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The Tiny Island of Russian Jews

Prof. Victoria Romanova
19 March, 2012

Professor Victoria Romanova

The Jewish community of Harbin from the late XIX century to the 1920''''s


The history of the Jewish community of Harbin is unique. As Prof. J. Goldstein worded it, it was a tiny island of Russian Jews outside the borders of Russia. The community existed for just a few decades, during the critical years of world history, which could not but be reflected in its life. But, despite the political storms and shocks, that community persisted as an independent and self-sufficient organization, supplying its members with the necessary support and assistance. Its input into the development of Harbin was great, which is often pointed out by modern Chinese researchers.

The first Jews from Russia arrived in Manchuria mainly from the Russian Far East after the conclusion of a treaty between Russia and China in 1897, according to which China leased a land concession to Russia to build the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER), and a 15 miles wide territorial strip of alienation on both sides of the track and the right to exploit natural resources in the adjacent territory. It was obvious that the building of the railway presupposed benevolent economic possibilities, which could not fail but attract Jews. However, Manchuria fell under the status of 100 verst border zone where according to the Russian legislation the Jews were forbidden to enter. This was what V.V. Sakharov, the then Chief of the General Staff (1898) and the would-be Russia''''s Minister of War specifically advised to N.I. Grodekov, the Governor-General of the Amur region. However, the authorities understood a need for the speedy construction of the CER and the economic development of the strip of alienation in the complex geopolitical situation of the region. This led to a certain degree of pragmatism of their views on the methods of the colonization of the territory. Still, the question of the legitimacy of Jewish participation in the colonization of Manchuria represented a well-known difficulty for the Imperial government: how to get the money of the Jews and still to remain within the framework of the anti-Jewish laws of Russia in order to not create a precedent. The solution was found. In accordance with a decree of the Cabinet of Ministers, approved by the Czar on March 13, 1898, the right to issue passports belonged to the Offices of the Governor-General of the Amur region, the Governors of the Trans-Baikal and Primorye regions and, as it was worded, "in exceptional cases", to the Chief Engineer of the CER. The basis for it was to be a written invitation from the administration of the railroad. Thus, the problem of the presence of Jews in Manchuria was relegated to the administration of the CER, which transformed it from the political plane to the plane of economic advisability. Although the residence of the Jews was severely regulated and controlled in the Russian Far East, no clear rules existed as to their sojourn in the alienation strip of the CER. Formally, the railroad was a non-governmental enterprise now, and it freed its leadership from the need to adhere to the official politics of Anti-Semitism. A.I. Yugovich, the chief engineer, and his assistant S. Ignatius performed their duties in the service of the joint-stock society and they solved exclusively professional tasks. Recruitment of workforce for the construction was based under those circumstances.

The administrative center of the alienation strip of the CER was built in the place of crossing of the railroad with the Sungari (Songhua) river, a tributary of the Amur, and the place was called Harbin after a little village nearby. The town had a profitable strategic and geographical position. Because of this, as well as due to a large influx of governmental resources and the cheap labor of Chinese builders, the city developed rapidly. Jewish people from cities in the Russian Far East – Vladivostok, Blagoveshchensk, Khabarovsk and other places were among the first to be attracted by Harbin. They were specially attracted by favorable economic conditions, as well as an atmosphere of national and religious tolerance established by the administration of the railroad. Settling down in Manchuria, they were dealing mainly with delivery of construction materials and products for workers and employees. E.H. Nilus in his fundamental research "A Historical Overview of the Chinese Eastern Railway" names Jews as the first entrepreneurs in Harbin: Gershevich "a tireless restaurant owner", J. K. Haller, the owner of the first railway shops, who sold common Russian foods, and others. Despite the Russian nationwide practice, Jews were also involved into the direct participation in the building. Thus, J.L. Skidelsky, the eldest son of L.Sץ Skidelsky, the famous Far-Eastern industrialist, worked for N. Bocharov who headed the building of a tunnel through the mountain ridge of Greater Khingan. After the tunnel was built, he led the development of Zhalainor collieries. In June 1903 the still unfinished railroad was given over to the jurisdiction of D.L.Chorvat, the Head of the Board of Managers, who did not only possess professional knowledge ​​ but also had organizational talents and was famous for the breadth of his views and democratic attitudes. Largely due to the personal position of D.L. Chorvat, the Harbin Jews, like other nationalities, enjoyed equal rights with all other Russian citizens without any discrimination. In 1902, ten trade businesses in Harbin belonged to Jews. The number of Jewish people in the city''''s population grew. In 1903 Jews numbered 300 people. In the total number of Russian subjects they were relatively few, less than 2% (the number of Russian subjects at that period of time was more than 15 thousand people). But by the standards of the Far East, it was not so little. For comparison, there were 267 Jews in Vladivostok in 1910, in Nikolaevsk – 358, in Khabarovsk - 610. The Jewish community was officially registered in Harbin in February 1903. It became known as "The Harbin Jewish Religious Community" (HEDO). Its board of directors was elected and approved by the governing Board of the CER, to which it obeyed administratively. Soon after that the Board invited a rabbi from Russia.

The Russo-Japanese war which began in 1904 caused economic flourishing of the city and the growth of its population, as Harbin was a rear base supporting and equipping the Russian one-and-a-half million-strong army in Manchuria. Thanks to the increase in the flow of money funds, the city''''s trade and industry prospered, which increased the Jewish population, although according to the order of General I.P. Nadarov, temporary Commander-in-chief of the Army of the Rear in the Heilongjiang and Gilin Provinces and the Trans-Baikal region, entry of Jews to Manchuria was prohibited, "except for large-scale contractors from the institutions located in the area". It is interesting to note that many Jewish soldiers fought in the ranks of the Russian army in Manchuria. Having been called up for military service from the "Pale of Jewish Settlement" in Western Russia, they were often sent to serve in Siberia, and so they were the first to be engaged in battle. Especially numerous, about one-third of the total number sent to the front, were Jews in the army medical units. All in all, 25 thousand soldiers of Jewish faith participated in the Russo-Japanese war, among them Cavaliers of the Order of St. George. The most famous of them is Joseph (Yosef) Trumpeldor who, having lost his left arm in action, expressed desire to remain in the ranks. However, this did not prevent the official circles from considering Jews, with a few exceptions, as a potentially dangerous force. At the same time the administration of the railroad was quite tolerant to Jews and that increased their numbers. Conditions of economic boom created by the war significantly strengthened the attractiveness of the city. With the outbreak of the war the activities of the Jewish community in Harbin intensified. It undertook, first of all, giving religious services to Jewish soldiers. In particular, the Jewish community distributed kosher products coming for Jewish soldiers from St. Petersburg''''s ad hoc committee of assistance. At Passover it organized lunches for Jewish soldiers in specially constructed barns where they could also pray. About one thousand soldiers received Passover food in that way.  Small cash benefits, additional food and underwear were also donated by the Jewish community. In addition, HEDO cared for the wounded, and saw to it that soldiers killed in battle were buried on the Jewish plot of the cemetery allotted by the administration of the CER. After the war many Jews who were demobilized from the army remained in Manchuria and, in accordance with the Czar''''s decree of 1904, the city gave the right of domicile to Jews who had been involved in military action in the Far East and awarded "marks of distinction" as well as those who had not been reprimanded during their military service. Harbin beckoned them with its atmosphere of profitable business activities and freedom of undertaking, not limited by national and other limitations. There was yet another circumstance that increased Harbin''''s attractiveness in the eyes of Russian Jews. There was a new wave of pogroms in the Southern and Western provinces of the country and many Jewish families decided to leave their places of former domicile forever. A significant number of Jews headed across the Atlantic ocean to America; but some other Jews chose to move to Harbin, having in mind not only economic possibilities of that city, but also its linguistic and cultural environment. In the first place, it referred to those whose relatives were already in the Far East and could take advantage of the Czar''''s decree of 1904 pertaining to demobilized soldiers. The Jewish soldiers invited their families and their relatives and settled not only in Harbin, but also in other settlements along the CER. One of the Far Eastern publicists who visited Harbin in 1905, noted, not without irritation, that "nowhere else you will find so many "oriental people, especially Jews", as here. You may think that you arrived in Berdichev or elsewhere in the Pale of Jewish settlement".

The Russo-Japanese war ended with Russia''''s defeat, which led to the decline of Harbin''''s economy. Warehouses were full of unwanted products, many businesses were ruined and many suppliers went bankrupt. However, the crisis did not last long, and in 1907 it gave way to economic recovery. A new phase began in the development of the city: it became a center of world trade, starting to export Manchurian agricultural products to Western Europe and Japan. The first product for export was soybeans. At the initiative of Roman Kabalkin, a local Jewish merchant, and with the support of the Board of the CER and after an approval from St. Petersburg, the shipping of soybeans to Europe began. It is this export of soybean crops which provided the arrival in Manchuria of significant funds that led to a revival of business activity. The new economic growth caused a growth of the population of Harbin, including an influx of increased numbers of Jews. During those years the Jewish population counted three thousand people. An increase in the Jewish colony resulted in the need for appropriate national institutions: religious, cultural, educational, etc. Among the first needs was building a synagogue. The prayer-house which had functioned since the Russo-Japanese War when it received the title "Soldier''''s synagogue" could not meet the demand of the growing Jewish population. The city''''s Jewish leaders declared a fundraising campaign for the construction of a synagogue. Funds were also sent from Jewish communities in Kiev, Lodz, St. Petersburg and other cities in the Russian Empire. In January 1909, a celebration ceremony on the occasion of the opening of the synagogue was held. Since then the synagogue had been called the Main Synagogue. Two years earlier, in April 1907, a public primary school, and in 1910 – an elementary Jewish school were opened. In 1908 a musical dramatic circle was established by the Jewish Religious Society. Charity became one of the most important community activities in the first years of its existence in accordance with Jewish traditions. It embraced poor HEDO members and those who had not yet joined HEDO. All Jewish newcomers to Harbin found first aid and support from the Jewish community, as well as the city''''s poor, elderly and people with disabilities, and it was an ongoing process. In 1906 the Ladies'''' Charitable Society was founded, which provided needy Jewish women with clothes, money, firewood and charcoal and helped Jewish families to pay for the schooling of their children, for their apartments and helped get bank loans. On the average, about 200 families were on the HEDO care list. In July 1907 a Jewish soup kitchen for all destitute persons was opened. A Jewish public library was established, which in 1912 possessed 13 000 volumes in different languages in all branches of knowledge. Such diverse activities were not typical for Jewish life in Russia, including the Far East, but fairly typical for social life in Harbin where all national colonies created their own religious, cultural and educational organizations.  Top of FormIsIs  Isolated from their cultural and national homes, living in a different, largely alien, civilization, the people formed relatively high public activities, encouraged by the leadership of the CER. Favorable economic possibilities, national, professional and religious tolerance, turned the city ​​into a kind of Mecca for the Jews of Eastern Russia, especially attractive to the Jews of the nearby Amur area.

In 1911 the appointment of Nikolai Lvovich Gondatti to the post of the Head of the CER area changed this attitude greatly and caused tightening of the local "Jewish policy". The St. Petersburg Jewish newspaper "Dawn" indicated in this regard: "The city''''s Jewish population grows each year. In addition to visiting relatives who have settled here after the war ... all Jews evicted from Siberia are flocking here. Thanks to strong repressions of Jews living in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Blagoveshchensk, etc., the Jewish presence in Harbin grows, and Harbin at the present time is the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Far East." Note that the so-called Siberian Jews became the first members of the Jewish community in Harbin, very different in their mentality from those who came from European Russia. As their contemporaries noted, they were generally prosperous, spoke mostly Russian, were less familiar with the national culture of the Jewish people and stood aside from the political processes in Western Russia, although they were trying to preserve their national and religious identity. Characteristic of them were the feelings of national dignity and personal self-esteem inherent in Siberians in general. To some extent this was due to the fact that, in spite of official policies and arbitrariness of local authorities, the Siberian Jews did not know gross domestic anti-Semitism suffered by their compatriots in European Russia, especially those living in small towns. Caught in the grip of many prohibitions and restrictions, while under the vigilant supervision of the police, they moved to Harbin and became enthusiastically involved in its Jewish life. However, their religious ignorance and cultural inexperience caused frequent smiles of the Jews who came from central Russia. 

Jewish social life in Harbin was significantly enriched with the arrival in Harbin in 1912, of Dr. Abram Iosifovich Kaufman and his wife Bertha Schwartz, also a doctor. A great grandson of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), the founder of Chabad Chassidism, on his maternal line, he became interested in the early ideas of Zionism and became their active follower. In Switzerland, A. Kaufman studied medicine at the University of Bern and was engaged in social activities as Deputy Chairman of the City Academic Ferein (Union of Jewish Students). During those years he became acquainted with many prominent figures of Zionism, as well as many Jewish writers, poets and publicists, among them A.M. Usyshkin, C.Weizmann, N. Syrkin, S. An-sky, Sholem Aleichem and C.-N. Bialik. An active Zionist, A.I. Kaufman participated in the sixth Basel Zionist Congress in 1906. He belonged to the democratic faction headed by Weizmann and Usishkin. A. Kaufman was not only a skilled doctor and one of brilliantly educated Russian-Jewish intellectuals, but he also undoubtedly possessed a great organizational talent. In the history of the Far Eastern Jewry, he played a unique role. After the arrival in Harbin of A.I. Kaufman and his wife the Zionist activity increased noticeably. In June 1912 the Palestinian society was established. It became the center of Zionist work not only in the city, but throughout the Far East. According to one of his contemporaries, Dr. Kaufman awakened Jewry from "lethargy" and put it into spiritual contact with the outside world. Immediately upon arrival in Harbin, A. Kaufman was actively involved in the life not only of the Jewish community, but also of the whole city. His activities were varied: he worked as a doctor in the city hospital, he had private practice, he was involved in the urban community organizations, and together with his wife he lectured at the Pedagogical Society and in the Harbin public library. 


Rabbi Aaron Moshe Kiselev, a graduate of the famous Volozhin yeshiva, had a deep knowledge of Judaism. He was invited to the city from Russia in 1913 and made a very significant contribution to the Jewish history of Harbin. He was well acquainted with philosophy and world literature and his activities were not limited to the religious sphere. He was a warm supporter of Zionism, and he was active in the life of the Jewish people in all of China.  


By 1913, Harbin had become a major commercial and industrial center. Its population reached 68 thousand people. There were more than 200 stores, 46 factories, a large number of small shops, warehouses, workshops, etc. Jews at that time played a significant role in economic life, particularly in sectors of local industry - timber, vegetable oil, flour milling, distilling, tobacco, sugar, etc. Thus, the already mentioned merchant Roman Kabalkin was successfully engaged in the export of wheat and Manchurian soybeans to Europe. In 1914 he founded a large vegetable oil factory with the latest technology. High-quality soybean oil produced at the plant was exported to the United States of America. A well-known company of Semyon Soskin and his brothers had economic ties far beyond Harbin. It also dealt with the export of wheat, soybeans, vegetable oil and soybean cakes in Europe. The main supplier of timber on the CER was Leonti Skidelsky, a well-known merchant and philanthropist in the Russian Far East, who acquired several forest concessions and Mulin coal mines from the Chinese government and who supplied Harbin with coal as early as from 1910. Traditionally the Jews played a significant role in the financial sector. Suffice it to note that the city''''s stock exchange committee was headed by M.I. Frid, a Jewish engineer. Jews took an active part in Harbin''''s public administration. So, out of 40 deputies in the city council, 12 were Jews. On the one hand, it demonstrates the active role played by Jews in the development of the city, on the other hand reflects the special atmosphere of the city where, according to Professor G.V. Melikhov, a former resident of Harbin, education and culture of all segments of the population was "higher than in central Russia, due to their open-mindedness and religious tolerance, their lack of national bias, and, finally, due to a wider range of trade and business." The numerical growth of the Jewish community strengthened its financial base and allowed to assist low-income members in their own businesses. For this purpose a charitable society «Gmiluth Hesed» was founded in 1913 and became responsible for issuing interest-free loans to merchants, artisans and entrepreneurs. Timely support not only saved people from poverty, but also from the demoralizing influence of inactivity and idleness.


The news of Russia''''s entry into the war reached Harbin in August 1914. It caused the rise of patriotism among the Russian population of the city. The Jewish community was no exception. However, by order of the Supreme Commander, Grand Duke Nicholas, the Russian army soon began to conduct a mass deportation of the Jewish population from the Western provinces of Russia which became fields of battle, with tens of thousands of refugees who had nowhere to go because of the existing law of the Pale of Settlement. All the best public in Russia has risen in defense of the Jewish population of the country, urging the government to end the shameful practice of anti-Semitism and to cancel the "Pale". "The Russian Society for the Jewish People Affected by War" was founded in St. Petersburg. It was headed by Count Ivan Ivanovich Tolstoy who had formerly served as Imperial Minister of Education in the Witte Government. Obviously, Harbin Jews could not stay away from rendering assistance to their brothers who found themselves in trouble. In November 1914 a meeting of members of the Harbin Jewish community was held, at which the question of their assistance to Jews of Western Russia was discussed. A Committee was established to assist Jewish victims of the war (EKOPO). It issued an appeal to all the Jews of the city, calling for their assistance to the victims of war, and urged every one of them to take part in that holy work. The meeting also decided that every member of the community will transfer his one-day salary on a weekly basis to the fund of assistance to the victims. The Committee sent a letter to the Jewish communities in several cities in China and the Amur Region with a call to join the cause of assistance. The Jewish population of Harbin, numbering at that time 5,500 people, quickly responded to the appeals to help their compatriots. Representatives of all social segments of society participated in that campaign. At the initiative of the Committee they performed concerts, delivered lectures in order to raise funds for refugees. On a monthly basis the dues paid to the Jewish Committee by its members were also transferred as contributions to the Fund of Assistance to the Victims of War, organized in Petrograd in October 1914. This was done at the request of its leadership which applied for support to the Jews of Harbin. Beginning from June 1915, first refugees began to arrive in Harbin from the most affected provinces - Vilna, Kovno, Minsk, Podolia, etc. For them, apartments were rented, which were re-equipped as dormitories, where each refugee was provided with all the necessary things. In November 1915 a soup-kitchen for refugees was opened which also gave out hot meals to the local poor people. The activities of the Committee expanded. To establish comprehensive cooperation several committees were formed, such as émigré, sanitation and health, to collect things, "finding jobs", etc. The dormitories for refugees organized daily reception of sick persons, visits of paramedics on duty and a pharmacy was opened. All medical assistance was provided free of charge. To prevent the spread of epidemics all the new arrivals were vaccinated for smallpox and once a week received a free ticket to the bathhouse. Without limiting the charity for the unemployed as much as possible EKOPO assisted in search of jobs and provided loans to the refugees so they could start their own businesses. In the ensuing economic crisis it was quite a challenge. In August 1915 the Council of Ministers had to adopt the temporary abolition of the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire. This decision was due not only to the need to solve the problem of Jewish refugees, but, apparently, due to unwillingness to spoil relations with allied countries, where anti-Semitism of the Russian czarism had long met with condemnation. This news evoked understandable delight among Russian Jews, including those living in Harbin. On that occasion, the local synagogue held a thanksgiving prayer service, "wishing health and victory to the Supreme Commander (at that time it was Czar Nicholas II – V.R.) and the glorious Russian Army." The government''''s decision made emigration of the Jews easier, and many of them went to America to escape pogroms, poverty and injustice. As military operations continued in the West, Harbin had become one of the major stopovers for Russian Jews who went to the United States. Most of them arrived in Harbin without any means of livelihood, hoping, apparently, to receive assistance from their co-religionists. And the Harbin Jews always provided such assistance. Its volume increased significantly after the revolutionary events of 1917 in Russia when Harbin Jewry, as well as all the Russian Jews, greeted with joy the news of the February Revolution which overthrew the regime which had brought so much suffering to them. However, as it was pointed out in the memoirs of A.I. Kaufman, his countrymen, "greeted this act not as liberated slaves, but as free children of the Jewish nation."

After the February Revolution and a decree on the abolition of all national and religious restrictions in Russia adopted by the Provisional Government, Russia witnessed a rapid growth of the Jewish political parties and movements of different orientation from communist to orthodox-religious. Soon, a fierce struggle among them followed, and Harbin was not an exception in this respect. In March 1917, The Palestinian Society was renamed the Zionist Organization which was to act under its own flag and launched large-scale activities. In addition to the Zionists, the Bund, representatives of Volkspartei, Poalei Zion, Zeirei Zion and others showed significant activity. The position of the religious orthodoxy was quite strong in the community during this period. However, the main confrontation in the first years after the revolution unfolded between the radical left-wing parties (the Bund and Poalei Zion) and the Zionists. With time, the activities of all Jewish political parties came to naught, and the influence of Zionism became dominant. The revolutionary events of October 1917 did not affect significantly the life of the community. General Russian problems interested it only to the extent that they affected Jews. Significantly, a greater response than the October Revolution in Petrograd evoked the news of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, which was greeted with undisguised glee especially by the supporters of Zionism. Henceforth, all-out assistance to the Jewish colonization of Palestine became the most important area of ​​activity, and it eventually turned Harbin into the center of this work in the region.


The end of the First World War did not bring peace to Russian Jews. Even more terrible ordeals were brought down upon them during the Civil War. The events in Russia and, in particular in the Far East, led to the transformation of Harbin into one of the largest centers of Russian emigration. The number of members in the local Jewish community increased. According to the census of 1919 it amounted to 7,554 people or 16% of the total Russian population of the city. Among the new arrivals in the city there were many Jewish refugees, and the community continued to provide them with all possible assistance. In April 1920, in a highly internally and externally acute political situation in the east of Russia, the Bolsheviks established a buffer Far Eastern Republic (FER). The original text of the declaration included the alienation strip of the CER into the territories of the FER, which was accepted negatively by the Chinese authorities in Peking. In October 1920 the strip of the alienation of the CER was renamed by them the Particular Area of ​​the Three Eastern Provinces. However, it should be noted that the Chinese authorities actually did not interfere with the life of the Russian colony of Harbin. In their turn, the majority of Russians sought to distance themselves from the political struggles and to deal with their own current life problems. However, they were far from indifferent to the fate of their former homeland. In August 1921 it became known that a terrible famine erupted in Russia. E.K. Ozornin, a specially authorized representative of the FER in the strip of alienation, appealed to all public agencies to take part in a meeting to  organize famine relief in Russia. HEDO, among other 43 organizations in the city delegated its representatives. Dr. A.I. Kaufman was elected Chairman of the Harbin committee, and took it upon himself to coordinate this work. Soon, reports of bloody massacres perpetrated in Ukraine and Russia began to reach Harbin. This news provoked protests in many countries, and numerous Jewish charities rushed to their aid. The most active compassion for the unfortunate fate of fellow Jews was felt in Harbin. To support them a public committee was established in October 1921 to help orphaned children, the victims of pogroms. The committee included representatives of 22 Jewish organizations of various kinds. It was decided to evacuate a group of orphans who were victims of pogroms to the Far East with the obligation to take care of them and teach them until they stood on their feet (Jewish Life, 1942, № 43). The Committee was requested to contact the appropriate authorities with a request for evacuation 200 orphans aged 4 to 8 from Ukraine to Harbin. In addition, 20 rich Jewish families expressed a desire to take 50 orphans. Soon, middle-class merchants announced their readiness to provide 122 more children with all that would be necessary. However, Ukrainian and Russian organizations rejected the proposal, explaining their refusal by difficulties in evacuating the children because of the devastation on the railways, the danger of epidemics, etc. In their turn, the Harbin Jews did not accept a counter offer to send funds that would be used at their discretion. The result was a compromise solution: the Far Eastern Jewish public committee would place orphans in one of the orphanages in Ukraine under its protection. The choice fell on Kharkov and 500 orphans from local children''''s homes were moved into the care of Harbin Jews. Money was transferred, food parcels were sent. During 1921-22 representatives of the committee visited Kharkov three times. In 1922 the World Jewish Conference adopted a decision on the relocation of orphaned children, victims of pogroms in Ukraine, in different countries. The children from the orphanage in Kharkov were sent to Argentina in the spring of 1923. However, the patronage over the children by the Harbin community did not stop. Thanks to Harbin Jews a soup kitchen was opened in Kharkov, where 875 children under the age of 14 received two meals a day, and it was the only one in the city where the children were given clothing and where medical treatment was provided. To help the victims of pogroms, the Committee organized collecting things and food stuffs once a week. This work was coordinated with the Russian Public Committee helping children orphaned by pogroms, and the Central Far Eastern Committee for Famine Relief. It is known that its Chairman K.Y. Luks, the Minister for Nationalities of the FER''''s government,  traveled to Harbin in May 1922 and met with Dr. A.I. Kaufman. 


Kharkov was not the only recipient of charity from Harbin Jews. In 1922, four railroad carriages with food for victims of pogroms were sent to Samara. In 1921-22 Manchurian Jews sent five trainloads of food, 30 carriages each, to Russia for Jews and Non-Jews. Support from Harbin saved hundreds of lives in famine-stricken Russia, as was evidenced by letters received by the Board of the Jewish community. This noble activity is one of the brightest pages in the history of HEDO. It should be noted that the October Revolution of 1917 turned Harbin Jews into refugees. Mercy to the compatriots in distress was the only bridge linking them to their former home, which by and large had not been for them a loving mother. Russia had not become such with the advent of the Bolsheviks, either. And Harbin Jews understood that. However, they appreciated the desire of the Soviet government to wage a consistent struggle against anti-Semitism. "Of course, we know" - the "Siberia-Palestine" magazine wrote in 1920 – "that Soviet power is the only authority that can guarantee  Russian Jews even their mere physical existence, and the whole force of its authority, without stopping before direct measures, tends to give the Jews these guarantees of personal safety in their fight against the pogrom elements, along with the strong condemnation of the activities of the Bolshevik Jewish section of the People''''s Commissariat of Nationalities, aimed at the eradication of all that is truly national in the Russian Jewry." "The Bolshevik regime, preventing riots, produced the worst destruction in the economic, spiritual and national respect," - said the same magazine. Against the background of the events that took place in the world and in Soviet Russia, the appeal of the ideas of Zionism grew enormously. The influence of its adepts became much stronger in the Jewish community of Harbin as well. Local Zionists had close ties with the governing bodies of the Zionist movement as a whole, as well as with the Central Bureau of the Zionist Organization of Siberia and the Urals. At the end of December 1918 Dr. A.I. Kaufman traveled to Irkutsk to the All-Siberian Zionist Congress as a delegate of the Jewish communities in China and spoke there. In January 1919 he was elected Representative of the Far East in the Executive Office of the National Council of Zionist organizations, and with great energy that was so characteristic of him he took it upon himself to conduct Zionist work in the Far East, often traveling to various places far and near. A congress of the Zionist organizations of the Far East, which was attended by delegates from Blagoveshchensk, Vladivostok, Manchuria, Mukden, Harbin and Shanghai, was held in Harbin at the end of March 1919. A temporary Palestinian Information Office was formed, whose tasks included:

1) Detailed information on all aspects of life in Palestine,

2) Regulation of emigration, visas, founding Siberian cooperative colonies on the lands of the National Fund and the establishment of a Bureau of Labor in Palestine with the view of finding jobs for immigrants from Siberia,

3) Mobilization of capital in Siberia for Jewish Palestine,

4) Organization of trade and industrial departments under the Bureau of Labor, in order to seek the best ways to use the capital in Palestine and all kinds of requests pertaining to the acquisition of land and other transactions,

5) Publication of a special organ for the Jews of Siberia and the Far East. 


The first issue of the weekly journal "Siberia-Palestine", already mentioned above, was published in October 1920. It was the only Jewish organ in the Far East in those days. It contained information about Palestine, the problems of its colonization, published materials about the life of Jewish communities in the Far East, Siberia and Russia as a whole, as well as about foreign Jews. Its editor in the first half year was A.E.Yevzerov, and for next 23 years (since 1925 the journal appeared under the title "Jewish Life") – A.I. Kaufman. Subsequently, a list of Jewish publications in Harbin expanded greatly. Twelve different Jewish newspapers, magazines and other periodicals in Russian (besides the "Far East", a left wing newspaper published in Yiddish) were in great demand. The activation of the immigrant movement in Palestine, including the Jews of the Far East, necessitated the practical training of the immigrants to prepare them for the hard work of developing agriculture in the new country. As far back as 1919 there appeared an initiative group in Harbin creating a local branch of the he-Halutz organization, assisting in educating colonists for agricultural work in Palestine. It consisted of young people ready to move to the Middle East. The Local Zionist Organization paid much attention to their ideological, physical and vocational training. The sports society Maccabi was founded in Harbin in 1920. A congress of the Far Eastern Jewish youth organizations which adhered to the "Palestinian platform" was held in May 1921 in Harbin. The congress established the Far Eastern Jewish Zionist youth he-Chaver organization with the aim of increasing national, cultural and educational work. The year 1922 saw the beginning of the creation of women''''s sector in the Zionist organization. Its first leader was B.I. Schwarz-Kaufman (after B. Kaufman-Schwartz passed away in 1925 N.F. Freezer took over the job). The organization staged concerts in the evenings, inviting popular musicians and performers. (Jews played a very prominent role in the rich musical life of Harbin). The cash received for the tickets replenished the fund of the organization and was also transferred to the Jewish community for various purposes. The efforts of the city''''s women resulted in opening a kindergarten and a Jewish public school for children from 6 to 10 years old with a three-year course of study. There were other Zionist groups in various fields, too. Reference book "The Whole Harbin" for 1926 gives the following list: the Harbin branch of the World Zionist Organization, the Far Eastern District Office of the World Zionist Organization, the Far Eastern Bureau of the Jewish National Fund, the Committee of Keren Hayesod – the Fund for the Reconstruction of Palestine, and the Women''''s Branch of the World Zionist Organization. Regardless of their differences, they provided all-out assistance to the development of the territory of the future Jewish state in Palestine. Great was their role in the formation of national identity of Harbin Jews, many of whom later moved to Israel.  Brit Trumpeldor (Betar), a youth paramilitary organization, was established in 1928, where young people were educated for three types of activities: spiritual, physical (or rather, military-athletic) and professional (to acquire the necessary knowledge to work in Palestine). A must for every Betar member was also to learn Hebrew. An active role in the organization of Betar in Harbin was played by A.J. Gurvich who was until his departure from Europe in 1929 one of party activists under Vladimir (Zeev) Jabotinsky. A.I. Gurvich became the first leader of that movement in China and stayed in Harbin until 1939. Jacob Lieberman, a former Betar member, writes in his memoirs, "Betar in Harbin acquired a reputation that extended beyond its original goal and objective to educate Jewish youths in the spirit of national-minded Zionists and pioneers of the future independent Jewish state. Betar was also the defender of Jewish honor and character, guaranteeing the safety and dignity of Jewish people." And indeed, when K.V. Rodzaevsky founded the Russian Fascist Party in 1931, the members of Betar often came into fist fights with the blackshirts who tried to terrorize the Jewish population of the city. 


In the 1920''''s Harbin became the largest and most well-organized center of Russian Jewry in the Far East. That was perhaps the most productive decade in the history of the Jewish community. It increased its numbers, to a large extent due to the fact that in 1922 the Far Eastern Republic was abolished and Soviet power was restored in Eastern Russia. There followed a wave of Russian immigration to Harbin, including many Jews. During that period, the most economically active part of the Jewish population of the Russian Far East, as well as community leaders and activists of the Jewish political parties and movements moved to Harbin. The activities of the Harbin community in those years greatly expanded, covering all the important areas of Jewish life in the city. With time, this helped to turn HEDO into a self-sufficient structure that could exist in "offline mode", which ensured its ability to live under constant political instability in Manchuria. Of course, not all Jews living in Harbin belonged to the community. There was still a great variation in political views, from monarchists to Bolsheviks, which is generally characteristic of those Jews who had lost their national identity. But even among those who felt like being Jewish, there was no political and organizational unity: they joined different parties and national movements and waged ideological struggles amongst themselves. "Even wider numbers of Jews", according to Professor B. Bresler who was a native of China, "were non-political." Some of them attended Soviet schools and some attended Russian émigré schools, while others went to Jewish schools. "And yet'''', said B. Bresler, "in spite of these differences, we were able (with the exception of a few fanatics) to coexist peacefully." Moreover, in case of threats, whether it was the world Jewry or the Jewish population of the city, for the most part, Jews revealed solidarity. In 1918, the building of the Jewish High School - one of the best schools of the city - was built thanks to donations. The purpose of learning, as it was stated, was "a synthesis of Jewish scholarship, Judaism and human culture." Since 1921, Jewish children could also obtain their education in the Public Commercial School (HOKU). The pupils there were Russians, Tatars, Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians and Chinese, but Jews constituted 40-50% of the total number of students. Its first director was the famous Professor N.V. Ustryalov. He laid the foundation of this educational institution, which provided high level of education in the best traditions of Russian pedagogy based on the best international experience.  Jewish students were taught Jewish history and Jewish literature. Funds for training in these subjects were donated by the Jewish community of the city. 

HOKU existed for 10 years, and its graduates received an excellent classical education which provided them with the opportunity to be admitted later on to universities in many countries. The Jewish Community also took care of the poor citizens who could not provide their children with an education of that high level. In 1921, when Ladies'''' Charitable Society established a girls'''' school, where about 40 girls instructed free of charge in sewing. In 1921 an old people''''s home for the elderly was opened, built by the community at the expense of S.M. and I.A. Rabinovich, providing shelter to lonely old men as well as those whom their relatives were unable to keep at home. Originally, the home was designed for 25 people living there with full board. Later on, the number of inmates was significantly increased. To provide free medical care to people with low income, "Mishmeres Hoilim" health insurance existed. Since 1925 a special haven for the chronically sick people was established. As a result, HEDO operated six charities of various kinds. In addition to those charities there also were religious, cultural and educational organizations. On the whole, as the son of A.I. Kaufman, T. Kaufman pointed out in his memoirs "every Jew in Harbin knew that he would be taken care of in case of illness, loneliness or old age." Indeed, none of them were hungry or homeless and without medical care. Not a single Jewish child was deprived of the opportunity to study due to lack of money. Every Jew knew that he would receive social support and protection from his community. "According to G.V.Melihov, "the Jewish colony in Harbin had in the years 1918-20 the most extensive network of charities that were open to people of all nationalities and, in addition, actively participated in all the charities of Russian émigrés." In 1923, the Russian Jews in Harbin established a Jewish People''''s Bank with a view to help Jewish merchants to expand their operations. Each investor became a shareholder of the bank where he could apply for a loan. With its effective management it was the most durable foreign bank and it existed until 1951. HEDO was the organization with high quality health care for the Jewish population of the city, primarily the poor. To a large extent this was due to the professional affiliation of one of the leaders of the community - Dr. A.I. Kaufman. With the numerical growth of the community the need for a Jewish hospital in the city became apparent. In 1922 the Board granted the request of the "Mishmeres Hoilim" and provided a plot of land for this purpose, but due to financial and organizational difficulties the construction was delayed. In the end, thanks to the efforts of A.I. Kaufman and with the support of members of the community, primarily the wealthy ones, the outpatient hospital began to function in November 1933. It was equipped with 24 beds, 10 of which were free. In the outpatient clinic and the hospital there were 25 doctors of various specialties. Patients were mainly Jewish, but non-Jews were not denied entry by anyone. Doctors took an active part in the fight against various epidemics in the aftermath of a severe flood in 1932 when members of Betar offered a boat service to all those who had to be rescued without distinction of nationality. Supplies of food, medicines and medical personnel were transported in boats. 


In times of political instability the community leadership exerted great efforts to preserve all the HEDO structures and protect the interests of the Jewish population. Emphasis was put on issues of Jewish life, both local and international. The community stood aside from all the other issues unless they affected the interests of Jews. As a social structure of the city, it was also keenly responsive to the needs of the whole city, but did not interfere in the political struggles. Of course, the main subject of delimitation of various local political organizations was the attitude to Bolshevism and the Soviet government. The community expressed its attitude to them only in the context of the Jewish problem. It always condemned the policy of Communists towards Zionism, the persecution of the Hebrew language, the closure of synagogues and the reprisals against rabbis. However, it consistently approved of the fight against anti-Semitism. All attempts to win HEDO over to one or another political camp met with its resistance. Thus, when a local newspaper published an article by Smirnov, who wanted to "protect" the Jews from charges of their alleged commitment to Bolshevism, argued that they had always been on the side of the White movement, the magazine "Jewish life" put the following answer: "It is not necessary to share the views of Bolshevism, or be in the ranks of the Communists, even more than that, you can be indignant about the wanton persecution of Zionists in Russia, to protest against the wild or not based persecution of the Hebrew language, but you cannot deny the facts ... the Soviet government is fighting anti-Semitism, harshly punishing the rioters." The article said, "No, Mr. Smirnov, with you we are not partners." However, the Jewish community always distanced itself from the Soviet organizations operating in the CER, although in those years Harbin Jews still continued to feel that they were Russians and as such they reacted to all developments related to their Russian counterparts. For example, in 1928, in the midst of the anti-religious campaign in the USSR, the Presidium of the community sent 1,500 dollars through the Berlin Committee to the Jews of the USSR and 500 dollars to starving rabbis in Bessarabia. On behalf of the Jewish community the Bureau of HEDO appealed to the Jewish population of Harbin for help: "The need is great for Russian Jewry. We, the Jews of the Far East who are closest to Russian Jewry, must be the first to extend a helping hand to our brothers. Let each of us, sitting in front of the Passover meal, with a clear conscience say that he fulfilled his duty to our unfortunate brothers." The campaign of solidarity was repeatedly held in the city in order to raise funds for the benefit of Soviet rabbis deprived (as well as ministers of other religions) of their rights and even livelihood. The money was sent to the Soviet Union, but it was unknown whether it had come to its destination. The processes occurring in the Soviet state more and more obstructed the continuation of any contact with the local Jewish Russian counterparts. The events that took place in Manchuria did not favor those contacts, either.

In 1927 the diplomatic relations between the USSR and China were broken, and in 1929 an armed conflict on the CER led to the establishment of Chinese control over it. However, despite all the twists and turns, Harbin''''s Jewish life did not cease, but the conditions for it were much worse. Adversely affected was the economy because of the global crisis in 1929 and a volatile political situation that ensued. This caused the migration of the Russian population, including Jews, to other parts of China, especially to Shanghai. Many Jews moved to the United States, Canada and Australia. Zionist-minded youths went to Palestine.



Living conditions in Harbin formed a kind of cultural-psychological type of the local Jews. Those of them who came from pre-revolutionary Russia, felt that they were a part of the Russian Diaspora, however, they were ready to explore the culture, language, history and traditions of their own people, to cultivate and develop their Jewish identity. The peculiarity of the Harbin Jewish community is, in our opinion, that it was a kind of Diaspora in a Diaspora: on the one hand, it was a part of the Russian Diaspora, living in the city, on the other hand an independent Diaspora group, with its own ethnic and cultural features. Harbin Jews en masse were prosperous and were distinguished by a relatively high educational and cultural level. Preserving their cultural and religious tolerance, they were usually not assimilated and showed commitment to their national values ​​and traditions, among which philanthropy and solidarity were the major ones. Living conditions, education and training formed in Harbin Jews a developed sense of self-esteem and national willingness to defend it. In general, Harbin Jews'''' mentality was very different from the Shtetl Jews of Tsarist Russia, who were victims of pogroms. Most of them were bi-lingual and bi-cultured, and most notably, they raised the second generation of Harbin Jews in the same tradition. However, it is obvious that the generation of Jews born and raised in Harbin had, for obvious reasons, lost the spiritual connection with Russia. Here''''s how T. Kaufman who was born in Harbin in 1924 and who lived there until December 1949 describes it: "We were taught the Russian language, but never considered ourselves to be Russian." However, I think, that in fact they were tied to Russia not only by the language. They lived in the part of Harbin where life was very similar to the Russian (not Soviet!) life. The organization of everyday life, to some extent, its cuisine, children''''s entertainment and games, such as lapta (a Russian bat and ball game), skiing, winter sleigh rides and ice skating, etc.), judging by their memoires, was of the Russian style. They visited Russian restaurants, concert halls, where the brilliant performers came from Russia. Obviously, they were formed not only by a family environment, not only by traditional Jewish values, but also by the atmosphere of the city which had turned into a major center of Russian emigration. With a pronounced Jewish identity and dreaming of their homeland, they did not just speak Russian, but they knew Russian literature, music and culture and often loved them. Living in Harbin, they remained Russian Jews with many peculiar features of this sub-ethnic group. The 1930s saw the decline of the Jewish community in Harbin. However, its activity continued.


During the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (1931 - 1945) the new government had no specific policy agenda against the Jews. This allowed HEDO to engage in anti-Nazi propaganda, and later on to assist Jewish refugees from Europe. The majority of community institutions continued to function. Nevertheless, the occupation regime inevitably imposed restrictions on the activities of the community. In addition, the Japanese did not interfere with the activities of the Russian Fascist Party. However, the most crushing blow to the Jews in Harbin was dealt by the Soviet occupation in 1945. The community leadership was arrested and its leader Dr. A.I. Kaufman was deported to the Soviet Union and spent 16 years in Stalin''''s prisons and labor camps. Many Jews, especially the most active and affluent, were affected. With the formation in 1948 of the State of Israel there was a massive exodus of Jews from China. In 1959 the Chinese government decided to nationalize foreign capital, according to which the small Jewish community lost its last property and virtually ceased to exist, although 48 Jews still lived in Harbin in the early 1960s. The former residents of Harbin who immigrated to Israel from China in 1951 created their own association Igud Olei Sin, which at the end of the process of immigration was renamed Igud Yotzei Sin. This organization, the Association of Former Jewish Residents of China in Israel, headed by its Chairman T. Kaufman, the son of Dr. A.I. Kaufman, is a wonderful example of loyalty to the ideals of their young years, to traditions of mutual aid and fraternity. The statute of the association states that its purpose is to bring together people from the Far East for mutual assistance and cooperation. In addition, the Association is a careful guardian of the unique history of the Jewish community in Harbin and other cities in China, and it provides invaluable assistance to all researchers in their studies. The author of this paper was fortunate to work in the archives of the Association at the kind invitation of T. Kaufman, and had the pleasure to talk with him and his associates and listened to their stories with greatest interest. The most striking and surprising is the fact that they are people who found a real home in Israel, but who have not lost their roots. They speak good Russian and they reveal a profound knowledge of history and culture of Russia. Having become Israelis decades ago, having given all their energy to the creation, growth and prosperity of their Jewish state, they remain in their hearts residents of Harbin - the city of their beautiful young years, an island of Russian Jewry in China.


Victoria Romanova

She was born in Khabarovsk in the family of historians.

She graduated from the Khabarovsk State Pedagogical Institute, Faculty of History and English, and was employed as an assistant of the Department of History there. In 1978 Victoria entered the postgraduate course at Moscow State Lomonosov University. In 1982 she proved her thesis and returned to Khabarovsk. She worked at the Department of Philosophy at the Medical Institute, the Department of World Politics and International Relations of the Higher Party School, then in 1991 she went to work at the Department of Political History of the Pedagogical University (now  the Far Eastern State Humanitarian University), where she works at present. In April 2001 at the Moscow Pedagogical State University Victoria Romanova proved her doctoral thesis "Public Policies against the Jewish Population of the Far East of Russia (The Second Half of the Nineteenth Century and the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century)". Her work was carried out on the basis of archive materials of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Birobidzhan, as well as the United States (New York, Cincinnati) and Israel (the archive of Igud Yotzei Sin in Tel Aviv).
She was a professor at that Department from 2005 to 2010 and as Vice-Rector for Science and International Cooperation of the Far Eastern State Humanitarian University. Currently she is the Head of the Department of Political History. She is the Chairman of the Dissertation Council for Doctoral and Master''''''''''''''''s theses in the field of national history and universal history. She is the author of two books and nearly one hundred articles, is a member of the editorial board of the journal "Social Science and Humanities in the Far East."