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 2
1923-1929. "MY HARBIN"

When did my impressions of Harbin actually begin to form? My first recollection of the city goes back to the year 1928, when my family anxiously awaited the arrival of my Aunt Sarah from the Soviet Union.
    Although many Jews living in Harbin had escaped from Russia immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, only in the 1920s, and after hair-raising border crossings, did most refugees settle in this Manchurian city. Until Stalinism made attempted flight futile and suicidal, refugees continued to pour into Harbin.
    Among them was my aunt, a resident of
Vladivostok. My parents were anxious to see Aunt Sarah and Uncle Mulia emigrate to Harbin much earlier. Uncle Mulia, the manager of the Russian branch of Lurie & Co, a large international trading firm, felt that he could not abandon the home office without salvaging whatever he could. Soon thereafter, Mulia was arrested by the state security organ, the GPU. After weeks of agony and despair, Sarah learned that her husband had been thrown into a local prison. Arriving one morning at the prison gates and bearing her usual dry food, socks, a warm sweater and a change of underwear, she was informed that Mulia was not in his cell. Running from one official to another, she finally had a bundle of old clothing thrust into her arms. When Sarah asked what had become of her husband, the official replied:

 [Page 23]

"He was eaten by dogs." Hours later, friends found my aunt lying unconscious in the snow by the prison yard fence. After her hazardous journey by foot, rowboat and horse-driven cart, Sarah Feinberg finally managed to cross the Manchurian border. Like many others, she had been accompanied by provodniaki, special guides who made their strange livelihood guiding desperate refugees past barricades and across borders toward China. Aunt Sarah stayed with us for many years following her escape, but she never recovered completely from her deep misery and depression.

*  *  *

Not all Russian émigrés suffered Aunt Sarah's fate. The majority who settled in Harbin were unscarred physically or mentally, and adjusted easily and enthusiastically to life on Chinese soil. Nevertheless, these new arrivals in China, Jews and Gentiles alike, bore the status of refugees and were called White Russians to distinguish them from citizens of the Soviet Union, who lived in relative isolation. Socialization between Jews and Gentiles was minimal and, consequently, they were perceived as two exclusive ethnic entities. Gentiles became categorized as White Russians, whereas the Jews preferred to be known as stateless Russian Jews or simply as Jews from Russia. Nevertheless, the two separate communities of Russian and Jewish immigrants made joint and commendable use of the various existing facilities in town and patronized Russian cultural institutions. Both groups enjoyed Russian theater, ballet and occasional performances by local and visiting opera ensembles. They also mixed socially in various clubs, commercial societies and sports organizations, and occasional friendships were forged in school. Of course, there was no lack of competition and a healthy rivalry that sometimes erupted into unpleasant confrontations and intense animosity.
Both groups read Russian-language newspapers and journals, frequented libraries and public concerts, lectures and discussions. All derived their news and information from the two leading dailies in town:

[Page 24]

Zaria (The Dawn) and Rupor (The Mouthpiece), as well as from the weekly Rubezh (The Frontier). In addition to Jews and Gentiles, the so-called Russian refugee population comprised a third group, a gang of Russian anti-Semites, led by the notorious Konstantin Rodzaevsky. They were represented by the daily newspaper, Nash Put (Our Way), that used ethnic provocation and personal blackmail to spice up its pages. In addition to these publications, the Jewish community had its own Russian-language biweekly, Evreskaia Zhizn (Jewish Life), published by the Zionist organization and edited by the head of the community, Dr. Kaufman. In the 1930s, a second Zionist biweekly came to life and became a popular mouthpiece of Betar and the Revisionist Party.
    I spent my boyhood years in this environment. It was not unusual for a well-to-do middle-class family to hire a nanny for its offspring. I was introduced to my first niania at the age of five. A heavyset, meticulously dressed woman in her late fifties, she always wore starched dresses that buttoned down the front, trimmed with white lace collars. Once, after a particularly heavy rain storm, on our daily walk through town, niania attempted to take me by the hand so that I would not splatter myself in the filthy puddles along the pavement. That kind of coddling was not for me, and, pulling her toward a large pool of water, I jumped into it with both feet, splashing her from head to toe. The next day my mother was busy interviewing a succession of nianias for her mischievous son.
    As I approached my eighth year, it no longer became necessary for my parents to surround me with overseers, whose constant turnover gave me the reputation of being a difficult child. Not that I became tamer - I was merely becoming more mature and therefore too old to be accompanied by prune-faced, starched matrons. My father then decided it was time personally to take charge of my upbringing. Since Dad was busy in the office during most of the day, this turn of events should have been welcome to me, were it not for my mother's constant lectures regarding my abominable behavior. Nevertheless, I cannot complain about the severity of the parental punishment to which I was subjected. Only once

[Page 25]

was I whipped by my father; but then I crawled under my bed and was spared a real beating.
    One day when I had been grounded and wanted my freedom, I composed a short poem in Russian, an apology and a promise to change my ways. My father was so pleased at my ability to handle rhymes that he immediately agreed to pardon me and even offered to take mother and me to the movies. As it happened, we went to the premiere of an early talkie, The Merry Widow, starring Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. After that first literary success, I composed rhymes quite often and not only for the purpose of countering an occasional reprieve. In fact, I became quite skilled at versifying and soon it became an effortless endeavor. Even today I occasionally enjoy versifying, and find a power in poetry that can seldom be emulated by prose.
As I passed from boyhood into adolescence, I became more at ease in my mother's presence and was more relaxed in her company. Although I longed to become closer to my father, he was away most of the day. Of medium height, my father was heavy around the waist, and well on the way to losing his hair. What was left of it, he carefully parted on the side with a barely noticeable parting that soon disappeared as he balded. He wore heavy-rimmed eyeglasses, without which he could neither read nor see clearly. From early photos, I knew that Father had worn a mustache in his late teens and was a very handsome and popular bachelor. What never failed to impress me was the respect with which he was always treated by his peers. Throughout my life, I was repeatedly aware of the general opinion formed by all who knew him: "What a wonderful man Sema Liberman is!" As manager of an international trading company, owned by the well-known Kabalkin family, father held an important job. Thanks to his wit, charm and talent for telling jokes and anecdotes, he was often the center of attention at the many parties in town. Dad was always in awe of his bride and considered himself fortunate to have successfully captured the heart of a very beautiful woman, many years his junior, who had been so popular among the eligible bachelors of the community.

[Page 26]

When it came to me, Dad did not enjoy the role of disciplinarian; that was more my mother's job. He would often come home eager to hear of his son's latest accomplishments. Instead, more likely than not, he would be greeted by mother's complaints about my inadequacies, mischief-­making and other "crimes" of pre-puberty. Much as I became accustomed to my mother's anger at my misdemeanors, I could never ignore my father's displeasure with me, whether deserved or incited by my mother's remonstrations. But Dad loved Mother so blindly that, in his mind, she could never be wrong, and I more than once felt the injustice of that bias. I thought the world of my father and there was nothing more important to me than to please him and make him proud of me. In time, our relationship matured into friendship, and there was no end to the happiness I felt in having achieved this bond with my Dad.

*  * 

Gradually, as I became more independent, I began to explore my city, and became more attuned to its spirit and atmosphere. Since most of us lived in Pristan, the lower part of town, we walked to work and everywhere else. During the 1920s, and even later, for that matter, no one in Harbin owned a car. The most popular way to get around town was by izvoshchik - a cabby with a carriage, much like those that one can still see today in New York City's Central Park. For rare trips to Novyi Gorod, the New City, and the elevated part of town, we used public buses. Some of my friends were the proud owners of bicycles, but these were costly and even to walk my bike on the city streets would provoke the envy of my peers.
    To really feel the pulse of the city of Harbin, you must locate its heart. And only when you find the source of the heartbeat will you understand and appreciate the city itself. Kitaiskaia Ulitsa (Chinese Street), the main street of Harbin, is its heart and its soul. Wherever you go, you are bound either to pass or cross this street that mirrors the life and the mood of the city and often reflects its major events. There are longer and wider streets in the world. The Champs Elysées in Paris, Piccadilly in London and Fifth

[Page 27]

Avenue in
New York are rich in historical associations and each city has a unique urban character. But to a boy like me, no street could compare to Chinese Street, which combined a main thoroughfare, a shopping mall, a promenade, a restaurant row and a parade ground.
    When the Russians relinquished their rights to the railway, one could register that transfer in the diminishing crowds and the slower, sadder pace of the passers-by. When the famous and beloved Dr. Kazenbeck passed away, one could sense the mood of the city on Chinese Street where throngs of citizens, eyes filled with tears, walked behind the catafalque of the revered doctor. And with the birth of the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1931, one could read the resentment, the cynicism and the anger in every passing face. In fact, it was on
Chinese Street that one could best discern the character of the future Soviet "conquerors," when as an aftermath of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic explosions, the Red Army marched into Manchuria. It was on this street that Soviet soldiers would drive right into the display windows of shops and boutiques and plunder their merchandise.
    To the Jewish population,
Chinese Street had its own significance. As one peered from the Sungari shore toward the city, one could note that Chinese Street branched into dozens of smaller streets, one of which was the Kommercheskaya Ulitsa (Street of Commerce). Occupying a large part of this street stood the Hall of Commerce, housing one of the largest Russian-language schools, a theatre, a library, a spacious playground and a restaurant. Next to this complex lay a large open field with a wooden hut, serving as a space for track and field events during the summer months and as a skating rink in winter. Farther down the street lived hundreds of foreigners, among them many members of the Jewish community.
    Among the non-Jewish shops on Chinese Street were many corner kiosks that sold booza, a Caucasian soft drink, and baklava, a Greek pastry, gastronomic delights that were ever so popular among our youth. Scores of other shops on
Chinese Street belonged to Jewish merchants who traded in women's clothing, furs, jewels, shoes and hats. The Victoria

[Page 28]

Cafe, owned by the Bresler family, and the Cafe Mars, owned by the Zukermans, were among the best in town. Farther down the street one could catch the enticing aroma of a first-class delicatessen that sold red and black caviar straight from the barrel at a few pennies a pound!
Another delicatessen around the corner on Artillery Street belonged to a friend of my father, Owsiej Lias, whose son became one of my closest and dearest friends. Lias sold milk products and pickled vegetables, the taste of which was equalled by none. Many of my younger contemporaries would stop by for a glass of kefir, fermented goat's milk, which is no doubt the mother of all yogurts.
Amidst all these shops and restaurants, and majestically towering above all of them, loomed Churin's department store, the largest in town, where one might shop to one's heart's content or rendezvous. Next to Churin stood the architectural pride of the city, the Hotel Moderne, which housed the largest auditorium (used for theater, movies and concerts), a ballroom, restaurants and shops. The hotel was owned and managed by a prominent member of the Jewish community, Joseph Kaspe, whose personal tragedy had a deep and lasting effect on every Jew in town.

*  * 

I passed from childhood into boyhood during the years of Japanese domination. Except for emergencies requiring Japanese security and political control, the permissiveness and tolerance on the part of the Japanese administrators led to chaos and anarchy. This atmosphere encouraged Japanese underworld figures to surface, to plunder, to torment and to exploit the population without fear of retribution. In Harbin this element found a willing and anxious ally in the person of Konstantin Rodzaevsky and his bandits and hooligans. One of his top lieutenants was a criminal named Martinoff, who, with his gang, was responsible for kidnappings, targeted at the Jews, that terrorized the city of Harbin. None more stunned our community than did the kidnapping

[Page 29]

and murder of Michael Koffman,* a founder of Harbin's largest bakery, Meyron Meizin, and the young musician, Simon Kaspe.
    A brilliant pianist, Simon Kaspe had come from France, where he was a citizen, to
Harbin to visit his parents and to give several piano recitals. After his abduction, the French Consul interfered and insisted that the ransom demanded of his father be delayed, so that the French government might have an opportunity to intervene with the Harbin authorities. Soon after, Joseph Kaspe received a second note from the kidnappers. Enclosed in this one were Simon's ear lobes! Almost immediately thereafter, the kidnappers, afraid of being caught by the authorities who, due to the Consular intervention were now hot on the case, began running from one hideout to the other, brutalizing and eventually shooting their victim.
At Simon's funeral, in keeping with Jewish tradition, Joseph Kaspe insisted on seeing his son for the last time. When his wish was granted by members of the Jewish Burial Society, the Hevra Kadisha, poor Joseph let out an inhuman scream. In the coffin lay a mangled corpse with an unrecognizable face - half was swollen and half was in a state of decay from frost and gangrene. Joseph Kaspe was brought back home to the Hotel Moderne a broken man. That day, he did not only lose his son - he lost his sanity as well.
    The murderers were caught, tried and sentenced. However, due to the intervention of the Japanese gendarmerie, which had willingly capitulated to Rodzaevsky's pleas that an anti-Communist agenda had been the only premise for the plot, they were released.
Dr. Kaufman, whose courageous protests against the Kaspe affair were met with insults and provocations on the editorial pages of Rodzaevsky's Our Way, could scarcely imagine that some thirteen years later, he, too,

*Mr. Koffman's younger son, Boris, became my close friend in Shanghai, as did George Terk. Boris died of a virus infection in his late teens. I was blessed with George's friendship for many years. He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles.

[Page 30]

would suffer a tragic fate. Like Kaspe's, his victimization would leave its imprint on the
Harbin Jewish community in its last phase.
It was a black day for all residents of the city, when in 1945 some two dozen leaders of every existing community were invited to the Hotel Moderne by the Soviet authorities, who had walked into
Manchuria a few days before General MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender on the deck of the Missouri, in the Bay of Tokyo. None of the gathered dignitaries, including Abram Yosefovich Kaufman and several other members of the executive committee of the Harbin Spiritual Association, returned home that night.* The group included Moses Zimin, Israel Orloff and Alexander Raskin, all of whom were transported secretly across the border and eventually incarcerated in the GULAG, with but a few survivors. Dr. Kaufman was among them. He was met at Israel's Lod airport by his loving family and hundreds of grateful immigrants from Harbin, whose cause he so gallantly championed and for whose preservation he had sacrificed so much.

*  * 

In the 1920s, however, the Hotel Moderne was a showpiece of Chinese Street. Harbin itself was a thriving, pulsating city, wherein both young and old found a safe haven and a productive, exciting and interesting life. Here, in the vastness called China, remote from other Jewish and Zionist organizations and leaders, a proud and honorable generation of young men and women emerged that one day would be a precious Jewish resource in our struggle for statehood and the rejuvenation of our people.

*Many others were arrested and transported to prison camps in the Soviet Union. Two of my Betar colleagues, Yosef Halperin (the talented poet) and Misha Kachanovsky (head of the Betar Tel Hal Fund), were among them. Yosef died in a camp somewhere in the Soviet Union, while Misha was rescued, thanks to the efforts of his family and the State of Israel. He lived a healthy and productive life, until his early sixties, when he was stricken by a heart attack.

Continue to Chapter 3

Back to Harbin Main Page

Web Page: Copyright © 2007 Irene Clurman