KehilaLinks Logo. Harbin,
Heilongjiang PROVINCE,


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


Chapter 1

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 formed 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 Shanghai.
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

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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 Harbin out of economic necessity. Born in 1893 in Sevastopol, in the Crimea, he grew up in a home in which money was scarce. Immediately upon graduating from high school, he had to help support his three sisters and a brother. When in 1916 he was offered a job as an accountant in Harbin, he moved his siblings to this story-book city in the faraway Orient, where they began a new life.
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.

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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 universities.
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.

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From his emigration to Harbin in the 1920s, up to his brutal arrest and deportation to the Soviet Union in 1945, Dr. Avram Yosefovich Kaufman remained its leader. A gifted organizer, fervent Zionist and an excellent lecturer, orator and writer, he was a charming and brilliant human being as well.

*  *  *

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 Manchuria and endow the city with an unmistakable European-Russian character that has remained its hallmark to the present day.* To the outside world, China's weakness was the result of internal animosity and dissent. At the very time when the Jews of Harbin were consolidating a Jewish community, China was undergoing constant political changes and bitter fratricidal strife that toppled the Ch'ing dynasty from the throne, allowed warlords to usher in anarchic rule and ultimately made possible the advent of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Throughout this turmoil, Harbin's tiny Jewish population remained unaffected and continued its tireless efforts to build a vibrant community that one day would number some twelve thousand.
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.)

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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, Tsingtao and Dairen. Short-lived, in many instances these were remarkable communities, in that no matter how small their membership (at times they numbered no more than a dozen people), they coalesced out of an intense desire for communal belonging. In a tiny community in Manchuria, for example, this effort resulted in the actual purchase of land and the building of a synagogue and a small school!

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    Towering above them all, however, and outlasting them by several decades was the Jewish community of Harbin. Its vitality was not due simply to the large numbers of Jews who flocked to this city, but rather to the unrelenting devotion of those early pioneers and their loyal followers, who molded a group of refugees into a proud and creative Jewish community.

Continue to Chapter 2

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