The Jews of Harbin, China - Museum of the Jewish People (2023)

The Jews of Harbin, China

Dr. Irena Vladimirsky
A historian and researcher with the Department of History, Achva College of Education, Israel, specializing in the history of Central Asia.

The city of Harbin is the capital of Heilung Kiang province in northern Manchuria, northeast China.

In the 19th century, Harbin was not a city, but only the general reference to a cluster of small villages on the banks of the Songhua River. Harbin’s development began with the start of the Russian invasion of Manchuria towards the end the 19th century. The Russo-Manchurian treaty of 1897, granted Russia the concession to build the Chinese Eastern railway and Harbin then became its administrative center with a 50 km. wide zone along the railway. The chief engineer of the building board of the Chinese Eastern railway was Alexander Yugovich. Born into a Jewish family that converted to Orthodox Christianity, he was a civil engineer and specialist in constructing of railways in deserts and highlands. The Chinese Eastern railway was to cross Manchuria, Harbin, Pogranichny, and Changchun with Port Arthur in Korea as its final destination.

The construction of the line began in August 1897 and opened for traffic in November 1903. In the same year, several Russian Jewish families moved to Harbin. They had the approval of the Czarist government that was interested in developing the area as rapidly as possible. The Jews who settled in Harbin were granted better status than were the Jews in Russia.

The Jews, along with other minority groups, such as Karaites, were granted plots of land on the outskirts of the town. They were not allowed to work directly on the railway. With the development of the area, however, they were able to establish businesses as shopkeepers and contractors.

Early 20th Century

By 1903, a self-governing community of about 500 Jews existed in Harbin. After the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, many demobilized Jewish soldiers settled in Harbin. They were followed by refugees from the 1905-07 pogroms in southern-western Russian guberniyas (regions). By 1908, there were about 8,000 Jews in the city. The growing Jewish population decided to build a new synagogue, which was called the “Main Synagogue”. It was built on Artilleriiskaya street, in the Pristan’ district (now Tongjiang street, Daoli district). Its foundation was laid on May 3, 1907 and the building completed in January 1909. The first Jewish cemetery in China was opened in Harbin in 1903, which later had more than 2,000 tombs. Several institutions came into being within the community, including clubs, a home for the aged, and a hospital, which provided care for Jews as well as the general population. A heder (religious elementary school)was established in Harbin in 1907 and a Jewish secondary school (Evreiskaya Gimnaziya) in 1909, which had over 100 pupils by 1910. Seventy percent of the Jewish pupils, however, attended non-Jewish schools since there were not enough classes for in the Jewish schools in Harbin.

In 1913, the chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Harbin was Alexander Kisilev (1866-1949) – author of several works on halakha and books (Natsionalizm i evreistvo – “Nationalism and Judaism”) which were published in Russian in 1941. Family dynasties, such as the Bonner, Kabalkin, Krol, Mendelevich, Samsonovich and Skidelsky families, played an important role in development of the local industries, especially wood and coal industries. They were also instrumental in expanding trade relations with the Russian empire as well as European countries, Japan and the United States.

In November 1914, following the outbreak of the World War I, the Jewish community of Harbin joined EKOPO (Jewish Committee for the Help of War Victims). This voluntary organization was active during the war years and disbanded in 1920 under the demand of the Bolsheviks. For example in February 1914, Dr. Abraham Kaufman, head of the Harbin branch of EKOPO, received a telegram from the Committee of Assistance to Pogrom Victims from the city of Samara on the Volga River with a plea for assistance. During their operation, EKOPO helped more than 200,000 war refugees. The Committee organized distribution of food among refugees, established dormitories, hospitals, professional courses and more to help the people.

After World War I

The Jewish community was sharply increased by the influx of Jewish refugees during World War I, the Russian revolution (1917), and Russian Civil war. It reached its peak, 10,000 – 15,000, in the early 1930’s, but declined to about 5,000 in 1939. Several Jewish organizations were established in Harbin. Among these was a Jewish secondary school (1919-1924), Talmud Torah (later Jewish national school 1920-1950), a hospital Mishmeret Holim (1920-1934), a hostel for aged people Moshav Zkenim (1920-1943), a school for professional education for women (1922 – 1940), a Jewish library as well as the “New Synagogue”.

A Jewish National bank was created in 1923 following the efforts of A.M Pataka, D.N. Ganansky, Dr. A Kaufman, M Y. Elkin, M.I Trotsky, Dr. S.M.Vechter, G. B. Drisin, M.I Schister, and Y. Beiner that initiated this project already in 1919. The bank’s prime customers were Jewish businesses in need of cheap credit, but later it also catered to the needs of the wider business community. The bank ceased operation in 1950.

The city’s first branch 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. Practically all enterprises in Harbin at that time, whether bakeries or coalmines or mills, were closely connected with Jewish economic activity, in addition in 1926 there were 28 companies owned by Jews.

Harbin also was a well-known cultural center. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, many famous Jewish actors came to Harbin to give performances. These helped promote the spread of western music in China where the Jewish influence on Harbin music education can be seen today.

Between 1918 and 1930, about 20 Jewish newspapers and periodicals were also established. All were in Russian except the Yiddish Der Vayter Mizrekh (“The Far East”),which was published three times a week. It had a circulation of about 300 copies in 1921-22. The Russian-language weekly Yevreiskaya Zhisn’ (“Jewish Life”, which until 1926 was called Sibir-Palestina) appeared from 1929 to 1940 with a circulation throughout Manchuria and north China. An English supplement was added to coincide with the establishment of the Jewish National Council in the Far East.

The Zionist Movement

The Zionist movement, led by Abraham Kaufman, and several youth clubs played a major part in the life of the community. Until 1921, Zionists of Harbin were affiliated with the Russian and Siberian Zionist organization and participated in their conferences. To further the activities of the Zionist movement a branch of the Maccabi Jewish youth movement was established in 1921 and it functioned until 1925. The Harbin Jewish Women’s Association linked to WIZO was established in Harbin in 1922 and the first meeting of WIZO was held the same year. From 1921 to 1925, several groups of youths from HaShomer HaTzair Zionist movement emigrated to Palestine. The Harbin branch of the HaShomer HaTzair was set up in 1927, and in 1929, the Zionist youth movement Betar was founded, mainly by a large group of former members of the HaShomer HaTzair movement.

The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the Soviet Union, in 1925, stimulated another wave of Jewish emigration, some crossing the borders illegally while others received assistance from the Jewish community in order to pay the large amounts of money in foreign currency required by the Soviet government for issuing visas.

When Zionism was outlawed in the Soviet Union, Harbin became an island of Russian-language Zionism. In the years from 1924 to 1931, the Soviet regime, largely preoccupied with internal problems, exercised limited influence on Manchurian territory. In 1931, the Japanese army occupied Harbin and the Manchurian territory.

The first of three Zionist conferences of the Jewish communities of the Far East was held in Harbin in December 1937. During this first conference, because of ideological differences, a revisionist Zionist wing moved to lead an independent political activity. The Revisionist-Zionists held three more conferences, which were attended by Japanese and Manchurian authorities.

The Japanese tried to use Harbin and Shanghai Jewish communities to entice western investment into their “co-prosperity sphere”. At the second conference, the possibility of a Jewish flag was proposed, green, and white with a Star of David or blue-white flag of the Zionist Revisionist party. The Japanese maintained relations with the Jewish communities of Harbin and Shanghai, hoping, through them, to win investment and favorable influence from western Jews (the so-called “Fugu plan”). The second conference was held in 1938 and the third in 1939. At the last conference, discussions were held of the possible integration of German and Austrian Jews who sought refuge in China. These conferences were important in leading to the consolidation of the Jewish communities of China. The Japanese authorities did not allow the fourth conference that was supposed to be held in 1940.

Under Russian rule, the Jews of Harbin enjoyed the same rights as all other foreigners and were left alone to develop in their own way. However, in 1928, when the Chinese Eastern Railway was handed over to Chinese, an economic crisis broke out and many Jews left Harbin. Some went to the Soviet Union, others to Shanghai, Tien-Tsin and other cities in China. This situation changed drastically for the worse with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (1931-45) and the establishment of a puppet regime, under which Jews were subjected to terror and extortion.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Sen. Ignacio Ratke

Last Updated: 11/10/2022

Views: 5297

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (56 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Sen. Ignacio Ratke

Birthday: 1999-05-27

Address: Apt. 171 8116 Bailey Via, Roberthaven, GA 58289

Phone: +2585395768220

Job: Lead Liaison

Hobby: Lockpicking, LARPing, Lego building, Lapidary, Macrame, Book restoration, Bodybuilding

Introduction: My name is Sen. Ignacio Ratke, I am a adventurous, zealous, outstanding, agreeable, precious, excited, gifted person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.