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 4

The year 1932 began frigidly if uneventfully. Sub-zero winters produced seasonal delights: in the afternoon, ice-skating in rinks, sledding down snowy river banks and traversing the frozen Sungari River, by means of the tolkai-tolkai* (push-push, in pidgin Russian); at supper time, fortifying our bodies with Siberian dumplings called pel'meny; and then after dark, nourishing our souls with an evening at the theater. Each is worthy of comment, as each, in its own right, was memorable.
Harbin used to be served at the "Stop Signal" restaurant on the other side of the Sungari River. To get there, one had to navigate the river on a tolkai-tolkai, a contraption that looks like a chair, or sleigh. In fact, it is operated by a driver who pumps a spear-like stick between his legs that hits the ice below and creates a motion that can generate a frightening velocity. The passenger sits bundled up in the chair and dreams all the while of the boiling soup and pel'meny that await him. Thus would my friends and I escape from the dreary world of classes and teachers.

Tolkai-tolkai should be pronounced "tol-KAI" with a diphthong effect on the last syllable.

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In spite of the freezing weather, our houses were warm, protected by cotton-insulated double windows. From October to March, wall stoves, heated with wood and coal, burned day and night. Winter days and nights lured us out-of-doors to the public skating rinks, where bands would play in the evenings, and pairs and singles would perform figure and race skating to the delight of those who came to learn or simply to watch.  
    As I grew older, I often wondered what the Chinese population was doing while we continued to enjoy life in this city. That question continued to perplex me for many years. Hardly any Chinese youngsters shared our activities, and the grown-ups seemed to have moved out of sight in order to leave us, their guests, in total privacy.
In reality, of course, this Chinese invisibility was but an illusion based on lack of insight and observation. The Chinese outnumbered the foreigners more than a hundred to one. We lived among the Chinese masses in splendid isolation and our paths would cross only when our own needs depended on their assistance as shopkeepers, street peddlers, brokers, salesmen, cooks, drivers or amahs (Chinese or Japanese live-in maids). We were also very much aware of the Harbin handymen, whom we needed, and of the beggars, who needed us.  

*  *  *

For the Jewish community as a whole, the year 1932 also began well. The city's Jewish women were the first to learn the Chinese language and to use it vociferously during their daily games of mahjong. The game was played with ivory-colored cubes, measuring three-by-five centimeters, with various Chinese lettering drawn on the inner, white portion. These ivory pieces were assembled on a foot-long wooden container. When a lady would throw in her matching cards, she would shout out in Chinese, "Pong, Kong or Chow!" Once the right combination was collected on the container, the winning lady would turn the cube holder outward, displaying her winning set and exclaim, "mahjong!" Between the shuffling of the ivory pieces and the ladies' excited screams of different

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Chinese words, the noise level in the house would become deafening. In fact, it was rumored that on more than one occasion, robberies took place in homes or apartments during mahjong games, and not a single player noticed the rude intrusion.  
    But in all fairness it must be noted that mahjong was not the only preoccupation of the Jewish ladies, whether in
Harbin, Tientsin or Shanghai. In the early 1930s charity funds were collected by the various ladies' committees of the community. In addition to undertaking philanthropy for the needy, the hungry and the sick, the Harbin Jewish women also helped solicit funds for the Talmud-Torah, the Israeli Fund Collection boxes and the Hevra Kadisha (Burial Society). Betar had its own annual Hanukah evening, a splendid communal event that financed a variety of Betar activities. Before long, women of the Jewish communities of Tientsin and Shanghai also took over the collection of funds from the men, with gratifying results. All in all, the Jewish communities of the Far East became exemplary in the development of their philanthropic agencies and in the yearly expressions of individual generosity.  

*  *  *

In 1932 I became nine years old. I also began to experience the first pangs of peer pressure. As a result, I began to rebel against the sissified clothing mother selected for me. Her preferences were for heavy wool knicker suits that buttoned below the knee, and long, knitted socks that covered the calf. Boys of my age preferred to wear long full slacks in winter and short-shorts during the summer months. We also liked turtleneck sweaters during the cold season and solid-colored open shirts in summer. At times, we were able to convince our parents to dress us as WE liked best. However, at parties or on holidays it was simply futile to argue.  
    Because of the cold winters and very hot summers, I was forced to wear fur-lined hats with ear-muffs from December to March, and cork hats, much like those worn by officers of the Light Brigade, in summer as

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protection from sunstroke. Since hats were mandatory, I was often taken by my father to Gurvitch's haberdashery. Strange as it may seem, these visits had their peculiar rewards. A kindly old man, Mr. Gurvitch was famous for his strange way of stuttering in a loud bass with long gulps for air between vowels. With the cruelty of youngsters my age, I found this amusing and often turned my hat-buying agony into a pleasant and entertaining experience at Mr. Gurvitch's expense. However, as soon as I was old enough to protest against this ridiculous attire, I joined many of my friends by discarding the headgear in both the winter and summer months.  
    Most of my friends, of many different backgrounds, attended summer camp at the ploshchadka. During these months, I first met some of the girls and boys with whom I was destined to share many wonderful years of friendship. Boris Koffman and Ura Terk were a part of our group. Others included Teddy Kaufman (son of Dr. Kaufman, who is currently the president of Igud Yotzei Sin in Tel Aviv);* Joe Wainer, who later became my close friend and roommate in school; Ura Horosh, whose stage career I helped to launch; Mira Treyman (my first girlfriend); and countless others. I became active at the ploshchadka together with my two cousins, Bertha Oppenheim and Boris Zuboreff, with whom I always enjoyed a very special camaraderie.  
    In those carefree summer days, we engaged in sports, arts and crafts, singing and folk dancing. We all, except for Ura Horosh, managed to rid ourselves of our governesses! To supervise his every step, Ura's mother, however, had insisted on keeping his old German governess, Frau Pauline. The whole town came to recognize Frau Pauline in search of her elusive charge as she would shout "Urikum, geh nach haus!" ["Urik, go home!"]

*The Igud Yotzei Sin, the Association of Immigrants from China, was created by a small group of former community activists in China. It has a very large membership, with branches today in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sydney, Australia. It publishes a bi-monthly magazine in Russian, English and Hebrew. Teddy Kaufman has been its president for well over twelve years. Igud's main purpose is to provide financial assistance to the needy.

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Among the many games we played, there was one that eventually helped me make the baseball team in high school. It was called lapta, from the Russian word lopata, or shovel, and it consisted of fielding and batting. The game required no bases, and those in the field ran a straight line at a distance of thirty to fifty meters from the batsman. Positioned next to the batsman, the pitcher would throw the ball gently into the air, about two meters high, the batsman would then smack it and run for dear life! The only way to get the batsman out was for the fielding team to catch the ball in mid-air or to pitch the retrieved ball at the runner and hit him (hopefully below the neck) before he returned to the baseline from which he ran. A cheap sport, it could be played with any ball the size of a baseball, and any bat, even a heavy tree branch. Nevertheless, it was considered a rough game and was usually played only by boys. During my lapta phase, I discovered that I could run faster than my peers, a capacity that I began to develop, until one day I was crowned "champion sprinter of Harbin ." But this was to come much later in life... However, even in my boyhood, I became interested in athletics and on more than one occasion I would peer into the cracks of the wooden wall to see what was taking place on the Betar side of the fence.  

*  *  *

By now, Betar in Harbin had acquired a reputation that far exceeded its basic goals and purposes of educating Jewish youth to become nationally-minded Zionists and future pioneers of an independent Jewish State. Betar became a guardian of Jewish honor, a security force and a symbol of Jewish conscience and pride. Betar's glory in Harbin peaked when tragedy befell the entire population of Harbin.  
    It came almost without warning. The papers wrote of the dangerous rise in the water level of the Sungari River, and the authorities mobilized a small force of volunteers to prevent possible flooding. But no one knew, nor could anyone imagine, the extent of the impending devastation but a few days away. A small group of Betarim, under the command of Lelia

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Ravikovitch, mobilized to ward off disaster, and gathering at the Sungari shore by the city side, immediately joined hands with local volunteers to fill sandbags and to barricade the river banks. As the river banks began to overflow, water seeped through the sandbags, ran over the barricades, and from under the sewage lines, until water had flooded Pristan, the lower part of the city.
The Betar volunteers at once increased to a force of more than fifty young men and women, ready to do whatever was required to save lives, help people and to ease the suffering all around. The major task of the Betar volunteers was to rescue the old and transport them from flooded houses to secure buildings, whether the synagogue, the welfare kitchen hall, the school or the hospital. Its next assignment was to assure those in need that they would not remain without drinking water or food. Knee-deep in water or in requisitioned rowboats, Betarim rushed from one victim to the other, delivering bottled water and fresh bread to as many persons as possible. They worked in shifts, day and night, relieving each other only when total exhaustion warranted a short reprieve.  
    Eventually, the waters began to recede. The rowboats began to disappear, and the streets began to fill up with cleaning teams and curious bystanders. Finally, the first rays of sunshine began to brighten the depressed spirits of both the rescuers and the rescued. Soon the water receded, and we saw the full force of the devastation and death that the flood mercilessly had left behind. Carcasses and corpses had to be removed by hand. The remaining refuse was slowly swallowed by the city sewers. And soon enough, the flood was over.
    Over - but not forgotten. It now remained only a bad memory, a horrible dream - indeed, a nightmare! But linked eternally to these memories of doom and destruction was Harbin 's gratitude for the humanitarian efforts of the young Jewish boys and girls who had risked their safety in order to help the entire population in time of danger and need.
    Of course, some managed to escape from Pristan to higher ground while the water was slowly creeping into the city. My family was among

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those fortunate few. On the third day of the flood I found myself temporarily living in Novyi Gorod. At the time, I did not appreciate my good fortune. On the contrary, I deeply resented the move that deprived me of the fun, friends and action on the flooded streets of the city. To be sure, I was too young to understand the glorious rescue operation of Betar and not old enough to have taken any part in it.  

*  *  *

The summer of 1932 would mark a turning point in my personal life as well. I remember vividly the afternoon when my father returned from town with mail from the post office, since there had been no home deliveries during the flood. A letter had come from Aunt Nuta and Uncle Yasha Veinerman in Shanghai, inviting me to stay with them during the coming school year. Knowing nothing of my parents' plan to send me to an English school in Shanghai, I was shocked. While we had talked about such a possibility, nothing had been resolved, and I had hoped that the plan would fail.
It is difficult for a nine year old to be torn away from a happy home environment and friends all at the same time. And this for me was Harbin! I often disagreed with my countrymen who missed Harbin during the years of the Bamboo Curtain and who often yearned to revisit the city of their childhood or birth. I did not. For me, a landscape stimulates no nostalgia whatsoever. If you have seen one Buddhist temple, you've seen a thousand! There is nothing exciting about dead cities - only living cities vibrant with one's own family and friends have meaning.
And here, suddenly, at the age of nine, I was faced with having to give up all of this, granted, for the sake of education. The question of residence and supervision suddenly was resolved. By September, I made my rounds of sad farewells and prepared myself for the journey. After a long and monotonous sea voyage, my mother delivered me to the Veinermans in the great city of Shanghai. I arrived dejected and heartbroken and angry as could be! Strangely, neither my mother nor my father understood my own

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trepidation at moving from home. I loved my parents dearly, but I could never understand their desire to part with me nine months a year from my ninth year to my seventeenth, when I graduated from high school, just in order to give me a good "foreign education." All the more incomprehensible seemed their decision, since graduates of the Harbin Commercial School became doctors, lawyers, engineers and educators. They matriculated to colleges and universities in Europe and the United States, and none of them had any problems with the English they had learned in Harbin. Nevertheless, because I knew my parents meant well, I have remained forever grateful to them.

*** End of Excerpts from My China ***

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