Friday, April 25, 2008

Harbin's Jews: Isle of calm for embattled nation

By Shiri Lev Ari

HARBIN, China - "In history more than 20,000 Jews settled in Harbin in order to escape prosecution (sic) and prejudice." This quote, attributed to Henry Kissinger, rests on a perspex plaque in the foyer of the city's former main synagogue, now housing the permanent Harbin Jewish History and Cultural Exhibition.

"The fact that the Harbin people treated the Jews kindly, as a result of the broad mind of the nation, is a glorious record of world humanitarianism."

At the end of January, a group of Israeli journalists arrived at the sub-provincial city of Harbin, capital of the Heilongjiang Province in Northeast China. It was 3 to 17 degrees below zero in the city near the Russian border, with a population of 9.7 million, located an hour and a half's flight away from the lively capital Beijing.

The history of Harbin's Jewry, which reverberated in Israel following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's recent visit to China, is unusual. It does not have a tragic ending. Even in the snow and ice, Harbin seems like a little island of calm in the bloody history of the Jewish nation.

The invitation to the Israeli journalists was not accidental. The Chinese wish to expand cooperation between Israel and China and to place Harbin on the map for Israeli and Jewish tourists. This week there were news reports that two Shanghai synagogues are to be rehabilitated as part of the celebrations marking the city's Jewish heritage. It appears that Jewish history in China could serve the trade ties between the two countries, and may provide an answer to China's constant search for a doorway to the West .

The Chinese have always treated the Jews with respect, sometimes bordering on admiration. Their behavior can almost be described as reverse anti-Semitism. They tend to see the Jews as clever, educated, rich, savvy in business, observant of family values and respectful of their parents. At one meeting, the Chinese host told the reporters how the Chinese ambassador in World War Two Austria managed to obtain visas to China for Europe's Jews.

The Harbin Jewish community, which came as part of a large migration of Russians to the region, existed for a total of 65 years. During this period the Jews turned the small fishing village (Harbin is originally a Manchu word meaning "a place for drying fishing nets") into a large, industrialized, modern city.

A few years ago the Harbin authorities, the government of the Heilongjiang Province and the province's Social Sciences Academy decided to preserve the city's Jewish heritage. They invested some $2.5 million into refurbishing the synagogues, the Jewish cemetery and other remaining Jewish institutions.

Political and economic haven

The first Jews arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe in 1898, with the beginning of the construction of the trans-Siberian railway linking Moscow and Beijing. They fled the daily pogroms and anti-Semitic incidents and found a political and economic haven in Harbin.

After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, increasing numbers of Jews migrated to Harbin. At its peak the community, which usually numbered 10,000 inhabitants, reached 25,000 people. It experienced its golden age between 1917 and 1930. Olmert's grandparents lived there and his parents were born there. So were the parents of MK Effie Eitam, the father of poet Daliah Ravikovitch, Israel's former UN ambassador Yosef Tekoa and many others.

Harbin's Jews lived under four central political regimes - Tzarist Russia (1898-1917), the Chinese government (1917-1931), the Japanese (1931-1945) and then the Red Army.

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 forced many Jews, who suffered under Japanese fascism, to flee the city. Various Zionist movements flourished in Harbin and many Jews moved to Israel. But the most difficult period for the Jews was at the end of World War II, under the nine-month rule by the Russian government. Zionist activity in the city was stopped, many were exiled to Russian forced labor camps and many Jews left Harbin.

Gradually the Jews of Harbin scattered to Shanghai, Israel and other countries. In 1963 the Jewish institutions in the city were officially closed down. In 1985 the last Jew in Harbin died.

However, the Jewish presence in Harbin left shops; businesses; flour, candle and beverage plants; coal mines; hotels; restaurants; a hospital; schools; youth movements; a soup kitchen; daily newspapers; book publishers; orchestras and a theater.

The old synagogue, built in 1907, has become a family activity center; the Jewish high school has become a Korean girls school. Last summer the synagogue, which was built in 1917, became a museum, exhibiting the history of Harbin's Jewry. A film on the Holocaust, with Chinese subtitles, is screened on a large television screen at the foyer.

The building's two floors are filled with large black and white pictures documenting Jewish life in the city: the soup kitchen, the Beitar youth movement, the women's welfare organization, shops and plants, the library, the orchestra, Jewish singers, Jewish athletes, ski and horse races and Cafe Miniature of 1926, which doubled as an art gallery of Russian miniatures.

An entire wall is devoted to photographs of the Olmert family. His parents, Bella and Mordechai, immigrated to Israel in 1930. Mordechai was active in the city's revisionist movement. He studied in a Chinese high school and spoke Chinese. An adjacent wall displays pictures of Yosef Trumpeldor. After being wounded in the Russia-Japan war in 1905, Trumpeldor was brought to Harbin's hospital for treatment. From there he was sent to a Japanese prison and after his release, he returned to Harbin to found a farming cooperative.

The Jewish cemetery, with 583 tombstones engraved in Russian and Yiddish, was built in 1903 in the city center and was transferred outside the city in 1958. In 1992, after the establishment of relations between Israel and China, it was renovated.

In 2004 Olmert, then deputy prime minister, and his brother visited their grandfather's grave in Harbin. The Harbin community's rabbi, Aharon Shmulevitz Kissilov, is buried there, as are Effie Eitam's parents.

"These sites are testimony to the friendship between the Jewish and Chinese people, and are intended to contribute to strengthening the ties between the two states," says Professor Ko Wey, head of the province's Academy of Social Sciences. "Both the Chinese and the Jews are ancient nations, with a long history. They both suffered persecution and torture. They are both very wise, they have scientists, inventors and important philosophers," he says. He also emphasized that the work of Jewish intellectuals like Lenin or Marx still guides the Chinese in their life and that the Jewish and Chinese nations are like brother nations.

The relations between the Jews and the Chinese have a long history. It all began with the Kaifeng Jews, who arrived in China in the 12th century and were so well received that they rapidly assimilated into Chinese society. They grew a braid, wore a skullcap, built pagoda-shaped synagogues and disappeared.

Over the years Chinese intellectuals delved into Jewish texts - especially the Bible and scripts of the Fathers. They found similarities in the values cherished by both societies, such as respecting parents or edicts guiding interpersonal relations.

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