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Chinese Jews Return to Harbin, See a Bright Future

Post Series: 2004: Volume 3, Number 4
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Chinese Jews Return to Harbin, See a Bright FutureOn September 2, 2004 when Teddy Kaufmann, President of the Tel Aviv-based Association of Former Jewish Residents of China, recited the prayer for the dead at the grave of Harbin’s long serving Rabbi Aharon Kisilev, an entire cycle of Jewish history in China came a full circle.

Among Kaufman’s entourage at Harbin’s Huang Shan Cemetery were over one hundred returning residents, their children, grandchildren, and scholars of Chinese and Jewish history from China, Israel, Australia, England, and America. Some of these people, such as former Israel Railways General Manager Freddy Heyman, had not visited the graves of their parents or other kinfolk since they left for Israel over fifty years ago. Still others, such as Beijing-based journalist Israel Epstein, never left China. Epstein returned to the scene of his boyhood in an official limousine, provided to him in his capacity as a member of China’s National People’s Political Consultative Congress. Chinese policemen snapped to a smart salute when Epstein’s red-flagged vehicle and police escort sped by.

The truly remarkable aspect about the returnees’ visit, which coincided with a four-day historicalseminar on the history of the Harbin Jews, was the ideological breadth of the participants. They ranged from Epstein and the Communist Party and People’s Government chiefs of Harbin to Yana [Yaakov] Liberman, once chief of staff of Menachem Begin’s right-wing Herut party. Liberman’s much-photographed handshake with Epstein aboard a Sungari River sightseeing boat was as ironic as Richard Nixon’s February 1972 handshake with Mao Zedong. Speaking on behalf of all the returnees, Liberman said that two words summarized everyone’s sentiments towards China: “thank you,” to the Chinese people for giving European Jews hope and haven during a century of pogroms and Stalinism, Hitler and Holocaust.

At the concurrent historical seminar held in downtown Harbin’s Shangrila Hotel, participant after participant told horrific tales of their family’s lives outside this city of refuge. Most of the returnees’ ancestors fled Russia after the horrendous massacres of Jews that began in 1881, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II. In 1898 the Chinese Eastern Railway began to function in Harbin, creating a frontier boom town and bustling river port. Hardship was, however, never far away from the refugees. Lily Klebanoff described her uncle’s return to Leningrad in 1936 to study music. He was promptly arrested and shot by the NKVD on the trumped-up charge of heading a Harbin-based spy ring. Many of Mara Moustafine’s returning relatives suffered a similar fate at the hands of the NKVD, on the grounds that they were Japanese agents. Frankfurt-born Zeev Rubinson and his family fled the horrors of Hitler’s Germany only to wind up in limbo in Japanese-controlled Dairen. Teddy Kaufmann’s father, then Director of the Harbin Jewish hospital, intervened and found sanctuary for the Rubinsons in Harbin

Although many of the 13,000-plus Jews who made it to Harbin were poor, they recalled a vibrant cultural life. Ex-Harbin violinist Peter Berton delivered a paper on “Contributions of Jews to the Musical and Cultural Life in Harbin in the 1930s and early 1940s,” describing a tour his ensemble made of the entire region, including Korea and Japan. Epstein remembered a 1936 concert by the Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, whose portrait hangs on the wall of the city’s recently refurbished Hotel Moderne. Epstein’s businessman/journalist father wrote for the city’s Yiddish newspaper, DER VAYTER MIZREKH [“The Far East”]. There were also Russian-language Jewish periodicals and a Hebrew-language publishing house. Even Harbin’s two major Jewish sports organizations reflected the intellectual diversity of the community: Kaufman’s Maccabi for the General Zionists and Liberman’s Betar for the Zionist-Revisionists.

The entrepreneurial leadership of post-Mao China has formally embraced this energetic constituency of ex-Harbiners. Qu Wei, president of the provincial Academy of Social Sciences, promised “a world class research center on the lives of the Harbin Jews” and an exhibition which “we will send to Israel, Australia, U.S.A., England and Germany.” Pan Chun Liang, the provincial Vice Minister of Public Relations, praised the “history of cooperation between Chinese and Jews in Harbin.” He cited the province’s efforts to maintain Harbin’s Jewish cemetery, with over 600 graves, as “the biggest and best protected” in East Asia. The provincial Vice Governor announced that Harbin’s monumental synagogue is undergoing major restoration and that “we have great potential for developing tourist resources.” Israeli Ambassador to China Yehodaya Haim responded that “Harbin is a city we love and admire because of their attitude toward us Jews.”

As the ex-Harbiners filed out of the Jewish cemetery, many were preparing for their imminent El Al flight back to Tel Aviv. Israel Epstein, who just celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday, observed that “in the one country in which there was no persecution of Jews, there is a new birth of friendship, which corresponds with the lives of many of the people here today.” He predicted that this friendship “will have a fine future.”

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