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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 3

In the 1920s and 1930s world attention was focused on the new Europe, on the emergence of Fascism in Germany and Italy, on the specter of international Communism and on Japan's aggressive policy in Manchuria and South China.
Anti-Semitism in Europe was rampant. Almost ten million Jews were living in Europe, and each passing day was bringing them closer to the abyss. As early as 1923 in Latvia, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, with the able assistance of Aron Propes, had organized the Brit Trumpeldor, the Jewish national youth movement that came to be called simply, Betar.
Whether in Europe or in Palestine, or even in faraway China, young Jews were enraged by the injustices inflicted on their people, and by their passive acceptance. Suddenly, with heads held high, proud and resolute, Jewish youth everywhere began to speak of Jewish Statehood, self-defense, honor and justice, of equality and independence!
In Harbin the young Jewish community was no different. Here, too, young people decided to organize. They, too, vowed to learn the art of self-defense, and they, too, aspired to steep themselves in the historical past of their people. Defensive sports, athletics and team games were zealously pursued. One group of Jewish students, under the capable leadership of Genna Mordohovitch (Zvi Meroni), organized themselves

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under the name of Ha-shomer-ha-tzair. According to Mordohovitch, the exact date of inception was May 18, 1929. Ha-shomer-ha-tzair is a name actually taken from a leftist Zionist youth organization that existed at the time in Palestine and Europe and that was beginning to have an impact on Jewish youth in pre-revolutionary Russia. It took several years for members of Harbin's Ha-shomer-ha-tzair to realize that ideologically speaking they had very little in common with an organization that had been founded to promote Socialism among young Zionists everywhere.
    The true architects and founders of this first branch of Jabotinsky's Youth Movement in Harbin included: Leva Piastunovitch, Mordechai (Motia) Olmert, Nissan Lifshitz, Paul Pinsky, Reva Levin, Abrasha Ifland and Lela Kotovitch, who constituted the first executive council of the newly formed organization. However, they were not alone in their efforts.
    By a happy coincidence, Alexander Yakovlevich Gurvitch had recently arrived in Harbin. Russian-born and German educated, Gurvitch spoke both German and Russian fluently. In Europe he had been an active member of Jabotinsky's Revisionist Party and was privileged to meet and work with the great leader before leaving for China in 1929.
    Alexander Yakovlevich helped to establish Betar and to disband the Ha-shomer-ha-tzair organization. He ably conveyed Jabotinsky's ideas and teachings to the nationalistically minded youths of Harbin, and together with them he succeeded in raising the banners of Betar and the Revisionist Party in the city of Harbin. Gurvitch became the first president of the Revisionist movement in China. In future years he would serve as the netziv (leader) of Betar in China and would forever be revered as one of its founders.
    Thus, a new chapter was opened in the history of the Jewish community in China - a history in which many of us played out our various parts and which helped mold our lives from beginning to end. As we glance back with nostalgia and pride to those days, we recall how young girls and boys willingly forsook entertainment, luxury and a carefree existence for daily self-discipline.

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    It is not unusual for nationalistic organizations to subscribe to lofty ideals and barely achievable goals. But the rank and file membership of these organizations is made up of average youngsters who join the nationalistic ranks because it is "in style," because they liked its activities or simply because of the attraction of the opposite sex. When, however, someone proved himself or herself by actually showing a readiness to sacrifice everything for the sake of the ultimate goal, that someone became a hero overnight. Songs would be sung about their deeds. Books and plays would be written about their achievements.
    In our Betar in China there were scores of such heroes who formed the movement, led it, showed the way to others and were a living example of devotion and sacrifice. The pioneers who helped to create the Harbin Betar, and in later years the Betar branches in Tientsin and Shanghai, were all, without exception, true Zionists - dreamers of a Jewish homeland and patriots of a national rejuvenation. Jabotinsky provided the framework and eloquently spelled out for them their own feelings and beliefs. This generation of Betar leaders, living far away from centers of Zionism and Revisionism, nurtured themselves on Jabotinsky's feuilletons and latest articles. Soon, they converted words and dreams into action and reality.
    Not all agree on what constituted Betar's most significant contribution to organized Jewish life in China. Some will argue that it was the security Betar provided with its brave stand against hooliganism and anti-Semitic violence. Others will claim that Betar's education, physical training and social activities contributed to the healthy upbringing of Jewish youth. Many would agree that Betar's colorful parades on the streets of Harbin, Shanghai and Tienstin, as well as its members' achievements in athletic competitions and team tournaments, contributed greatly to the prestige and honor of all Jews in China. However, there is no doubt whatsoever that Betar's most significant contribution to Zionism was the early aliyah, emigration to Eretz Israel of Harbin's pioneers from the ranks of Betar. They all voluntarily had given up the comforts of living at home with their families for a life on

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barren soil to which they were welcomed skeptically by the Mapai-controlled Yishuv of Palestine.* They all arrived bearing certificates reluctantly handed to them by the Jewish Agency officers, only because there was no one else interested in filling the minimal quota allotted to the faraway communities in China.
    These courageous young men and women served as shining examples of sacrifice and patriotism, which they all continued to display so gallantly throughout their productive lives in Eretz Israel. Whether as pioneers in Plugot-Avoda,** as underground heroes during the days of struggle or as members of the Knesset (Israel's Parliament) after the birth of statehood, all but one continued a close association with the Jabotinsky Movement.
    Not only did two members of this group of "Chinese" pioneers become members of Israel's legislative body, but Ehud Olmert, one of its sons, born in Israel, became a prominent parliamentarian and served as Minister of Health in Itzhak Shamir's government. Today he is mayor of Jerusalem!
    Ehud's father, Mordechai, was one of the pillars of Betar in Harbin. He had traveled a long and difficult road before reaching the halls of Israel's Knesset. In his early career, he had studied farming and agriculture in Denmark. After many years of pioneering work at Nahlat Jabotinsky, he became the moving spirit behind Herut's Department of Settlements and key villages.***
    Another member (actually the first) of the Knesset from China was a young man from Harbin, Eliahu (Ilyusha) Lankin. Books have been written about the remarkable contributions of Ilyusha to the Irgun

*Mapai, or Miphleget Poalei Eretz Yisrael, is the name of the Israel Workers' Party which controlled the Jewish Agency.
**The Plugot Avoda was the name of the working brigades of the Betar in
Palestine .
***Nahlat Jabotinsky was the first permanent settlement of Betar in Eretz Israel . It was established in the days of the British Mandate and situated on the outskirts of Benyamina. Herut, or Tnuat Ha-Herut, was the political party founded by Menachem Begin and his underground colleagues after the establishment of the State of Israel. Eventually it replaced the Revisionist Party in Israel and embraced all members of the Jabotinsky Movement.

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Tzevai Leumi (the National Military Organization). A prominent member of the Irgun executive council, Lankin spent years in detention and returned heading a large contingent of Irgun volunteers on board the famous Altalena,* the ship that carried armaments and ammunition to Israel in 1948. Many years later Lankin served a four-year tenure as Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, before returning to Jerusalem and resuming the practice of law.
    In this context, Robert Bitker, too, must not be forgotten. The only netziv or leader of Betar in Shanghai who left for Palestine as an immigrant prior to the rebirth of the Jewish State, Bitker was appointed by Jabotinsky to head the Irgun underground. His appointment was made immediately after its painful split into the Lechi, under Abraham Stern, and the Irgun, under the command of Jabotinsky.**
    Unfamiliar with Palestine, not yet fluent in Hebrew and relatively inexperienced, he lacked the capacities required to lead this underground movement. It soon became necessary to replace him and to smuggle him out of the country right under the noses of British Intelligence. Bitker then resumed command of the Shanghai Betar for a brief period before leaving to join his family in the United States. The Irgun command was passed to David Raziel.
    Others, perhaps less prominent, also made important contributions. Some became well-known writers, educators, business owners and entrepreneurs. Their names and their contributions toward Jewish Statehood will never be forgotten. They have added both pride and glory to the name: a Betari from China!***

*On the Altalena, see Chapter 15.
**"Lechi" is an acronym for Lochamei Herut
Israel , Fighters for the Freedom of Israel. The main split with the Irgun was caused by Stern's insistence that the war with Britain must go on even during the world war against Fascism. After World War Two ended, the Irgun and the Lechi often cooperated but never combined.
***The Betarim who reached Palestine during the early thirties include: Misha Abugoff, Daniel Berkovich, Robert Bitker, Nikka Germant, "Fish" Gershevich, Abrasha Ifland, Israel Kabalkin, Lela Kotovitch, Yasha Krasnoff, Nema Kroll, Sania Kroll, Eliahu Lankin, Ya'acov Lankin, Morechai Lesk, Erik Levin, Reva Levin, Nissan Lifshitz, Reva Lifshitz, Moshe Michelovsky,
Zvi Mordohovitch, Sarah Morohovskaya, Mara Morguleff, Israel Nadel, Mordechai Olmert, Gena Raisky, Lelia Ravikovitch, Mulik Rolband, Senia Rosen, Israel Solovei, Peter Steinberg, Grisha Vernikoff and Bella Woogman. Some names may have been inadvertently omitted.

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    Several of our pioneers have died. Among them are two of the very first, Abrasha If land and the beloved leader of Harbin 's Betar, Mordechai (Momchik) Lesk. Most, however, are still alive and continue to contribute to the growth and security of the Jewish State.
    Finally, Abram Milichiker was deprived by fate of joining the ranks of achievers in Eretz
Israel. One of the few leaders of the Harbin Betar who rose from its ranks, Abram, in his quiet, persistent, dedicated way, was an example to all around him. Betar and its ideology became the very essence of his beautiful young life. In his dedication, in his capacity for friendship, Abram had no equal. A model Betari, up to the day of his premature death, Milichiker remained the perfect embodiment of Jabotinsky's dream of a new generation of Jewish youth.

*  *  *

As Betar grew in strength and reputation, its larger circle included loyal friends of the organization who were prominent in the Jewish community, among them Joseph Berkovitch and Leo Tomchinsky. With the development of the youth movement, its political arm, the Revisionist Party expanded its varied activities. Soon, with the financial assistance of Friends of Betar, the movement began to publish a biweekly magazine called Ha-degel (The Flag). The regular publication of Jabotinsky's latest articles and feuilletons guaranteed its success and a wide readership. Many local writers, led by Shura Gershkovich, the driving force of this publication, became steady contributors. Among them were Alexander Gurvitch, Sema Klein, David Udovich, Leo Nadel, Michael lonis, Yana Moiseev and Rasha and Yosef Halperin.
    As a boy, I was unaware of the historic implications of their work. On the other hand, my activities now drew me to the young people's

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community center and recreational center. Here I met many youngsters my age and developed friendships that lasted a lifetime. By coincidence, the Betar summer facilities were located next door to the recreation area called the ploshchadka (literally, little market square.) The two properties were separated by a long fence with many a crack between the boards, which made it extremely easy to peer from one into the other. The ploshchadka space encompassed a large playground, a garden, a small shell-shaped outdoor stage, a room for crafts activities and a roofed shelter, while the Betar area held a small building, two dressing rooms, another roofed covering used for boxing and physical exercises, a large glassed-in hall (used as a dressing room for skaters in winter), a large track and volleyball and basketball courts. On the Betar side of the fence, in large letters, a sign read: "Vzdorouom tele, zdorovyi dukh" ("A healthy spirit in a healthy body"). Little did I know how much time in the future I would be spending on this side of the fence.
    In the meantime, my interests were completely monopolized by the community center, its boyhood challenges and my newfound friends.

Continue to Chapter 4

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