February 20, 1900,
Died April 4, 1994, in Reno, Nevada
Daughter of Naum and Yelena Keilis and oldest of their eight children.
Wife of Isak Grigori Clurman, who was abducted and killed in 1938 during the Japanese occupation of
Mother of Charles (Ruvim) Clurman, Sylvia (Tziva) Clurman and
Grandmother of five, great-grandmother of nine
The following narrative was transcribed from a tape made
My mother’s younger sister’s wedding was that day. And usually, in
Finally my mother came. She was stopped on the way. They asked her, “Ti xhidovka?” (Are you Jewish?) And she said “Nyet.” (No.) And she had on a headscarf. My mother looked Russian, blond, blue-eyed. And that saved her. She came home.
So there was no wedding and there was no reception, and we went to the attic. You know, in
A man came and called up “Yelena Keilis!” She was afraid to answer. Then, he called again. My grandmother said, “Answer!”
She said, “I’m Yelena Keilis.”
He said, “I’m from Harbin
(This man), he was a barber. He went to
He said, “Come to my house.“
So we went down, they gave us water to wash ourselves, food, and we stayed there til the pogrom was over.
The hooligans they approached. The houses in
After that we came to Harbin
That book that Pearl Buck wrote - ”My Two Worlds,” I think. When I read, I saw
WHEN MY FATHER CAME (to
After that, as I say, people were coming from
Our winters, you can’t imagine how cold is our winter. Harbin is on the border of
We had a very short summer, it used to start in July. The 15th of August in the evening, you had to put on a coat. You couldn’t go out without a coat. September in the daytime it was nice, warm, but in the evening it was cool.
(My mother) came from a kosher family too, a strict kosher family. My mother was Friday with candles, but my father not. He was not a religious man. And when we had so many children, to go and buy kosher meat … we were eight, mother and father is ten, and men that worked in (the family) butchery is eleven, and this fellow and a boy that helped out is thirteen, and a Russian woman that took care of the small children, that’s fourteen people (to feed). Besides, there was not a day that one or two (more) wouldn’t come. So how much meat we had!
That’s one thing, my mother, when we had filet mignon, everybody ate filet mignon. Then my father used to send -- it’s a French word, we use it in Russian -- “entrecote.” It’s the prime rib. So everybody ate entrecote. My father hated ground meat. (We ate) only good meat. But to go and buy it (kosher) was impossible. So I didn’t grow up on kosher meat.
It was enough that my father could support us. Can you imagine eight children? We were all well dressed, well fed. We lived very good. Not like some people who say they get up in the morning and not to find food. I didn’t know that.
My mother, her bread was delivered. Loaves of round bread. And bagels, I don’t know how many bagels were delivered.
My sister Nina, she went to school, she graduate the Russian school and there was a hospital where you could study to become a registered nurse. And when she graduated a registered nurse, she wanted to become a doctor, and there was nowhere to go to be a doctor. And at that time the Revolution broke out already in
I went to (elementary school at) Gymnasia Oksakovskaya. Mainly Russian people. But in
There was no discrimination in school, nowhere. You could go to school together. In
And then when I was about 10 or 11 years old, I went to
Then I came back (to Harbin
WHEN MY FATHER CAME (to
THEN I MET MY HUSBAND (Isak Grigori Clurman). I got
married. I was 17, close to 18 years old. I tell you how we met. He courted my
cousin. I was a teenager when he courted her.
He was in the States during the World War I. In order not to be a soldier, not to go to fight for (Czar) Nikolai, he underwent an operation, and the big toe of one foot was removed. And that’s what helped him stay away from being drafted. There was a doctor, he was a Turk. I remember him very well. I can see him, as I talk to you. He was the one that operated, removed that toe. He started to help out the Jewish boys not to get (drafted) and somebody put the finger on him. He could make that one leg would be shorter, one leg would be longer. So somebody put a finger, and he had to leave
After the war, (Isak Grigori) came back. He was about two and a half, three years here (in the States). He didn’t like it because he had to do (physical) work and he was a businessman, see? Natan (Isak’s brother) was a window washer in New York and so was (Isak).
So right after the war, (Isak) came to
It was the Russian Christmas. The butcheries in
So I got settled, and (her son Charles – Ruvim - Clurman) was born (in 1918). And a few years later (in 1921), Sylvia was born, and ten years later (in 1928), Israel
(Isak Grigori) came from a very small place, Orinin, Kaminisk-Podolsk (in the
My husband was 15 years old when he came (to
When I lost him, came a Russian man, an engineer. He was an engineer to build bridges. And he came to see me and he said,”If this man had had an education, he would have been a genius.”
I’ll never forget came a man from (Soviet)
So my husband went and bought those wagons, and he made a fortune, a fortune. Chinese took the wheels apart and there was handles made of brass. Everything apart. And (Isak) told me, he said, “I’m earning $200 a day.”
The wheels, they were broken, and the Chinese would come and buy (them) by the pound and make shovels, because (they were) cast iron. The handles the Chinese used to buy also and (they were) brass and they could make things from brass. And from the wood, (Isak) took it to his yard, and he built houses. From the scraps, they built houses. Very little new material went into houses and they’re still there, staying there.
(Isak Grigori) was a good working man. He was not an alcoholic, not a gambler, not a skirt chaser, that’s why I married him. Right away when he came from the States, he went into business. He rented a big yard and we had everything in that yard. We had wood, all kinds of wood there. And he built a small house for himself. He didn’t plan to get married. Then (he built) flats and we moved to another place.
He was a good provider so (laughs) I didn’t have to do anything. I’ll never forget, (he) once came and said to me, “I married you not because I needed a cook. I can hire a cook. I want you be a wife, a mother and know what’s going on in the kitchen.” He didn’t like me in the kitchen. I liked it. I didn’t cook … but I loved to bake. So I baked all kinds of cookies and cakes and things like that.
(Isak) was a hard-working family man. When he used to come home, the first words were “Gdye dyeti?” “Gdye dyeti?” (“Where are the children?”) That was it.
The only thing he was short-tempered. But … we say in Russian, “Krasatoo i manyeri, na tarelka ne polozhish.” (You can’t put good looks and fine manners on a plate.) I would keep quiet, he would get over it, and I would do what I want.
We never came home (after) going out to a show without bringing the children chocolate. He used to put it under the pillow. In the morning they would know already that there’s something under the pillow. And he tried to give them education. Not educated himself but (Charlie) went to gymnasia, we had to pay gymnasia. (Charlie) didn’t study, he didn’t do his lessons at home, so he had a tutor. He was behind in English, so we had to have an English tutor. Then he wanted to draw -- he draws very good. We had a teacher comes special to learn him to draw. Then we had a Hebrew teacher. That’s what it is.
And Sylvia, the same thing, she had the same tutor. She didn’t have an English and she didn’t have a drawing tutor. But she had music, piano lessons. Twice a week with the teacher and every day for one hour used to come a girl the teacher recommended and for one hour, she played (piano) with her.
And I had a maid and a governess for them too, because they didn’t go out by themselves. We were afraid to let them go out. Up to five years for (Charlie), I had a wet nurse. From five years, I had a governess. And once a month, I had a woman to help out with the cleaning and then we had a Chinese that took care of the yard because (we owned the) apartment house.
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY was only 10,000, including men
and women and children, and there was two synagogues, beautiful, they were all
maintained on private donations. Can you imagine? We had a hospital, it was all
built on private donations. We had a Jewish bank, it was built on private
donations. We had an old age home, it was on private donations. and there was a
cafeteria for people who could not afford to pay. They used to come and if they
couldn’t afford to pay, they could pay a quarter and get a full meal for a
quarter. And on the second floor there was for the old age people, and people
didn’t have to pay. And then they built another place for chronic ill people.
All from private donations.
I liked always to read. I belonged to the library. I liked good pictures (movies). We used to go. And I liked legitimate theater. There were so many operettas. I love operettas. For the Jewish people really it was a good, good life. But it all changed, all changed.
We had to watch the children because of kidnapping. We had Chinese bandits. We called them “xooxooze.” It wasn’t so bad at the beginning, but later on it was very dangerous. (Isak Grigori) used to go to (his) slaughterhouse five o’clock in the morning in winter to start, and he used to carry a big revolver.
(The kidnappers took men for ransom and sometimes the victims didn’t return.) Abramovich was kidnapped. He was 19 years (old). He didn’t come back. And there was Galimpolski kidnapped. They paid $25,000 to get Galimpolski (back). Was Raii’s cousin, first cousin. (Raii was the wife of Isak’s brother Nathan Clurman.) Galimpolski came back, but he died.
When I came to the States, (a former Harbinite) told me that Abramovich was taken by mistake. They wanted to take (Charlie). We lived Yamskaya Street, it was the sixth street, and they lived on the fifth street, not far from us. But Charlie was already away (in school in
They didn’t take women, but they took children. They took men. Boys, men. It was xooxooze. Mostly Chinese. There were probably rings. But when the Japanese took over, there were already Russian kidnappers. They kidnapped Kaspe. There were still Russians there and the police were involved in it. They kidnapped Kaspe.
They killed a butcher. He was driving -- they had like those horse race carriages called an “Amerikanka.” He was riding to the slaughterhouse and they attacked him. They probably wanted to kidnap him, but they shot him and he died. So life was not easy. It was dangerous for people who were well off.
WHAT HAPPENED (IN 1938) IS TERRIBLE. Only Izra
(Johnny) was home. (Charlie) was away. Izra was ten years old. (Isak Grigori)
promised to go with me shopping. I loved to go shopping with him. Shopping not
groceries but goods! I could buy what I wanted. Well, it was
, he didn’t show up.
, two o’clock.
It made me real angry. Then came night. Izra went to bed. He had his own room. I
went to bed. But I was so angry.
Izra (Johnny) was very attached to his father. Wherever he went, he took Izra with him, because he was the only one left at home from the family. The first thing when I went into his room in the morning, (Izra) said to me, “A Papa prischol?” (And did Papa come?) Then he said, (translated from Russian) ”Mama, what happened to Papa? It never happened that he didn’t come home to sleep.”
And that’s true. He would come late at night, , eleven, but always (he came home). That’s when I came to my senses. And I was waiting maybe for a letter ransom, something like that. I was afraid to say. There was only the manager and grandfather and me and Izra.
(A) Japanese, he was with the police, came. He said, “Clurman-san.”
I said “Clurman-san is not home.”
A few hours later, he came again.
I said “Clurman-san is not home.”
Finally, he said to me, “You know that you can be arrested?.”
I said, “Why can I be arrested?”
He said, “Because you should report to the police that somebody is missing for 24 hours.”
So I went to report to the police.
(No information was forthcoming from the authorities. Isak Grigori was never seen again and no body was ever found. The family assumed he was killed and his body dumped in a mass grave.)
When my husband left the house, the whole building changed. They (Japanese tenants) stopped paying rent. They used to come drunk. They beat the Chinese. They smashed the windows. Izra and I would stay in fear. I’d rather not to think. And the manager started to take advantage of me because I was afraid to open my mouth.
If I went out and didn’t come home on time, Izra would run, look for me. And one day I came, he was crying on the street. I said, “Why are crying?”
He said, (from the Russian) “I’m afraid. Where were you?”
I said, “Why are you crying? I’m a grown person.”
“Papa was also a grown person,” he said.
After I lost (my husband), I would say to my daughter (from the Russian) “Sylvia, what do you want to do tomorrow? She’d say, “Nothing. I’m going to the Café Mars.”
Then she would come back to dinner, and I’d say “Where are you going now?” She’d say, “I’m going to play mah jong.”
But finally, once she was in the Café Mars, and there was a German young man working that day. And he gave her her check, and on the back of the check, was “Don’t come back here. This isn’t a place for you.”
Because there were spies there in Café Mars. Everywhere you had to be very careful. You couldn’t even trust your own friends. They would be working for the Japanese. And that stopped her (from going.)
THE GOOD THING WAS JEWISH PEOPLE were not persecuted.
We had no pogrom. In
before a holiday, Easter or Christmas, Jewish people were afraid. Because
usually before holiday, the hooligani used to get drunk. So who’s the
scapegoat? Is the Jew. In
(Some Jewish people were religious), some not. But as I say, they kept up the shul. Beautiful, two synagogues, built on private donations, and on private donations (they were) kept up. Two synagogues. At first it was built one, but when more Jews came it was too crowded, so they built another one. We used to call it Staraya Sinagoga, Novaya Sinagoga (Old Synagogue and New Synagogue). And they built a Talmud Torah. That’s a Jewish school. They taught in Russian but they also taught Hebrew. (Charlie) didn’t go there. But the boys that went, when they went to Israel, it was easy on them. Because they knew Hebrew already. They could read and write. They couldn’t speak but they could read and write. You could get a job.
Dr. (Abraham) Kaufman started a Jewish community. Started meetings, and people were elected to the Jewish community and that’s how it grew. And the Russians after the war, the Russians deported him because they said he was a Zionist. That’s true. He was a Zionist all his life. He was educated in
The Russians deported him because he was a Zionist. And he said, “Yes, but I was a Zionist before the Revolution. I was a Zionist since my college age.” Finally they let him go to
Then there was a Jewish organization, Brit Trumpeldor (Betar scouts). (Charlie) belonged to it and Sylvia belonged to Brit Trumpeldor. When the holidays came, they used to make a stage play. It was beautiful. With an Israeli flag and all walking in. But then as I say, after the war, some young people went to
We didn’t think of going to
(In 1942, Ethel, Sylvia and Johnny left
MANY PEOPLE FROM HARBIN were in
(In 1949, Ethel and Johnny left
BEST MEMORIES OF HARBIN, best memories. Now sometimes
I hum to myself a Russian song … We used to sing with the Russian people, we
used to dance. But then with the Revolution, there was trouble (with the Russian
(Charlie) was once in a fight. We were on a way to a show and we saw the Jewish boys running and (Isak Grigori) said, “We are going back home.” (Charlie) was hiding and some more Jewish boys were hiding (in the house). My husband had a big cane and (Charlie) had taken that cane and hit somebody on the head. So we told the Chinese to lock the gate and not to let anybody in. We were so happy when we got him out of
And he broke that cane in half. It is not easy altogether when children grow up, especially in Harbin, was very hard, and that’s after the Revolution. Chinese never threw a stone at you. Chinese never molested a child, no. So I have the best memories of the Chinese people. But after the (Russian) Revolution, yes. It was terrible.
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