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  2005-01-05 Return to Harbin, China



Jewishsightseeing in Harbin, China:
A nostalgic return 60 years later, Jan. 5, 2005


Editor's Note: Ya'acov Liberman, author of My China: Jewish Life in the Orient 1900-1950, returned to Harbin 60 years after leaving it for Shanghai, from whence he later immigrated to Israel and eventually to San Diego. 

By Ya'acov Liberman

HARBIN, CHINA -- For more than a hundred of us—born, raised and educated in Harbin—a return in  September 2004 to this unique city of warmth, excitement and wondrous memories, was nothing short of a dream come true.

The official excuse for this remarkable reunion was the historic seminar devoted to the various 
contributions of Harbin's Jewry to the overall cultural development of the city. It was 
meticulously planned and successfully carried out by the combined efforts of the China Israel 
Friendship Society in Israel and the Harbin Jewish Research Center in China.

The seminar was rich with historically significant recollections illustrating a solid input of 
Harbin's Jewry into the cultural and economic life of Harbin as a whole. Memorable lectures were  heard from Mr. Teddy Kaufman of Ramat Gan, Israel,  the powerful engine behind the entire venture and president of Igud Yotzei Sin (The Organization of former China residents), and by various professors from both Israel and China.

But the overt excitement and enthusiasm of many participants was centered on the anticipated visits  to the preserved relics such as the Jewish cemetery, the synagogue, the Jewish school, the Free  Jewish Kitchen for the needy, the Jewish hospital, and the Jewish Ban, the Kommercheskoe  Uchilische, Churin, Matzuura, Cafe Mars and Hotel Moderne.

As to be expected, it all started with a major disappointment. After all, to most of us, both 
entrance and the exit to and from Harbin had always been associated with the small railway station  near Novi Gorod. The station is still there. It has been expanded and remodeled. But to those of  us who remember it well, it is well recognizable.

However, the present gateway to Harbin is now in what we regarded to be "out of town," in the 
majestic and beautiful Harbin Airport of today. As you drive the 45-minute distance from the 
airport to the Shangrila—the new luxurious hotel located on the former Politzeiskaya Street—you 
begin to doubt that you arrived in the right city. The modern highways, cutting through a forest of 
large apartment homes and business offices, makes you wonder if this is indeed the Harbin of your  dreams. In reality, it is not.

Nothing is the same. Nothing is recognizable. Nothing brings forth the anticipated nostalgia. 

Only when we concluded the first two days of the seminar and were left to ourselves to rediscover  Harbin, did our dreams begin to transform into a nostalgic reality.

Our first stop was Kitaiskaya Ultiza, presently called Central Street of Harbin. It is now a promenade  with no traffic allowed. The pavement of cobble stone remains intact as it was laid out in the early 1920s. The Kommerchiskaya Ultiza is no longer identified by the booza and baklava kiosk on  the corner of Kitaiskaya Street. The bootka (booth) of the police station on the opposite corner is  also gone. 

But if you continue walking towards Artilleriskaya Street, you will rediscover the old Komsob building which housed the Kommercheskoye Uchilische. Instinctively, you look for the  adjacent garden with its destkaya ploachadka (playground) and the library. It is not to be  found. Neither can you locate the skating rink over the fence, which was the Betar and Maccabee  sports grounds during the summer months. Instead, large buildings have rudely displaced these  treasures of our youthful memories.

Some were fortunate to locate their apartments. Most were not. Among the best preserved buildings,  is what was once the pride of the Jewish Community of Harbin--its three story hospital located on Birjevaya Street. It is now an eye clinic.

Hotel Moderne too remains intact. The actual hotel business is now conducted from behind—from the  other side of the building. The facade of the hotel of old has been restructured to accommodate a  bank and several stores.

Churin and Matzuura department stores, on the other hand, remained unchanged and continue to entice  customers with their diversified commodities.

By late evening we returned to our hotel. However, most of us are reluctant to return to the 
solitude of our rooms. Instead, we gather in the large foyer to share our impressions and once 
again, revive our treasured memories.

The next day we are taken on a short cruise on the Sungari River. Again disappointment: The row  boats are gone. The river between the Yacht Club and "Stop Signal" is drained to prevent recurring  floods, and the motor boats no longer ply across but rather alongside the Sungari River.

On the other hand, the big railway bridge across Sungari is intact. The Yacht Club is not only 
there, but it continues to provide food and entertainment. The Yacht Club pavement along the 
Sungari bank has been modernized and commercialized. Hundreds walk up and down enjoying "bargain sales."

On the final day, we are treated to the most memorable gift of all—a visit to the restored "new" 
Jewish Cemetery of Harbin.

During 1950s, the "old" cemetery was moved to a new site—on the outskirts of the city. There were but a few Jews left in Harbin by that time. Yet, the leaders of this tiny community, with their 
bare hands, moved the graves one by one, to this new location. Of course they could only move 
graves which still had tomb stones identifying the deceased. Thus, some six hundred graves were 
moved to the "new" Huang Shan Cemetery. Teddy Kaufman, together with his colleagues in the Igud, made more than one visit to this cemetery and helped to identify and list every existing grave.

During our visit, the cemetery was cleared of debris, trees and flowers were planted, tombstones 
were repaired and in some cases new ones were ordered. Thus, many of us in the group were able to  locate graves of our dear ones: mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons.

Appropriately, the first grave we all visited was that of the venerable Chief Rabbi of Harbin, 
Rabbbi Aharon Kisilev. Before proceeding to seek out other graves, Teddy Kaufman recited kaddish while the Chinese head of the local Sino-Israeli Friendship Society placed a bouquet of flowers on  the rabbi's grave.

From tombstone to tombstone, Teddy followed each member of the group, reciting the kaddish as he  stopped by each grave. On this morning, he recited kaddish no less than 47 times!

The last grave we visited was one of a talented pianist—Simon Kaspe, kidnapped and brutally 
murdered by a gang of fascist Russians in the 1930s.

On the long way back to our hotel, we had time to reflect on the enormity of the occasion. Also, 
as we passed the modern freeways and wide boulevards framed by an array of skyscraping buildings,  we were jolted into reality: This is not really the Harbin we left behind some 60 years ago. Nor could it have been.

Our final evening in Harbin was an emotional farewell to our hosts at a banquet they prepared for 
all participants. The event conveniently coincided with Teddy Kaufman's 80th birthday.

It was truly a festive occasion lending itself to a flood of emotions which blended nostalgia with 
historic reality, pride and gratitude. How good to know that the lives and activities of five 
generations of Jews in Harbin are being remembered and honored by their generous and appreciative hosts.

On the other hand, we, Jews of Harbin, will remain forever grateful to the People of China for 
their characteristic hospitality and for rescuing our brethren on two occasions in one century: 
welcoming thousands of Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms of Tzarist Russia and giving shelter to 
more than 20,000 refugees escaping the horrors of nazidom.

When all doors were closed to our people, only one country opened its gates of welcome. Only one  People opened their arms and their hearts to our brothers and sisters. This country was China!  These People were the People of China!

And now we return to realities of our life. As far as Harbin is concerned, my pursuit of yesterday 
is now completed.