21st-century tourist comes home telling everyone that China is booming economically, amazed at such a burst of wealth. For it seems that the whole country is under construction.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Harbin, in Northeast China. Look out of your room window at the five-star hotel the Shangri-La, and you can count 16 huge construction cranes all within a span of a gaze.

No more do salespeople sit behind the counters eating bowls of soup while impatient tourists seek their services. Today, salespeople rush up to customers, greet them and ask them, "Can we help you?"

And, yes, they even speak English.

But for the Jewish traveler, there is a good reason to visit Harbin. This industrial-based city was a haven for Jewish refugees from Russia during the time of the czar, after the Russian Revolution, after the Nazi take-over of Germany, and during and after World War II.

At one time, some 30,000 Jews lived in this city on the Sangari River. Many left when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, and the next year created the puppet-state of Manchukuo. More Jews fled after World War II and the Communist Revolution. By the late 1980s, not a single Jew remained.

What has brought the attention of the Jewish world back to this city (whose former Jewish residents are called "Harbintsi," and who are scattered throughout the world, mostly in Israel, the United States and Australia) is the establishment of the Harbin Jews Research Center, whose main goal is to "gather, collect and research the materials of the history of Harbin Jews."

The center and its parent group, the Academy of Social Sciences, announced last year that it would restore two synagogues and a Jewish school at a cost of $3.5 million.

Visiting the academy and the center is a must for travelers. Unfolding before your eyes is a "Jews in Harbin" exhibit of about 400 photos that capture Jewish history in this haven.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Jews established a wonderful life here, replete with synagogues, schools, hospitals, a cemetery, newspapers, Zionist youth movements, free soup kitchens and senior-citizen homes. They were bankers, storekeepers, businesspeople, importers and exporters, entrepreneurs and industrialists. And anti-Semitism was practically unheard of, except for instances from the White Russians.

A second place to stop is the Jewish cemetery, which was moved from downtown Harbin in 1958, and holds more than 600 graves. Here you can find the gravestones of those Jews who made this their home and their historic legacy.

For example, buried here is the grandfather of Ehud Olmert, former mayor of Jerusalem and now the vice prime minister of Israel. Ehud's father, Mordechai, was among the founders of the Betar youth movement, and with his wife was among the first from that movement to settle in Israel in the 1930s.

American Jews may remember the name of the late Yosef Tekoah, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, who lived in Harbin in the 1920s.

Further stops include a walk to the site of the New Synagogue, located at what once was called "Diagonal Street" (now Jingwei Street, completed in 1921). It has been completely gutted; plans are in the works to restore it.

Then walk down Central Street, where you can visit department stores, boutiques and shops. This avenue once was the economic and cultural heart of Harbin Jews.

Nearby was the site of the Old Synagogue; it was located in Artilleriskaya Street, now Tongjiang Street. It is now a hotel, but soon will be restored as the Old Synagogue.

Next door is the Harbin No. 2, Korean Nationality High School. Dedicated in 1918, it was once the Harbin Jewish High School, and will be restored as such.

Israelis, Russian Jews, American and Australian Jews visit here, where academic conferences of Jewish scholars are often held. In 2004, a delegation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee arrived in Harbin - their representatives were in China and nearby Siberia after both World Wars, helping Jewish refugees and the community.

Scott Richman, former Soviet Union desk director of the JDC who led the mission, said that the "Chinese seem to venerate the Jews almost as the founders of the city and those that laid the foundation for what the city is today."

Perhaps that is why they are so eager for Jews to come back - and not just the one Jewish person, an Israeli who teaches English and works at the radio station. They see the future of China bound up with business, trade and technology, and they see Jews as industrious people who can help them in that effort.

Ben G. Frank is the author of A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.

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