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Harbin Documents and Photographs from the Galat (Galatzky) Family

Biography and photos courtesy of Bonnie and Suzanne Galat, daughters of Alexander Galat

Alexander (Shura) Galatzky was born in 1912 in Poltava, Ukraine, then part of the tzarist Russian Empire, and died in south Florida in 2005.  He was the only child of Benjamin and Nadia (nee Paltzeva) Galatzky. 

At the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Shura’s father was working in the U.S. where he had a brother and a plan to send money to his wife, so that she and his young son could join him there.  Unfortunately, amidst the chaos of the period, his hard-earned savings were “lost” in transit, and Benjamin realized he could not spend another few years saving sums to bring his wife and child to him. He decided to reunite with them in Harbin, Manchuria, where an established Russian community, including a Jewish community, had developed since the late 1800s.

 Nadia, a young woman in her twenties at the time, was left to her own devices to plan and negotiate the passage for herself and their son.  Shura remembered the trans-Siberian train journey that took several months and required his mother to barter the few rags and goods she carried and plead with the various contingents of soldiers, revolutionaries, opportunists for food and safe passage eastward.  In letters written later in life, Shura recounted how, at around the age of 7, he and his mother arrived in Harbin and were reunited with Benjamin after several years. Shura looked up and asked, “Are you my father?” 

Life in Harbin offered the Galatzky family some stability and gradual upward mobility.  Benjamin became a bookkeeper for cattlemen. The pictures Shura kept from the period show a nicely appointed apartment. Letters tell of being able to rent vacation properties across the Sungari River.

Shura kept diaries throughout his school years in Harbin.  His entries speak of very normal boyhood concerns, friendships, rivalries, crushes on girls, writing plays for the school theater club, going to Betar meetings for Zionist youth and having the occasional run-in with Russian nationalist youths. He received a solid education at the Harbin Commercial School, had his Bar Mitzvah in the community, wrote poetry, studied art and took piano lessons. 

As his high school graduation approached in 1929, he and his parents had to decide where he should go to university. In Shura’s diaries, he writes with some sentimentality that all his friends were scattering across the globe “forever”.  Graduation pictures show well-dressed classmates posing for professional photographers with handwritten words of friendships to be cherished and remembered. 

It was ultimately decided that Shura would travel with one of his close friends, Boris Lesk, to Paris, France to study.  The two boys, 17 and 18 years old, left together from Dalian by boat to Shanghai. They continued their journey over a couple of months in steerage aboard a ship which was transporting French colonial soldiers to various locations.  Pictures, a passport and a visa booklet record the boys passing through Ceylon, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Suez and finally Marseilles. From Marseilles, they made their way north to Paris.

Shura spent 10 years in Paris, first learning French, then getting admitted to the Institut de Chemie and ultimately earning a PhD in Chemistry in 1934.  During that time, he was unable to travel back to Harbin to see his parents, who, following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1932, found their living conditions deteriorating.  At some point thereafter, they make a decision to leave and resettle in the U.S.  Meanwhile, Shura was a stateless Russian Jew living in France on the eve of the Nazi Occupation!  Luckily, he was able to get visa papers to the U.S. in 1938, leaving Paris to join his parents in New York. 

Once in the U.S., Shura became Alexander Galat and lived the “American Dream.” He married Helen Grankin in 1940. They eventually had three children and made their home in Westchester County, where Alexander worked in his own laboratory and invented and patented processes and drugs which were sold to the large pharmaceutical companies. In addition to inventing the patient-friendly testing strips for diabetics marketed as Clinitest by Miles Labs, other notable work included a novel treatment for chronic urinary infections marketed as Urex and Hiprex by Riker-3M, a synthetic caffeine process developed for Coca-Cola during World War II, when caffeine was in short supply, an anticaries process for Procter and Gamble. During several decades of work up until his death, he devoted himself to perfecting injectable, soluble and transdermal aspirin.  His later years also included artistic creativity, and his unique oil paintings on acrylic were exhibited in gallery shows in Florida.

Epilogue from daughter Bonnie Galat: My father’s 1929 Commercial High School class held several reunions, all in Israel.  The first took place in 1970 and brought together at least 15 of the Harbin “boys” who came from Australia, Japan, the U.S., France and Germany.  Pictures show them toasting each other and remembering their professors, for whom my father wrote a poem to recognize a debt of gratitude they all felt for having received a top-notch education in such a remote and unlikely place as Harbin, Manchuria.

Click on any image below for a larger version.

Birth certificate from the Rabbinate of Poltava, Ukraine, for Alexander Galatzky, born in 1912.  The certificate was submitted to French authorities when Alexander (Shura) left Harbin to study in Paris.

Early photos of Alexander Galatzky and his mother Nadia in Poltava, Ukraine, where he was born.

Alexander Galatzky in his
school uniform in Harbin.

A teenage Alexander with his parents
Benjamin and Nadia in Harbin.

Benjamin and Nadia (nee Paltzeva) Galatzky in Harbin.
Benjamin worked as an accountant for cattlemen.

Alexander and his parents Benjamin and Nadia spent summers at a rental
on the Sungari River near Harbin.

Benjamin and Nadia Galatzky stand in front of their dacha on Sun Island on the Sungari (now Songhua) River.

Alexander, right, was an avid boxer.


Rowboats provided transportation in Harbin’s shopping district during the flood of 1932. Benjamin and Nadia Galatzky left Harbin for the U.S. shortly after the flood. Alexander already was studying in Paris.

Leisure activities, including tennis, were part of the Harbin social scene, as shown in photos of Alexander's parents and of Alexander posing with his friends.

Formal portraits and a snapshot of Alexander’s school friend Ronya Tsirulskaya from 1929, taken shortly before he left Harbin to study in Paris. On the back of the snapshot, she wrote, “In the noise of Paris with your new friends, perhaps you can once in a while remember me.” Ronya later studied art in Harbin and Shanghai.

Ronya Tsirulskaya in the Harbin
city garden in 1932.

Harbin residents enjoyed both summer and winter recreation in Harbin.

Renting a sled was a popular pasttime on Harbin's frozen river in winter. The sleds were dubbed
tolki-tolki in Russian, which means "push-push." Local Chinese hired out the sleds and pushed them while running.

While Alexander was studying in France, his friend Ronya Tsirulskaya (Tsiroulsky) wrote to him of her life in Harbin and her longing to travel.  Her letter, originally written in Russian, was routed through the USSR to reach Paris.

Alexander, fourth from left in back row, with graduating high school friends in Harbin in 1929. They include Paul Pinsky, far left in back row, and Boris Lesk, center in back row. Alexander accompanied Boris to Paris, where Boris had relatives who provided support and lodging to the boys. Boris studied aeronautical engineering and for a period after the war served as a ranking official in the Air Ministry of France.

Alexander, second from left in the back row, and his friends from Harbin Commercial High School reunite in Herzliya, Israel, in 1970. Paul Pinsky is seated in front. In the back row, Boris Lesk is fourth from left and Monya Pines is fifth from left.

Inside and outside pages of Alexander Galatzky’s 1929 graduation certificate from the Harbin Commercial School.

Alexander’s high school grade sheet showed his excellent marks.

Alexander successfully applied to have his Harbin Commercial School diploma approved as the equivalent of a baccalaureate degree in order to enroll at the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Paris. This document lists him as living with his sponsor in Paris, Dr. S. Kessel, who was the father of the novelist/journalist Josef Kessel.  Josef Kessel was the first Jew to be admitted to the French Academy and was a cousin of Boris Lesk, with whom Alexander traveled.

This 1934 document summoned Alexander Galatzky to appear at the French police prefecture to obtain a Nansen passport, an internationally recognized travel document issued to stateless refugees through the League of Nations. These documents were known as "Nansen passports" because the Norwegian statesman and polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen originated and promoted them. His Nansen passport allowed Alexander to rejoin his parents in New York on the eve of the Nazi occupation of France.

 Travel Documents

Front Cover

Page 1

Page 2

Pages  3 & 4

Pages 5 & 6

Pages 7 & 8

Pages  9 & 10

Pages  11 & 12

Pages  13 & 14

Written in Chinese, French, English and Russian, this booklet from the Chinese Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China in Harbin allowed Alexander Galatzky to travel to France by ship via the lengthy Suez route. The document says the purpose of the trip was "to continue his education."  One of the stamps in the booklet is from Colombo, a major city Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and another is from Saigon.

Front Cover

Pages 2 & 3

Pages 4 & 5

Pages 6 & 7

Visa document in Russian and Chinese for Alexander Galatzky, age 17.

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