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HARBIN MEMORIES FROM CHARLES (RUVIM) ISAAC CLURMAN

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Born October 31, 1918, in Harbin to Ethel Keilis Clurman and Isak Grigori Clurman
Married Miriam Grant (nee Grodsky) in 1946 in
San Francisco, California
Died July 8, 2001, in Reno, Nevada

The following narrative is excerpted from an audiotape made by Charles Clurman on October 29, 1982, in Reno, Nevada. The interview, transcription and editing were done by Charles’ daughter Irene Clurman. Editing comments are in parentheses. A native Russian speaker, Charles did the interview in English, and his grammar was left uncorrected.

 DISCUSSING THE MAP OF HARBIN  
   
         So here would be our city. This is the river Sungari (now Songhua). Then there would be an embarcadero along the river. Then here would be the bridge across the river. The only way that you could cross from here to here would be a bridge. This was almost a mile wide river, very fast, fantastic current. 
           
Amur River was north of us. And this is the railway bridge. When the ice would flow on the river in the fall, you could not cross on a boat because the ice would crush the boats. So you could walk across but you couldn’t drive across. During that time, no carts could go across. 
   
         We were on the main side (in) Pristan (now Daoli DIstrict). Pristan means like a pier. And here was Chingche, a suburb. Here was Nahalovka, another suburb. Nahalovka means “squatters,” taking advantage without rights.
   
         And here was the drive-over, and this was Fifth Street and here was our lumberyard. And here was Kitayskaya Ulitsa (now Central Street ) , which means Chinese Street , and this was the main street of Harbin . Here on Komerchaskaya Ulitsa (Commercial Street) was the city jail. And here was the main police station and here was the Russian church and here was a stadium, a big stadium. And here “Za Sungariu” - on the other side of the Sungari (river)- were all the summer resorts and all kinds of … flimsy things for summer only. Couldn’t live there in the winter time. It was too cold. 
   
         Right here was the main railway station. And the railway went to Russia . Here was the old city. And here was the racetrack, horse race track. And all these people with horses lived here. And here on this side was a Chinese city. That’s where all the Chinese lived. There were no Russians living there at all. 
            In the olden days, by the river was a swamp. So the old city started here. Then Madyugo (a suburb). Then Novii Gorod. Then Pristan. It was called Pristan because it was right on the (pier) of the river. And on this river (the Amur) were big river boats. They used to go to
Russia and all that. This Amur is the boundary between Manchuria and Soviet Union . And forever they were fighting here, because when Japanese took Manchuria, they put troops on the Amur. And they were forever big skirmishes between the Russians and the Japanese. Practically a war going on. Many, many Japanese were killed there, on the Amur. 

DEVELOPMENT OF HARBIN Harbin) was a village… Manchuria was very sparsely populated... with big chunks of land totally unpopulated. So Harbin was nothing. It was just a sleepy village and swamps and everything until they put through the railway from Russia and to Dairen (now Dalien).
            The Russians when they were building the railway, they developed the entire country there. They started to cut timber, ship lumber, and there were a lot of natural resources. Lumber went south also to
China . Lumber went to Japan. Then meat and hides and casings and bristles. Manchurian bristles. Because it’s so cold, the prime export was hog bristles, because bristles they grow 6-7 inches long and the best paintbrushes and all kinds of brushes used to be made from Manchurian bristles, because pigs in north Manchuria grow these bristles 7-8 inches long. And these bristles were processed and packed and graded and shipped out. And also pelts, all kind of pelts.
   
         So when we talk about Harbin, when my father came there (about 1904), it was absolutely nothing. There was nothing there. Then when the railway came, the railway developed the country. As they developed the country, they also developed their freight that they would ship. So they put in … a university in Novii Gorod, a polytechnic, the Railway Polytechnic, for engineering sciences. Then they brought opera. Then they brought high schools. Then they brought the veterinary sciences. They brought in agricultural seeds. They brought in breeding animals. They brought in everything, everything from Russia to develop Manchuria – agriculture, industries and everything, from Russia . The whole country was revitalized. The same effect that Southern Pacific had on the United States . (The railway) connected the wilderness to the civilized world.
   
         Harbin was the biggest of all the (railway) cities because it was the center, a railway hub, through which all of the network of railways went south and north and west and east. That’s why it grew up so big. The railway was owned 50 percent by the Russians and 50 percent by the Chinese. Used to be called Chinese Eastern Railway. The Russians in the olden days considered this country as their property. But all this, I’m talking loosely, because in those days there were no such controls. It was a wild open country, just like (in the Wild West). One sheriff for the whole state of Texas .
   
         So the Russians had a small garrison of troops in Harbin and they maintained law and order and collected some taxes …but basically they were guarding the railway. During Czarist time, there was a general (in charge)  – Horvat. Usually the head of the railway was the Russian representation in Manchuria because railway was so influential. And then the garrison probably even reported to the head of the railway.
   
         Along the railway the Russians were able to maintain peace because the Chinese were not armed properly. They were armed with spears and swords and bows and arrows and things like that... But in 1918, when the Revolution came to Russia , these Imperial troops were cut off from Russia because Russia became Soviet, and the Chinese took advantage of that and disarmed the Russian garrison and took over Manchuria .
   
         And at that time to power rose a common bandit but a very astute person, Chang Tso-lin, referred to as The Old Marshal. He was very successful. He was very wily. And he was able to rule Manchuria . There was a Manchurian cavalry and things like that and my father used to sell them horses for the generals and the officers.

 DOING BUSINESS
   
         All these Jews came there because it was such a booming city. Fortunes were made overnight. It was like a boom town, exploding in all directions. My father came to the US (from Harbin during WWI) and (brought back) indoor plumbing and things they didn’t have in Manchuria . There was no indoor plumbing. He brought in central heating – radiators and boilers – and he made himself a fortune…He was very smart of course. Even how he designed buildings. He learned many things from the States. He picked up a lot of things from the States and brought them to Manchuria because it was innovation. 
            We wrecked probably a hundred railway cars (for) scrap iron. And we used to sell scrap iron to the Chinese foundries that used to smelter them… We used to winch up the thing on the tripod like this, big tripod, then loosen it, drop it and break it (to sell for scrap). The whole city shook, and all the buildings collapsed. We had to move three times! (laughs)
   
          When we had a chance in ’38 to leave (during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria ), my father wouldn’t leave, because he said, “I built this whole country and I’m not going anywhere. Japanese come, Japanese go, and the Japanese can never control China .”
   
         (Al) Maisin’s father (a baker) never left either. And he was baking bread for Communists all the time until he died (in 1952). And they didn’t bother him. They just let him bake the bread.

 GROWING UP IN HARBIN
   
         We never had (private) cars. There was only one car, belonged to the cousin of Tyotya Ria (wife of Nathan Clurman, Charles’ uncle). Chinese had some cars and police had special trucks, and then fire department had fire engine and buses, there were buses. Oh, and Alex Turk of course had a car, don’t worry about that. His father had the Ford agency in Harbin . But really privately owned cars, there was only one guy that I know of.
   
         All other cars were taxis, and there were jeepneys – cars that would take 5-6 passengers. And there were buses and there were trucks. But there were no private cars. Gas was so expensive. And there was no place to go because the roads were bumpy, paved with not asphalt but cobblestones. We had beautiful horses. We could outrun a car on cobblestone streets! We had very good horses.
   
         (Maisin’s bakery) always delivered on horses. Wagons driven by horses. There were whole big stables. That’s why Al (Maisin) likes to ride horses, because he used to ride those horses that used to deliver bread in the morning.
   
         And the man would come in with a big round bread like that, and say “How much bread do you need today?”
   
         You’d say, “Give me one or two pounds.”
   
         So he’d cut from this steaming big bread…

Most of our teachers in our school (First Harbin Public Commercial High School) were old Russian staff officers, Imperial Russian Army officers that migrated out of Russia . We had a Russian education. We had a very good school. Actually the University of California knows this because a lot of people today are professors in University of California . There are several of them there.
   
         All our boys that came to the United States …We didn’t have one single person that came from Manchuria that stepped out of the boundary of the law. Not one. All of us were very law-abiding and all of us succeeded in every field we chose…So everybody I don’t know, we just learned to survive and we learned to live by our wits and pursue our goals and succeed in what we’re doing. You can say there are some better people, some worse people…There are people in Australia, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Japan
   
         Of course we all had fun. We would go to the river. We would row. I used to row. Sail. Swim. Play volleyball, basketball, We had our dances. We had our parties.
   
         Then there were the Trumpeldor (Betar) scouts. We had athletics. We had a skating team. Boys and girls. We were preparing to go to Israel to fight for independence of Israel . China was not our country. We considered ourselves Jewish. We did not even consider ourselves Russian. We were paramilitary. This was in 1933, maybe 1934. All these guys are in Israel now.

(Although young people had many lighthearted times, kidnapping was an ongoing fear for foreign families.)
   
         The bandits in China, they kidnapped for people for ransom. Then they cut off an ear and they send the ear…I think kidnapping originated in China, particularly in Manchuria. They were brutal, I mean, they cut off fingers, ears, nose, send it to the family with the ransom note to prove that they’re holding them.
   
         Everybody used to laugh at me, because I’d go to a party, then my father would come pick me up. He wouldn’t let me go alone. It was dangerous.

(White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks brought anti-Semitism to Harbin, and Russian hooligans began attacking Jews.)
            I never got beat up. I could beat anybody fighting. The one time I got beat up was in a boxing match. But in the street, I never got beaten up.
            My father carried a gun. My father never went without a gun. I always carried this kind of a stick like my father carried. I carried it right here, in my sleeve. When I walk on the street, they never know, but I have this billy club here from ironwood, piece of black ironwood. Something happens, I’m just ready to go and I pick it up and I have it in one second. I always carried it in my sleeve. And my books, I never carried them in my hands. My books were always in my belt, so both arms were free.
   
         Because my job was to see that we did not get in the short end of a stick. So anybody would pick up on the Jewish boys in school, I had to go and fight with them. But then we would have challenges. This guy challenge this guy. So I had to go and fight. But I never fought with a Jewish boy. I never hit a Jewish boy.
   
         One time both of us got beaten up, my best friend and me. And he wouldn’t tell his mother what happened. So (the) mothers got together, and his mother said, “They must have fought each other.”
   
         And my mother said, “No. He wouldn’t fight your son, because we don’t do that. So they must have been together in some kind of fight.”
   
         We had a lot of these (fights) because a guy called me, “Dirty Jew.” And I said, “Bang!” (and hit him). They used to bait me like that. One time, a guy called me “Dirty Jew” and I didn’t see nothing, and right in front of the teacher...(bang!).

  HARBIN JEWISH COMMUNITY
   
         Most Jews (in Harbin) were from mainland Russia and Siberia and Ukraine. Some were… from Poland, came through Russia and landed in Manchuria. And there were many Tartars, many Greeks. There were all kinds of minorities like that. Armenians, Georgians. There was a Georgian society, there was an Armenian society…even a Korean society. All these people lived there in relative freedom. The Chinese never bothered us. They were very nice people.
   
         The original Jews created a kitchen, like Salvation Army kitchen. Then during the Russian Revolution, many people ran (to Harbin) from Russia. We came as settlers to build the country. Then during the Revolution, all the dregs of the White Russian armies defeated by the Soviets ran to Manchuria, to safety in China. So we received many, many bedraggled people.
   
         Also many Jewish refugees came after the Revolution to escape the Soviets. And they all came through Harbin and we helped them, because they were destitute, all of them. So the original settlers helped them through.
   
         We had a special kitchen. We had special barracks where all these refugees lived and were supported by donations. And we fed them and took care of them and then they got visas and continued on. Some stayed but many continued on. They went to Shanghai, Tientsin, to other countries. Harbin was like a clearing point.
   
         All the Jews who were old-time settlers helped because the Jewish community in China was very philanthropic. They helped all Jews. We collected money for Israel . We collected money for German refugees. We collected money for everything. And we were forever collecting money and sending all kinds of donations all over the world to support destitute Jews everyplace.  For tree planting (in Israel) we donated, for buying land we donated. We were forever donating money. And all these people were always taken care of in Harbin by the old-time settlers who were well off. We were very charitable. 

JAPANESE OCCUPATION OF MANCHURIA 1931-1945
            Then in 1931, the Japanese rigged up a provocation in
Mukden and Japanese moved in to “make peace and order and to save the populace.” And it wasn’t true. It was all provocation.
   
         We knew (Japanese) were in the south of Harbin . The newspapers and everything were announcing that they were going to march into Harbin . And the (Chinese) troops were retreating through Harbin . So we knew, all these movements of troops and everything. Even in our school. The Chinese cavalry occupied the school. We couldn’t go to school because they requisitioned the whole school where we were and the cavalry would put horses in the garden and everything else.
            The Japanese Army marched into Harbin in 1932. I stood on the street and I was watching the Japanese Army march into Harbin . They were riding Ford trucks, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and practically all their equipment was American-made. Because United States was in Depression and was selling all kinds of things to Japan. Also they (Japanese) didn’t have any steel, they didn’t know how to do all those things. (The U.S.) sold them all kinds of stuff – airplanes, everything.
   
         They landed airplanes on the race course, the horse track. Because we had no airfield at all in Harbin. So we used to bicycle there to look at the planes. We’d never seen an airplane.
   
         There was absolutely no resistance. Because the Chinese didn’t have arms. Nothing. So they went all the way through Harbin and occupied Harbin , and then they went alongside the railway. It took them some time to occupy the whole Manchuria. But they never never conquered Manchuria because til World War II there was forever insurrection in Manchurian countryside.
            Trains were wrecked. Japanese were attacked. And came so bad that (the Japanese) would not even allow sorghum to grow near the railway. Because sorghum grows in
Manchuria about ten feet tall, eight, nine feet tall. And the sorghum would be planted right near to the railway, miles and miles of it. So the Chinese guerrillas –well, Japanese referred to them as bandits, but nonetheless they were guerrillas, remnants of the army – they would come close to the railway and blow up the railway and wreck the troop trains of Japanese.
   
         So then Japanese made an edict that no sorghum could be planted, I think it was four miles or fives miles near the railway on both sides so that they could see the guerrillas coming there to blow up the trains. But these people fought with spears – they were called “spear men” actually, because they didn’t even have guns. They fought with spears and arrows and swords against Japanese.
   
         When the Japanese came (in 1932), they blocked the (Sungari/Songhua) river. They didn’t understand it and flooded the whole city. During the flood we were supplying the people that were stranded with food.
   
         And then, when the water receded, outbreak of cholera. Thousands of people died. And you’d see corpses lying in the street (in the Chinese section of Harbin), and the flies. And even on the garbage pile, they’d throw these cadavers there and wild dogs would go there and eat.
   
         Then came the League of Nations. Lord Lytton of England came to investigate this, how Japan conquered Manchuria illegally and everything else. (This was the Lytton Commission of the League of Nations.) And they came in, escorted by the Japanese in cars off the railway, and they drove through town. They  were not allowed to get off the cars and they didn’t talk to anybody, and they left without seeing anything or talking to anybody. And League of Nations at that time washed their hands of the whole incident. Japan was condemned and everything, but they really didn’t do a bloody thing about it. So we were left to the Japanese conquerors. (Japan withdrew from the League of Nations after the negative Lytton Commission report.)
   
         So Japanese were trying to get an economic hold of Manchuria. To that end, they killed many prominent people. They confiscated businesses. They took a very high-handed approach to people living in Manchuria, just like what Germans were doing, confiscating their businesses. The Japanese had no particular anti-Semitic approach except many (anti-Semitic) Russians started to work with them, bedraggled Russians.
   
         They used to take people into this Kempetai, Japanese Military Police. By the time they come out, they looked twenty, thirty years older. They tortured people something horrible.
   
         When I was going to United States, they picked me up on the railway and the (Japanese military)  guy was riding with me all the through, looked through my baggage, picked out all my books that had reference to Manchuria . Because they created Manchukuo. On top of everything else, they created the state of of Manchukuo.
   
         When they come in there, they declared independence of Manchuria and they took this little Emperor Puyi, a distant heir to the throne in Peking. And Puyi was crowned as the prince of Manchuria, and Manchuria declared independence from China, and it become Manchukuo. My passport is Manchukuo passport. This is a puppet state. So in Manchukuo, if you were a Soviet Russian citizen, you were just a nonentity. So they were forever hunting Russian spies.
   
         When I was going to the States, the (Japanese) guy would pick out all my old books that referred to Manchuria as Manchuria.
   
         He said, “Why is it Manchuria ?”
   
         I said, “This is a very old book.”
   
         “No, no. You shouldn’t take this to United States. It’s Manchukuo now.”
   
         So (he) confiscated all my books with reference to Manchuria! Took ‘em out. But I knew how to handle these guys. I said, “Sure, take them.”
   
         “And do you have any relatives in (the States)…?”
   
         I said, “No, no.”
   
         “None of them are writers, newspaper people, journalists?”
   
         I said,  “Of course not.” (laughs)
   
         Because they were afraid of bad publicity all the time. Even the mail was censored. They would pick through your mail and everything. So there was tremendous oppression and before you could speak to anybody, you had to know to whom you were speaking, because they would denounce you.
   
         (Charles left China in 1937 to study in California. A year later his father was abducted and killed by the Japanese Kempetai, who wanted to expropriate his cattle operation.)

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