Harbin, in northernmost China, was once a mini-Zion up in the snow, as if Michael Chabon’s imagined Alaska homeland in The Jewish Policemen’s Union had come to life. Harbin: the frozen chosen, indeed. A city rich in Jewish history, characters, gorgeous Jewish-built European architecture. Chinese Jewish life flowered gloriously, 1900-1950.
They arrived first in 1899 to present-day Heilongjiang Province, bordered on 3 sides by Russia, fleeing (like our ancestors) the Czar and pogroms. They took a rail line to Harbin from Vladivostok to the East. They called themselves Harbintsi.
China welcomed them, so it seems; especially Israel Epstein (b. Poland, 1915) a‘40s revolutionary; he’s pictured in the museum here (housed in a former synagogue–the other synagogue is now a youth hostel!) with Mao, and in other shots with Hu Jintao, Deng Xiaopeng, etc. He married a Chinese woman and sat on China’s national legislative assembly. Who knew? Austrian-born Jacob Rosendal (also called in the museum, variously, Rosenfeld and Rosenfield) had a similar history; he fought with the People’s Liberation Army in ’41 and is pictured with legendary Liu Shaoqi, who signs the photo, “Beloved comrade.”
Jews formed about 10% of Harbin (then-pop. 300,000 – now it’s 4 million) at their peak, 1920, having fled the Bolsheviks. (Numbers swelled again with Hitler’s rise.) They were mostly Russian; also Lithuanian, Polish, Swedish (a big Harbin Jew named Spiro was a Swede). Harbin Jews built a theater, cinema, printer, an art school called Lotus and several music schools (A leading musician was named Traktenberg) which trained Chinese as well as Jewish students and fed two local Jewish symphonies. Unlike Shanghai, a very quick refuge, this was a long-term affair. Jews built the electric company (1902) and oil refinery and involved themselves in governing (oilman S.H. Soskin sat on Harbin’s Legislative Assembly). They (can I say “we”?) managed the horse race track and operated a Jewish-Chinese Friendship Association. Jewish-owned factories made cigarettes, textiles, flour … and Harbin Beer! (Harbin Joint Beer & Beverages, founded 1905).
They created banks, department stores, insurance companies, hotels. On streets with Russian names you could find the Jewish bakery, watch shop, clothing shop, optics shop, musical instrument shop and pharmacy. E.A. Katz ran the restaurant. In the 1920s the museum says, they were Harbin leaders in education, engineering, law, newspapering and medicine; “They were the founders of Harbin’s industry.” (Harbin remains a prosperous town reliant on heavy industry.) Tycoons included the owners of Muling Coal, and of Songhuajiang Flour (founders: Kagan & Ginsberg). Jewish businesses exported sugar, wood & soybean oil. The largest exporter, Skidelski (Schidelsky), a soybean specialist, today has a descendant in the House of Lords; their company kept offices in Harbin, London & Vladivostok.
A few other Harbin Chinese Jewish institutions:
Harbin Siberian Jewish Culture Library
The Far East Jewish Commercial Bank, Harbin Jewish People’s Bank and the Harbin-American Bank (founded by Osibov).
The Old Synagogue (1918) and the New Synagogue (1931), the biggest in China.
Harbin Jewish Hospital
The Women’s Charitable Relief Organization (1906); chairwomen Grossman, Kaufman and Schwartz.
An art school (the museum was full of old oil paintings; Harbin Jews, it said, “were very choosy about displays [décor] and paid great attention to social manners and their children’s art education.”)
Many of the beautiful, Jewish-built old buildings recall Paris. They’ve been renovated and form a lovely old pedestrian quarter near the River, which is like nothing we’ve seen anywhere in China. (As in all big Chinese cities, you pass MaxMara, Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo, MontBlanc…and McDonald’s.)
One original macher, Kaufman, had a son who was a Harbin doctor. His wife gave birth in 1961 to the last Jew born in Harbin. “They brought Western culture and advanced science and technology to Harbin,” the museum says. Then they wandered onward — Israel (Ehud Olmert’s family were Harbintsi), England, the U.S. In a bit of overstatement, the museum calls Harbin “a foundation for [Jews’] economic life in Europe and America.”
One part of the museum acquaints visitors more generally with this little-known people known as “Jews.” Pictured on an eclectic “wall of fame,” amusingly in no particular order, hundreds of portraits including:
Leonard Bernstein, Jonas Salk, Yascha Heifetz, Marc Chagall, Steven Speilberg, Modigliani, Brandeis, Martha Graham (Jewish?), Martin Buber, Adolf Ochs, Disraeli, Kafka (perhaps in a uniquely Chinese Freudian slip — twice), Freud, Claude Levi-Strauss, Walter Benjamin (pictured), several Israelis (Ben Gurion, Weitzman, Jabotinsky, Hertzl) and – not to be forgotten – Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Marx. Einstein gets his own corridor. And last but not least, holding his own: Mark Spitz.
In Harbin, China, Jews took shelter, survived. Flourished.