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  1998-04-10 Jews of China




A Jewish Life in China

San Diego Jewish Press Heritage, April 10, 1998:


By Donald H. Harrison 

San Diego, CA (special) -- Regular readers of HERITAGE know Ya'acov Liberman as a recent immigrant to San Diego who once had served as general secretary of Menachem Begin's Herut party and who occasionally writes columns on Israeli affairs. This is far too narrow a picture of this warm and remarkable man.

But now, in My China: Jewish Life in the Orient 1900-1950, readers have the opportunity not only to get to know Liberman, but also to gain insight into what it was like growing up Jewish in China during some of the most tumultuous years in that country's history.
Liberman tells his story chronologically, sometimes matter of factly, other times with such emotion that it brings tears to a reader's eyes. He was born in Harbin, a city in Manchuria to which Russian emigres like his parents flocked, either to avoid the pogroms of the czars or the "benefits" of living under Communism.

Except for a brief stint in a missionary school in Pyongyang, North Korea -where one of the teachers tried unsuccessfully to convert him to Christianity--Liberman led an insular, middle class Jewish life surrounded by, but seemingly unaffected by, the Chinese nationals among whom they lived in a golden ghetto.

The fiery, nationalistic message of Ze'ev Jabotinsky was quite popular among the Jews of China. To help revise the world's 

 Author Ya'acov Liberman
opinion of Jews--from a people who are weak and passive, to a people who are strong and assertive--Liberman joined the youth arm of Jabotinsky's Revisionist party, the Betar. 

The Betarim paraded in uniforms and competed in sports events, and occasionally had street rumbles with "white Russian" emigres who had brought to China the virulent anti-Semitism the Jews of Harbin had hoped to leave behind.

There were three main centers of Jewish settlement in China -- Harbin in the far north; Tientsin, a port city which is today the gateway to the Chinese capital of Beijing; and Shanghai, the largest center. Liberman eventually was sent to school in Shanghai, and there he became ever more active in the Betar movement.

After the Japanese occupied China, though they were allies of nazi Germany, they more or less left Chinese-born Jews alone, while confining to the Hongkew ghetto of Shanghai those German and Eastern European Jewish refugees who had arrived in the 1930's to escape nazi persecution. 

The term 'ghetto' should not be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto, because although the Jews in Hongkew were crowded together, and some died because of unsanitary conditions, there was no calculated campaign of mass annihilation as practiced by the nazis. Liberman, who lived outside the ghetto, was able to travel back and forth, and to organize a Betar movement there.

After the war ended, members of the Betar movement wept upon hearing the extent of the disaster that had befallen European Jewry in the Shoah, then began training ever more determinedly to someday be of service to their fellow Jews in Palestine.

One byproduct of the end of World War II was the realization that as much as the Chinese were happy to see the Japanese occupiers go, so too were they determined to liberate their country from all outsiders. Jews realized that they and other Europeans were not welcome, whether China eventually were controlled by the Kuomingtang of Chang kai-Shek or the Communists of Mao Tze-Tung.

So they continued to prepare for emigration to Eretz Israel, celebrating as never before when they learned that David Ben-Gurion had declared Israel's indepencence.

When Israel sent to Shanghai an officer from its consulate in New York, the Shanghai Jews wept tears of pride when he introduced himself to the Chinese as a "vice consul of Israel." Imagine! Israel was a state! Jews no longer were homeless.

Liberman's story culminates with his experiences as director of the voyage aboard the ship Wooster Victory late in 1948 and in early 1949 in which hundreds of Jews migrated from China to Israel. He describes emotionally the welcome given to the emigrants by the Jews of Cape Town, who later crowded around the pier and sang with the passengers Hatikvah as the boat pulled away from its dock.

In an afterword, we learn how it is that Liberman now happens to be among us Jews in San Diego. After living in Israel and serving in the leadership of the Herut party, he split with Begin over the latter's decision to have Herut become part of the Histadrut, Israel's labor organization. He moved to Tokyo, where his father had become head of the Jewish Community Center, and later moved to Taipei, where he represented the Eisenberg family--well known Israeli industrialists. 

Liberman helped to form the Taipei Jewish community, even being given the title of chairman for life--an honor that permits him to chair any meeting of the community whenever he should return to that Nationalist Chinese city on Taiwan.

The wedding of Liberman and his wife, Leah, in 1948 was the last big Jewish wedding of Shanghai. The couple has two sons, Tovik and Leor, who live in San Diego, and a daughter, Rina Segal, who lives in Bangkok. Tovik, who owns the Comfort Inn in La Mesa, was the first of the family to settle in San Diego.

Liberman's book, published jointly by the Gefen Publishing House of Jerusalem, and
Judah L. Magnes Museum of Berkeley, is on sale at the Barnes and Noble bookstore, among others. It has a forward by Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, and a prologue by Moshe Arens, Israel's former minister of defense.