An unforgettable history

JIN BO, China Daily staff


Eighty-four-year-old Fu Youduo had a dozen Jewish friends more than half a century ago in his hometown of Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province in Northeast China. Today he still remembers most details of the days when he rubbed elbows with them, though he has lost contact with them all since the 1950s.

The Main Synagogue in Harbin (also called the Old Church) is seen in Artilleriskaya Street, Pristan District (now Tongjiang Street, Daoli District). Its foundation was laid on May 3, 1907 and completed in January 1909. [File photo]

Fu's association with the Jews began in 1948, when he moved to a courtyard in the Jewish community and opened a private dental clinic there.

According to Fu Youdou's daughter Fu Mingjing, her father, who later became the dean of the State-owned Harbin Stomatological Hospital, was one of the most famous stomatologists in Harbin at that time. Many Jewish people would turn to him for help when suffering from oral disorders. Some of his Jewish patients gradually became his close friends outside of the clinic.

He could hardly spell their full names in Latin, as most of the Jews in Harbin spoke Chinese, and he addressed them with the awkward Mandarin transliteration of their names. "The Jews were very clever and good at business," Fu recalled.

He still remembers among others a violinist named Tebailuo, a music professor at the Harbin Normal University at that time, who shared the same hobby of philately with him. "When he emigrated to Australia in 1952, he presented me with a set of commemorative stamps, which I still keep today," Fu recalled. In addition to that, Fu also purchased much of the Jewish violinist's property before he left Harbin.

Fu's personal memories are part of the Jewish community's history in Harbin, which is rarely known by most of today's Chinese.

Growth of a city

Helmut Stern (centre, sitting) enjoys a ride on the frozen Songhua River with his family members and some friends in the late 1930s.

An inner view of the Schefflin Store in 1920.

A little known fact is that in the first half of the last century, the northeastern city of Harbin was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Far East.

Li Shuxiao, deputy director of the Harbin Jews Research Centre affiliated to the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences, said: "Under most circumstances, the mere mention of Jews in China would remind people of their presence in Shanghai, while the Jewish history of Harbin has been largely neglected for a long time. Several former members of the Jewish communities of Shanghai and Tianjin have written memoirs lately. "Yet few people know that the Harbin community was one of the strongest and most viable." As a matter of fact, the modern history of Harbin is inalienable for the Jewish community.

In the 19th century, "Harbin" was only the general reference to a cluster of small villages on the banks of the Songhua River. The city owed its existence and then expansion to the China Eastern Railway, the outgrowth of a 19th-century treaty in which the Russians were given the right to construct a railway in China to link up with the Siberian railway network.

Around the turn of the last century, Harbin began to flourish with foreigners, most of whom were Russians, arriving in droves and making it an international metropolis. Among the emigrants, many were Russian Jews who were escaping bloody pogroms and civil wars by coming to help build the railway. In 1903, the Jewish population there had reached 500.

However, the Japanese invasion of Northeast China in the 1930s resulted in a decrease in the scale of the Jewish community in Harbin. After 1949, most Jews emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia or Israel, among other countries.

According to Li Shuxiao, between 1899, when the first Russian Jew settled in Harbin, and 1985, when the last Jew in Harbin passed away, altogether more than 20,000 Jews spent their lives at one time or another in Harbin, just over 480 kilometres away from Vladivostok, Russia.

In Harbin, the Jews gradually re-established the life they had left behind. This process coincided with the rapid growth of Harbin on its way from a cluster of villages to a big city, branding the city with a distinguished "Jewish style."

The city's first batch of modern hotels, banks, shops, cafes, newspapers, and publishing houses were initiated by members of the Jewish community, and helped boost the city's business. Almost all of the enterprises in Harbin at that time, whether bakeries or coal mines or mills, were closely linked to the Jews. They also established the first batch of synagogues and cemeteries.

The Jews also raised the city's status as a cultural hub. According to local historian Zhang Tielin, during the 1920s and 1930s, many renowned Jewish artists came to Harbin to deliver performances. These performances helped promote the spread of Western music in China, ranking Harbin the "City of Music." Even today, the Jewish influence on Harbin's music education can still be strongly felt.

All in all, the activities undertaken by the Jewish community helped lay the foundation of the development of Harbin as a modern city.

Memories cherished

However, for today's people, it is a history a little too far away. Most of the people who experienced the early 20th century have passed away. Even for 84-year-old Fu Youduo, there were only slices of memory left that could be traced back to 70 years ago. In his dim memory, Fu only remembers playing around with a little Jewish girl approximately his age, when he was 12. And sometimes he would go to movies shown in the Jewish community and attend parties held among its residents.

However, there are some other things left, which are more sustainable than human memory. One of those things is architecture. Today, the architectural treasures in Harbin date from the early 19th century. Most of the elegant old Western-styled buildings built by the Jews have been well-preserved, scattered around the entire city and especially in Pristan, an area which used to be the centre of Harbin Jews to conduct religious, political, economic and cultural activities.

Old Jewish schools, streets and houses are kept intact or have been renovated. Among such old buildings are two synagogues and one rabbinical school, and the biggest Jewish cemetery in the Far East, which accommodates 700 gravestones with Hebrew inscriptions.

Today on the famous Central Street (Zhongyang Street), which used to be called Kitaiskaya street and was the former centre of economic and cultural activities of Harbin Jews in the early 19th century, there still stands one of the oldest buildings in Harbin - the Modern Hotel. The century-old hotel, once famed for its grandiose interiors and which once accommodated many famous figures, was run by a Jewish entrepreneur. Much of the Jewish influence in the architecture can be immediately recognized by a distinctive Star of David (also called Shield of David, the symbol most commonly associated with Judaism today).

Besides the influences on architecture, Li Shuxiao and his colleagues are now carrying out research to find whether there are Jewish influences on the local folk customs and languages. Li said he had found some traces which could serve as evidence of such influences. "Compared with other Chinese cities, Harbin is very unique in that it breeds many customs similar to those prevalent in countries on the European continent. For example, Harbin people consume more bread and beer than average Chinese elsewhere," said Li Shuxiao.

Harbin Beer, first produced by the Harbin Brewery, was the earliest beer brewed in China. Also, in the daily language of the old generation of Harbin people, Li has found there are many loan- words.

However, Li, who has been studying on the local history of Harbin for decades, admitted that the Jewish influences on local people's folk customs might be slight. "The Jews mainly lived in their own community, and had very limited contact with the local Chinese residents," said Li. According to the historian, only a few Chinese people from upper-class society, for example Fu Youduo and his family, kept associations with the Jews.

But one thing etched in people's memories is that during the years of Jewish settlement, the Jews never met discrimination from the Chinese. Ya'acov Liberman, a Jew who was from China, wrote: "We lived for some three generations within the vastness called China, neither integrating nor assimilating with the people of the land. If that sounds like ghetto life, be assured it wasn't. We, the Jews of China, were allowed - rather than forced - by our tolerant host to live a life of our own creation."

Friendship carried on

After China's opening up to the international society in the late 1970s, many Jews who spent a period of their lives in China, such as Ya'acov Liberman, returned for visits. Among them there were Teddy Kaufman, president of the Israel-China Friendship Society and Helmut Stern, a famous violinist.

"Since 1949 I have visited Harbin twice, in 1992 and 1994, and found it has developed into a modern metropolis of a population of 9.4 million. Now the Sungary River (Songhua River) flows along a beautiful embankment. A new, wide bridge sweeps across the river, and a new skyline of high-rises pierces the horizon. It is a brand-new city of commerce, trade, tourism and culture. And yet, to me, it remained the cozy city of my youth," wrote Teddy Kaufman.

Such visits are getting more and more frequent in recent years. Li Shuxiao said the Harbin Jews Research Centre at the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences have so far received about 70 Jews who had returned for visits since April of 2000, when the centre was opened.

According to Li, the Jews who thrived in China 50 years ago greatly cherish their Chinese origin. They have formed associations of "Jews from China" in many cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the United States, and Sydney and Melbourne in Australia. Just days ago, Li's centre ran a course on agricultural technology for Heilongjiang farmers, with guest lectures by an Israeli agriculture expert.

Li said the local government of Harbin is now hoping to further ties with "Harbin Jews." As the result of strenuous efforts over the past year, the Harbin Jews Research Centre published a huge album on the life of Harbin Jews over the past century, which was released a few days ago. Titled "The Jews in Harbin" and published by the Social Sciences Documentation Publishing House, the album contains more than 400 pictures which record the history and life of Jewish people in the city.

The album includes six parts to tell the story of life in Harbin's Jewish community, the lives of their descendants and their relations with Chinese people in the past and today. Israel Epstein, who has stayed in China for nearly 80 years since he left Poland with his Jewish parents, wrote the preface of the album. "For 'Harbin Jews,' the memory of their 'Chinese homeland' will last forever," wrote Epstein, now 88, who spent three years of his childhood in Harbin.