A Home for Jews in China
welcomes back 'smart, rich' former residents, hoping for prosperous ties.
The visitors, now elderly, are drawn by nostalgia.
Magnier, Times Staff Writer
— Esther and Paul Agran look over Harbin's
rather dowdy Xinyang Square,
see the mud and the snarled traffic, then count the buildings from the
corner. "One, two, three — that's it!" says Esther, 80.
"That's the building where we had our wedding reception! It was a
beautiful building. I think it rubbed off — we've been together
A half-century after most of the Jewish community fled Harbin, pushed out by an increasingly unfriendly
Communist government wary of "imperialist capitalists," former
residents are venturing back for a nostalgic look. Many were born and
lived their early lives in this once-booming city in China's northeast.
Now, after years of not being welcomed, they are returning to a city that
is eager to see them. Harbin recently announced
a $3.2-million renovation of its main synagogue, and it is stepping up
efforts to preserve other historically significant buildings and sprucing
up the Jewish cemetery, Asia's largest.
For the Chinese, it's less a warm and fuzzy embrace of the old days than
a fairly blatant bid to spur the struggling local economy. Last month,
at an international conference on "Jewish History and Culture in
Harbin" that was attended by nearly 100 former residents
and their families, officials gushed about the "always smart"
and "always good with money" Jews who might help return Harbin to its former glory.
"We haven't heard such compliments since the days of Moses,"
says Yaacov Liberman, 81, a Harbin native
now living in San Diego.
Liberman was on his first trip back since his family left China in 1948.
Although most people don't tend to associate Jews with China, Harbin
was an enclave of relative tolerance in the first half of the 20th century,
as chaos, war and revolution raged in a troubled world. Jews, mainly from
came to see it as a sanctuary and a land of opportunity. The first Jew
reportedly arrived in Harbin around 1899, leading what would eventually
be three waves of immigration, says Li Shuxiao, vice director of Jewish
research at the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences. The first group,
in the early 20th century, came in search of opportunity after the opening
of the Russia-China railroad. The second fled the 1917 Russian Revolution.
A third sought to escape a Russia-China border conflict in 1929. The peak
was around 1920, when the local Jewish population reached 20,000.
"Most Russian Jews came to China
without money and worked hard," says Pan Guang, a history professor
at the Institute of European
and Asian Studies in Shanghai.
"It paid off, and they became solidly middle-class."
Many of those now returning for a visit to Harbin,
once known as the "little Paris of
the East," recall a privileged life with Chinese and Russian maids,
a whirl of social events and winters crossing the Songhua River
on Russian telhai, sleds
pushed by an attendant. "It was 30 below zero," recalls Hannah
Muller, who left China
in 1949 and hadn't been back since. "It was wonderful. We were all
wrapped up in bearskins."
wasn't always enthusiastic about having them come back. For much of the
last decade, officials feared that the returnees would demand reparations
for the factories, houses and personal effects that were expropriated
after Mao Tse-tung came to power in 1949. But relations picked up after
that didn't happen. Fifty-seven people reportedly still have property
claims not covered by bilateral treaties, which, theoretically, they could
pursue. But most of those in their 70s and 80s who have recently returned
say they can't be bothered.
"What's past is past," says Harbin-born Bernard Darel, 75, an
import-export businessman now living in Tel Aviv whose family's button
factory and apartment were taken over by the Communists in 1949. "It's
a long time ago, a long way to Tipperary."
For most of the prosperous returnees, who were bantering in Russian, English
and Hebrew, the real draw was the chance to catch up with long-lost friends
and relive memories of what many see as a golden era. For Esther and Paul
is more than a hometown — it's the birthplace of their lifelong
romance. Esther was popular and good-looking, from a wealthy family that
owned a cosmetics factory just behind the synagogue. "In school she
was unreachable," Paul recalls. "I didn't think I had a chance."
One cold November day, however, she came to his uncle's fur shop, and
their eyes met. In a few months, they were married in a gala wedding with
400 guests. "She had great legs in those days," says Paul, 82,
looking at a black-and-white photo. "Hey, she still has great legs
On one rainy evening during the group's weeklong stay, Jack Lieberman
weaves across Harbin's
torn-up Tongjiang Street
past head-high piles of sand and dirt and into a hulking, 70-year-old
building housing a rail car manufacturer. "What are you doing? This
is a business!" a rattled security guard barks as Lieberman leads
a stream of visitors past him.
It is anything but that to the group of foreigners from Israel,
the U.S., Canada, Australia and other faraway places.
They try to ignore the chipped green paint and harsh lights as they remake
the interior in their minds. "This was our synagogue," Lieberman
says. "The men sat there. The women were up in the balcony there.
The ark would have been up there, at the end and to the right," he
says, referring to the place where the temple's Torah was kept. "It
was a really beautiful place."
As he reminisces, Teddy Kaufman, an 80-year-old Harbin-born Israeli and an impetus to bringing the group together,
walks by. "Were these pictures originally here?" someone asks
Kaufman, pointing at a dusty mural of bears cavorting in the wild. "There
are no pictures in a synagogue," Kaufman responds emphatically, "especially
none of bears."
Amid the grime and exposed wiring are hints of the building's former splendor.
A once-grand chandelier still hangs in the entryway, its graceful, cut-crystal
arcs now brown with smoke and stains. Worked into the window grilles and
chipped floor are images of the Star of David. "This was the second
synagogue in town," says Paul Conway, 58, now a resident of Australia.
"That's because Jews always have to say, 'Oh, that other synagogue,
I wouldn't be caught dead there.' "
Across the street is a former mosque, a testament to a time when, at least
in Harbin, the two communities
coexisted peacefully. "My father was Russian and Tatar, a Muslim,
and my mother was Jewish," says Mara Moustafine, 50, who was 4 when
the family immigrated to Australia
in 1959, one of the last to leave. "That's the kind of city it was."
managed to prosper through much of the early 20th century under ever-changing
authority. Czarist Russia,
Nationalist China, imperial Japan,
Soviet Russia and Communist China exerted control over this strategic,
resource-rich area in the midst of the three countries. In general, most
of the governments were relatively tolerant, even encouraging, of the
Jewish enclave into the 1940s.
That changed after the Communists came to power. "Rapid changes in
China made it difficult
to continue living here," says Xu Xin,
a professor of Jewish studies at Nanjing University.
"There was a huge exodus through the early 1950s."
For David Udovitch, 84, it came down to soup and labor unions. The former
owner of a paint factory in Harbin
recalls returning home from work in 1953 and learning that a union representative
had stopped by, looked in the family's soup pot and asked why they were
eating meat when workers hadn't had any in months. "That's when I
knew it was time to leave," he says, standing near his mother's grave
in the Jewish cemetery.
A few hundred Jews, mostly those too old to leave or lacking overseas
sponsors, lingered for a decade, with the last one, an elderly woman,
reportedly dying in the mid-1960s. Many are in the graveyard, moved to
the outskirts of town in 1958. For the local government, the cemetery
and the memories it holds are a potential gold mine, starting with tourism,
it hopes, then spreading to trade and investment.
Many who left formed social groups in their new homes to help one another.
Over the years, most retained strong emotional ties to China
even though their lives in Harbin
were often quite insulated from Chinese society. "We were kosher,
so I never even tried Chinese food until I was 17," says Leana Leibovitch,
81, who looked for her old house but learned that it had been demolished
sometime after her 1948 departure for Australia. "Now, of course, I
Kaufman, since the early 1970s the leader of the Tel Aviv-based Assn.
of Former Residents of China, took the lead in arranging the rapprochement.
When he approached Harbin's
leaders in 1992 about building links, he recalls, they didn't even know
what a synagogue was, let alone that there once were two of them in the
city. "For them, history started with the Communist revolution in
1949," he says. "They'd thrown away the pages" of history.
He got their attention on a return trip two years later by pointing out
that Harbin lagged far behind Shanghai
where foreigners were welcomed with more open arms and minds.
A trip to Israel by local
officials a few years later — and the promise of Israeli
aid for reconstruction to keep Jewish history alive — made them
even more receptive. "They're quite open about it —
getting the rich Jews to invest," says Moustafine, author of "Secrets
and Spies: The Harbin File," a book about her family's experiences.
"My view is, if we can preserve the buildings and get China to open up the archives while
former residents are still alive, it's all for the good."
Now the government is on board from the top of Heilongjiang province on down, with Gov. Zhang
Zuoyi welcoming returnees with a call to invest and set up joint ventures.
"Sure, it's public relations. Everyone understands that," Kaufman
says. "The mention of rich Jews isn't meant as an insult. Many people
in Asia think all Jews are smart and rich — and if you're
rich, you must be a Jew."
There are limited signs that the Harbin
strategy is paying dividends. "I need to buy four or five containers
of blankets, a few containers of diapers and I'm interested in buying
some coal," Tel Aviv resident Darel, sporting a lapel pin with entwined
Chinese and Israeli flags,
tells his Chinese hosts. "I don't need to do business here,"
he adds later. "In a lot of ways, it's easier in Guangzhou.
But my memories are very good, and I feel like doing it because it's the
Magnier was recently on assignment in Harbin. Lijin Yin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed
to this report.