HARBIN MEMORIES FROM YAACOV LIBERMAN
These excerpts are from MY CHINA: Jewish Life in the Orient 1900-1950 by Yaacov Liberman. Copyright © 1998 Gefen Publishing House, Ltd.
Publisher: Gefen Publishing House, Ltd. 6 Hatzvi Street, Jerusalem 94386, Israel
The Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94705 USA
Permission to print granted by Gefen Publishing House, Ltd., on April 10, 2007.
The book also includes chapters on the author's experiences in Shanghai, Tientsin and other cities in Asia, as well as additional chapters on Harbin.
Introduction Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
THE IMMIGRATION TO HARBIN
Between the end of the nineteenth century and 1930,
Harbin was slowly transformed from a small unknown Chinese village into a modern
city, often called "The Pearl of the Far East." Much credit for this transformation should go to its Russian
immigrants, many of whom were the employees of the Sino-Eastern Railway and to
others who were desperate exiles from the Bolshevik "paradise" of the recently
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Among them were a significant number of
Jews. Whether moderately well-off or penniless, the Russian Jews of Harbin were
united in a common desire to create an acceptable environment in which to live,
work and worship with as little outside interference as possible.
After the 1917 Revolution, a small but significant number of Jews chose Harbin as their temporary home. Eventually, some of them would spread further and would become instrumental in the development of the Jewish communities of Tientsin and
With great eagerness, the Jewish emigrants to Harbin established businesses - factories, restaurants, import-export offices and shops. Those with less means, as well as the younger generation, including neophyte entrepreneurs, found employment among the affluent members of the community. The more destitute were assisted, first on an individual
basis, and then gradually, by organized charitable institutions and societies such as the Home for the Aged and a Public Welfare Kitchen. Eventually, a well-equipped, modern hospital with its own clinic serviced all newcomers, most especially the destitute in need of medical care. All of these charities were run by devoted men and women who gave selflessly of their time, money and talent. A unique bonding of individuals and community soon came about.
My parents contributed significantly to this community
solidarity. My father, Semyon Liberman, emigrated to
No two backgrounds could have been more different. My mother, Gisia Zuboreva, was born into wealth in the city of Nikolaevsk on the Amur River, a city of Russia's Far East. Her father was the respected head of an industrial fishing complex that operated its own fleet of barges and ran a canning factory. For many years, until the Communists took over, the small lake by my grandparents' estate, in Grandfather's honor was named Zuborevsky Protok [Zuborev Channel]. In 1918, as the Bolsheviks approached, Grandfather Zuborev escaped empty-handed with his family to Harbin. With him went his wife, his two sons and two daughters. My mother was among the family members who fled. However, her older sister, Sarah, by then a married woman, remained behind.
Once in Harbin, the Zuborevs settled into a small apartment on Birzhevaia Ulitsa [Stock Exchange Str.], where they set up housekeeping.
In 1920, my parents "discovered" each other. Next year - they were married.
Although Dad was not ideologically inclined, he joined the General Zionists of
Harbin. However, communal activities were more to his liking, and his favorite
would be the founding of the Jewish Hospital and Clinic (Mishmeres Holim), of
which he was a long-term president.
As my parents, like other newcomers, would discover, schooling
in Harbin was provided by a variety of
educational facilities. Although the instruction in most primary schools was
given in Russian, in two English-language schools and a Talmud-Torah (Jewish
school), the Hebrew language was also taught as part of the curriculum. For
secondary school education, however, the majority of the Jewish youth in town
flocked to the Kommercheskoe Uchilishche
(the Commercial School), a Russian-language high school of such high standards
that its graduates matriculated with ease to the best European and American
The Talmud-Torah occupied a very special place in the life of the Jewish community of Harbin and loving memories of the devoted leaders and teachers of the only Jewish institution in town remain embedded in many a heart. The religious needs of the community were provided by Chief Rabbi Kiseleff, a man of great knowledge and wisdom, patient and tolerant; a man who bore a fathomless love for his people. He had the full support of the Jewish Spiritual Society, which oversaw Jewish life in Harbin. The main synagogue became more than the religious center of the community. Jews flocked to this magnificent structure on holidays, to mark a Bar Mitzvah, to observe memorials and to attend communal meetings of protest and solidarity. Services were enhanced by the presence of our talented Cantor Zlatkin and an excellent boy's choir. Other functionaries in the ritual life of the community were its shohet, Reb Litvin, who for many years supervised the ritual slaughter, and our mohel, Reb Rolband, who was a master of the ritual of circumcision.
The foundation of Harbin's Jewish community goes back to
the early twentieth century, when a few Jewish families from
Russia began to establish themselves in the muddy village on the Sungari River.
This was a period when Russia,
encroaching on Manchurian territory to the north, won the right to build and
supervise the Chinese Railway that one day would connect Khabarovsk with
Manchuria. Together, the Russians and the Chinese would transform Harbin into
the center of northern
These early Jewish arrivals, however, were not a homogenous group. Although schooling and a house of worship were of primary concern to the early settlers in Harbin, the newcomers came with wide-ranging and extremely diverse ideological affiliations. Indeed, social and philosophical
*See Irene Eber. "Passage through China," in the Exhibition Album dedicated to Far Eastern Jewry. (Tel Aviv: Bet-ha-Tfuzoth - The Museum of the Diaspora.)
quarrels were endemic to the Russian Jews. Debate was continuous among Russian Jewry in general. Political tolerance within the community would only come with its maturity. Russian Jewry, politically active during turbulent years in Russia, brought with it all of the sophisticated political "isms" of the day.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Zionism occupied a prominent place among these social philosophies, and consequently, a variety of Zionist parties sprang up in Harbin. The most permanent of these was the General Zionist Organization, or the party of the Algemein Zionists. While Professor Chaim Weizmann was their world leader, Dr. Kaufman, the popular head of the Harbin community, was their local chief. He managed to bring all varieties of Zionists together for practical purposes.
That spirit of rapprochement and consolidation, however, eluded the Bundists, whose politics were an amalgam of Judaism and Socialism. A continuous source of dissent and divisiveness during the formative years of the Harbin Jewish community, the Bundists in their opposition to Zionism were remote from world Jewry's goals of political rejuvenation and Jewish solidarity. Gradually, Zionism prevailed, the Harbin Bund disintegrated and the unity of the three Jewish communities was assured.
Elsewhere in China during the first two decades of the century, attempts to create Jewish centers arose wherever Jewish immigrants lived and worked. These were organized by Jews fleeing Russia, who either stopped short of, or passed by the great city of Harbin. Communities were established in Mukden, Tzitzigar, Chiefu,
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