The Jewish community in Harbin
The Russo-Manchurian treaty of 1897 granted Russia the concession to build the Chinese Eastern railway with Harbin as its administrative centre. This opened up numerous new business opportunities, attracting several different Asian and European ethnic groups, which all moved to Harbin. At the same time the Jewish history in Harbin started with the Czar offering his Jewish citizens to settle there without restrictions. Between 1902 and 1903 the number of Jewish inhabitants most came from Russia increased from 100 to 500.
Organization and social activity of the Jewish Religious Community HEDO (Harbinskoe Evreiskoe Duhovnoe Obshestvo)
For attending to religious needs the Harbin Jewish Religious Community (Harbinskoe Evreiskoe Duhovnoe Obshestvo) (HEDO) was established in 1903. The committee consisted of Israel Meerovich (Gabay), Eugen Dobisov (Treasurer), Khatskel Furvich and Mordechai Samsonovich (Committee Member). The formation of the HEDO was accompanied by setting up the first synagogue in Harbin in a rented house (an own synagogue was opened in 1907), by a Chevra Kaddischa (Burial Society) and commencing a Jewish cemetery.
The Jewish community employed a Rabbi, a Mohel (circumciser) and a Shochet (slaughterer) who was responsible for the slaughter of animals according to the religious ritual. The Mohel and the Shochet travelled to other places in the Heilongjiang province and performed circumcision and ritual slaughter for the Jewish communities there. The Chevra Kadisha buried the community's deceased in accordance with Jewish ritual. The society maintained the Jewish Cemetery and was owner of a hearse. [Teddy Kaufman, Rabbi A.-M. Kiselev: and the Religious Life of the Jews in Harbin. A report delivered at the International Seminar in Harbin 2006]
Rabbi Lev Levin was the first full-time Rabbi in 1903. Under his supervision all religious functions were put in place and a school in the synagogue's yard was established. In the course of few years the Jewish Community comprised all the institutions that are traditionally an inseparable part of all the great Jewish communities in the world: i.e. a Mikveh (religious bathhouse) and a matzoth (unleavened bread for Pesach) bread bakery which supplied matzoth to all the other Jewish communities in the North-East of China in Hailar, Qiqikar, Manzhouli, Hangdaohezi, Shengyan, as well as more distant cities like Qingdao, Hankou, and also the communities in Japan: Kobe, Tokyo and Yokohama. Since the very first days of its existence the Jewish Community had a religious character and made sure that Jewish traditional values were preserved, communal help was promoted and Jewish costumes kept.
During the War between Russia and Japan the Community took care of Jewish soldiers fighting in Manchuria. After the Russian defeat many demobilized soldiers settled in Harbin joined by their families. At the same time an increasing number of Jewish refugees came fleeing from pogroms in Russia. The number of community members grew up to 5,000. In 1906 the Women´s Welfare Organization was founded. The organization helped establishing workshops, supplied clothes and supported education. In 1907 the Jewish Free Soup Kitchen was opened to all needy persons in Harbin. A "Committee for Social Security" (1916) was built up and provisional organizations such as the "Committee for Support of the Jewish Victims of the War" (1914-1920).
On its peak in 1920-1921 the number of community members reached about 15,000. In accordance charity activities were extended: The second synagogue and an Association for Medical Aid to Needy and Sick Jews opened. Another institution which played a decisive role in the Jewish life in Harbin established in 1922: The "WIZO" (Women's International Zionist Organization). With its support a Jewish kindergarten was opened, funds were raised for Jewish orphans and the immigration to Palestine was aided.
Harbin's cultural life was often compared with Paris (Paris of the East). Operas, operettas, concerts and plays were frequently performed. They were held mainly at the Hotel "Moderne" or at the "Commercial Club", both located in the Jewish area of Harbin.
The HEDO had its own theatre and a Jewish cultural club "YILMADAG", which presented lecture series in Russian and Yiddish, dramatic performances and musical evenings. Some special training schools as the Music and Art School "Lotus", where mime, art history, sculpture and drama were taught, set up by Jews. In 1912, the Jewish Library was built up with about 13 thousand books.
Jews were the first to begin soya-bean industry in Manchuria as well as fur industry. They took an active part in the work of Harbin Stock Committee: 50% of the Stock participant companies belonged to Chinese and another 50% belonged to "Russian" enterprises (e. g. Jewish, Russian, Armenian). Harbin Real Estate Community controlled all real estate business in the city and Jews comprised about one-third of its members. Three Commerce Associations were in the city. Two of them belonged to CER (Chinese Eastern Railway) authorities. The third one was initiated by Harbin Jewish entrepreneurs. Jews established Jewish Far Eastern Bank, later Jewish People Bank that supported Harbin commercial activity.
Large and small Jewish enterprises provided working places for Jewish and non-Jewish population as well. For instance at the Kitaiskaya Street with its shops: men fashion shop of Eskin, pharmacy of Arkus, Hotel "Pekin" of Berkovich, "Shvedko" kitchen furniture and equipment shop of Genkin, famous coffee house "Mars" of Zuckerman-Drezin, Hotel "Moderne" of Kaspe, manufacture goods of Rabinovich, "Optica" of Faingold. Out of 32 Hotels registered in Harbin in 1932, 28 belonged to Jews.Zionism
In June 1912 in Harbin was established the Palestine Society and became quickly the center of Zionist activity not only in Harbin but in all Far East. Revival of Jewish social activity in Harbin was inspired by Avraham Kaufman, graduate of Medicine faculty of Basel University. In 1917 the Palestine Society was renamed to Harbin Zionist organization. At the end of March 1919 was held the first Congress of Zionist organizations of the Far East in Harbin. According to Congress decisions was established the Temporary Palestine Information Bureau in Harbin. It should control and held all the Zionist activity of the region.
An official journal of the Bureau "Sibir-Palestina" and "Evreiskaya Zhizn" were published, which were the only Zionist publications in the Far East. In the same year was organized the local branch of "Ha-Halutz" organization in Harbin. In 1921 was held the first Congress of Zionist Youth of the Far East in the city and established the Youth organization "Ha-Chaver". In 1928 "Betar" and "Maccabi" were the decisive Jewish Youth organizations of the city.
After 1932, the city became part of the puppet state of Manchukuo the Japanese began terrorizing the civilian population in Harbin. Jews began fleeing - a large number by help of the Zionist movement. By the end of World War II, only about 2,000 Harbin Jews were left. Under Soviet occupation between 1945 and 1947 a number of Jews were arrested and were "repatriated" to Russian gulags. Following the victory of the Red Army in 1949, Harbin became part of the People's Republic of China, about 1,000 Jews left for Israel.
In the 1950s the decline of Jewish population in China continued. Nevertheless the HEDO carried several charitable works. In the end of June 1959 the Jewish population in Harbin counted 153. It was the largest Jewish community remaining in China then and the only one that was able to keep its synagogue building by the end of 1950s. Daily services, Sabbath and holidays prayers had continued to be held in the synagogue till 1959. On December 31, 1963 the HEDO stopped functioning after 60 years since its foundation.
Dr. Irena Vladimirsky (Israel), Manja Altenburg