Alexander Branover

Twenty Four hours in Harbin

Throughout history, the Jewish presence and impact have often followed a recognizable pattern worldwide. Jews typically arrived in new regions due to expanding empires or were expelled from other lands, including their own. They settled, contributed to the local community’s well-being, and often retreated due to various circumstances, such as the whims of local rulers, shifts in fortune, or massacres. Despite these challenges, they sometimes resurfaced, seizing second chances in the same land.

In places like SHUM (Speyer, Worms, Mainz), Jews repeatedly rebuilt their lives despite being devastated by Crusaders traveling to and from the Holy Land, ultimately leaving the Ashkenazi heartland for new opportunities in the East. In regions where the Jewish presence was a singular event, it often endured for a significant period. This includes a thousand years of Polish Jewry, hundreds of years in Babylonia, and 600 years in Spain, among others.

Harbin was unique. The rise, flourishing, and decline of its Jewish community occurred within less than a century—a remarkably brief period in Jewish history. This cycle happened once, and it remains to be seen whether a new iteration of the Jewish Harbin saga may re-emerge over time. The last Jew of Harbin passed away in 1985, marking the end of the distinctive and short-lived phenomenon known as Jewish Harbin.

The fascinating story of Harbin Jewry has captivated my imagination for many years, enhanced by multiple trips to China over the last decade. While most of my travel centered around Shanghai and Beijing, whose Jewish past is associated with Baghdadi Jewish families dating back to the 18th century and the “Little Vienna” area from more recent WWII times, is well-documented in numerous books and travel guides and offered as day-trip options. In contrast, the Jewish story of Harbin remains mostly unknown.

The 1896 decision by the Chinese Qing Dynasty to grant Tsarist Russia a concession to build and own the Chinese Eastern Railway, a branch of the Trans-Siberian Railroad through Manchuria, was pivotal for Harbin’s development. This grant prompted the Russian government to consider who might be willing to leave the stifling economic climate of the Russian Empire, plagued by antisemitism and instability, to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities in the desolate fishing villages along the Songhua River. Even the name Harbin originates from a Manchu word meaning “a place for drying fishing nets.”

While it is difficult to determine whether this vision was solely General Dmitry Horvat’s or a broader initiative within Tsarist circles, there was a concerted effort to attract Jews from across the Russian Empire. These individuals, seeking better opportunities, were encouraged to channel their entrepreneurial energy into constructing the major railroad across Manchuria. As a result, Harbin was founded in 1898 as a railway node connecting the Trans-Siberian and inner Chinese railroads. It would not be an overstatement to say that Harbin, as a community and a town, was a product of the pioneering spirit of Jews who arrived in large numbers from across the vast expanses of Russia. It is plausible, though not fully explored, that the Soviet initiative in 1931 to establish a Jewish national home in Birobidzhan in Eastern Siberia, geographically close to Harbin, may have been indirectly influenced by the Harbin story from 30 years earlier.

The initial influx of Russian Jews was augmented by many demobilized Jewish soldiers after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, as well as refugees fleeing pogroms and unrest during the Russian Revolution of 1905, and deciding to pursue better life in far east, rather than across the ocean. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, nearly ten thousand Jews lived in Harbin, establishing Jewish institutions, hospitals, and Heders (Jewish schools). The First World War and the 1917 Revolution further boosted Harbin’s Jewish population, which exceeded twenty thousand in the 1920s.

In just a quarter-century, Russian Jews transformed Harbin from a dispersed collection of small fishing villages into a bustling hub. The city flourished with Jewish banks, construction companies, schools, hospitals, orphanages, free soup kitchens, homes for the aged, mikvahs (ritual baths), musical clubs, art salons, and newspapers, most notably ‘Sibir-Palestina,’ alongside both Zionist and Marxist organizations. During this time, it emerged as one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the world, becoming a significant center of Russian-speaking Zionism. This remarkable development went largely unnoticed by the USSR regime due to Harbin’s geographical distance and transitional status.

The Old Synagogue, inaugurated in January 1909, quickly became the largest synagogue in the Far East. Abraham Kauffman, a prominent figure in the Harbin Jewish community and a college roommate of Israel’s future first president, Chaim Weizmann, led the synagogue from 1919 to 1945. However, within nearly a decade, it became evident that one synagogue could not accommodate the growing community. Consequently, the New Synagogue was erected in 1918 and remained an active place of worship through the 1950s. From the 1960s onward, the Old Synagogue has been revitalized as a concert hall and the Jewish Museum.

During my visit, I observed young children auditioning for a Mozart performance. Anxious parents, accompanied by teachers fluent in both Mandarin and Russian, filled the lower and upper levels, eagerly awaiting their child’s turn to perform in the spacious hall that had once been a magnificent center of Jewish worship.

Old Synagogue of Harbin

The Russian Revolution and the post-civil war period brought a new cultural and economic dynamic to Harbin with the influx of thousands of Russian immigrants, many associated with the White Army movement. While it’s challenging to overstate the impact of Russian immigration on Harbin, this wave mostly integrated into what was already a vibrant center of northeastern China. Unfortunately, some elements of this immigration also brought with it a surge in antisemitism, significantly affecting the Jewish community. Antisemitic incidents steadily rose, culminating in the infamous fire at the Old Synagogue in 1931.

During the Japanese occupation of Manchuria from 1931 to 1945, some White Russian émigrés were known to collaborate with the occupation forces, extorting money from Jewish businesses. This prompted an exodus of Harbin Jews, who fled to other Chinese cities, as well as to the USA, Australia, and Eretz Israel (modern-day Israel).

In 1945, shortly after the USSR took control of Harbin following its declaration of war on Japan, the Soviet security services orchestrated the arrest of Jewish community leaders—Abraham Kaufman, Anatoly Orlovsky, and Moshe Zimin—on false charges of collaborating with foreign powers. Kaufman and Orlovsky survived their 11-year sentences in the Gulag, initially settling in Kazakhstan before finally reaching Israel in 1961. In Israel, Kaufman practiced medicine for the remainder of his life, passing away in Tel Aviv in 1971.

Jewish life in Harbin underwent a steep decline in post-war China, ultimately ending during the Cultural Revolution. Today, the only traces of the Jewish presence are historical plaques, museums, and memorial boards adorning the facades of former Jewish institutions such as banks, schools, and hospitals. Additionally, the well-maintained Jewish Cemetery, located approximately 10 miles from the city center, houses around 600 gravestones, serving as a poignant testament to the once-vibrant Jewish community in the far northeast of Manchuria.

Strolling along Central (Zhongyang) Street offers a glimpse into the bustling Jewish life of a century ago. Midway down the street, we paused at the site of the former National Jewish Bank.

Former Building of the National Jewish Bank of Harbin

A hidden alleyway branching off Central Street leads to Mianbao Street, where the former residences of Harbin’s Jewish community now house a stylish café in one of the old apartments.

A brief visit to the museum on Korotkaya Street provided insight into the early 20th-century immigrant experience. Exhibits featured stacks of suitcases, a gramophone, a teapot, and a towering bookshelf adorned with books ranging from the Babylonian Talmud to memoirs detailing life in Harbin.

“Illustrated History of Harbin Jewry” (featured at the library of the Korotkaya street Museum)

In contrast to the declining Jewish community, the Russian presence in Harbin has remained resilient, thriving with hundreds of stores, restaurants, and cultural venues spread across the city. Predominantly lining Central Street, these establishments also dot various neighborhoods, illustrating their enduring influence and contribution to Harbin’s cultural landscape.

Russian cafes and specialty shops offer a taste of traditional Russian cuisine, attracting both locals and tourists. Cultural venues, such as the Russian Orthodox churches and museums, host events and exhibitions that celebrate Russian heritage and history. Russian-owned businesses add to the city’s commercial diversity.

Reflecting on my journey back to Shanghai, I pondered the century-long Jewish experience in Harbin. It struck me as a fleeting chapter in the expansive three-thousand-year history of the Jewish people. Despite its brevity, Harbin’s rapid emergence as a major center of Russian Jewish culture in the Far East has left a lasting legacy. The resettlement of nearly 3,500 Harbin Jews in Israel formed an independent and distinct Jewish community, underscoring the enduring impact of their time in Harbin.

This experience serves as a vivid reminder of our improbable presence in one of the most unexpected corners of the world. Harbin’s Jewish trailblazing, though short-lived, remains a testament to the community’s cultural and historical contributions, preserving a unique chapter in the broader narrative of Jewish history. Additionally, it has introduced and exemplified communal institutions and services that have been adapted in modern-day China. The memories of Harbin’s Jewish community continue to resonate to this day as a story of endeavor, resilience, and eventual departure over a brief 100 years. One wonders whether this was a singular event or if new Harbins, spiritual or materialistic, are destined to emerge on our timeline in the future.

About the Author
Alex Branover is a father of two, residing just outside Boston, MA. Professionally, he serves as a Senior Fellow at AMD (Advanced Micro Devices). Alex holds a Master's degree in Computer Engineering from the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion). Beyond his professional endeavors, Alex is a co-founder of the Torah Lovers Club of Greater Boston, dedicated to promoting Jewish education and thought within the community. He contributes blogs and columns to the online editions of the Times of Israel and IsraelHayom. In his leisure time, Alex is an avid skier.
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