For more information, go to www.jewsofchina.org, the website of Igud Yotzei Sin – the Association of Former Residents of China in Israel.
Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert went on a political mission to China and was greeted with much pomp and ceremony. During the visit Olmert took time to visit the city of Harbin, a city in the northeastern section of China, bordering Russia. Olmert’s family had lived there in the late 19th and early 20th century. In honor of his visit, the Chinese government renovated the Jewish cemetery in Harbin at the cost of $385,000. Few Jews realize that there was a thriving Jewish community in Harbin that at its peak had more then 25,000 members during the 1920’s.
Harbin was important when it became the juncture of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Chinese-Eastern railway. Many Jews came to the area during the Russo-Japanese War and were demobilized in the area. Others came to escape the pogroms in European Russia as well as the harsh Russian decrees against the Jews that were not enforced in the far eastern provinces. Harbin was considered a haven for Jews.
When Israel Cohen, a British Zionist leader, traveled around the world to collect money for the Zionist cause in 1920, he made sure to put Harbin on his itinerary. He found the community as diverse as any in Europe with synagogues, talmud Torahs, schools, orphanages, societies for helping the poor as well as all the social trappings one would expect to find in an established community.
The meetings he held to raise money and convince people to move to the land of Israel were very well attended. In his book about his travels he states, “I soon realized that there were not scores of Jews in Harbin who were eager to go to Palestine.” This was the atmosphere in which the father of the present Prime Minister of Israel grew up.
The community was made up of many notable personalities. In 1913 the chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Harbin was Alexander Kisilev (1866-1949), author of several works on halachah 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 the development of the local industries, especially wood and coal industries.
During the Second World War the community was influential in helping Jewish refugees coming from Europe settle in Shanghai.
Between 1945-47, Harbin was under Soviet occupation. Jewish community leaders were then arrested and sent to the Soviet interior. Most Jews of Harbin emigrated to the West in the years after World War II. During 1951-53, about 3,500 of the former “Chinese” Jews, most of them from Harbin, settled in Israel where they established a society of Chinese Jews. The cemetery was moved from its old location to Huang Shan during 1968-72, the years that marked the end of the Jewish community of Harbin. The last Jew in Harbin left in 1985. Old Jewish schools, streets, and houses are kept intact or have been renovated. Among these old buildings are two synagogues, a rabbinical school and the biggest Jewish cemetery in the Far East, in which there are about 700 gravestones with Hebrew inscriptions.