Few people know that Harbin, the capital of northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, was once home to thousands of Jews. The International Seminar on Jewish History and Culture in Harbin, which opened on Tuesday, is now drawing attention to the city’s deep historical relationship with the Jewish people.
The seminar, sponsored by the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, the Israel-China Friendship Society and the Association of Former Residents of China, will last for three days. More than 100 scholars from the United States, Israel, Russia, Australia, England, France, Canada and China are participating.
Over half a century ago, European Jews fleeing war and persecution were received by the hospitable residents of Harbin. Israel’s Ambassador to China Haim Yehoyada noted that those people and their descendants are scattered far and wide now, but many came to Harbin for the seminar, further strengthening ties between Jewish and Chinese peoples
“The seminar shows that the China-Israel friendship has entered a new period,” said 89-year-old Israel Epstein, now a member of the 10th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Epstein lived in Harbin from the time he was 2 until he was 5, and now has worked in China for nearly 80 years. “For ‘Harbin Jews,’ the memory of their ‘Chinese homeland’ will last forever,” wrote Epstein in his preface to the album The Jews in Harbin.
Historically, the first contact between Chinese and Jews was made as early as in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 25), when Jewish traders, attracted by ancient China’s thriving merchant economy, arrived from Persia via the Silk Road. Various historical relics indicate the existence of Jewish communities in several trade cities like Dunhuang, Luoyang and Quanzhou, where Jewish tombs and artifacts have been discovered in recent years.
In the early 20th century, Harbin had the largest Jewish population in the Far East.
Harbin is now an industrial city with a population of 8 million, but until the late 19th century it was nothing more than a cluster of small villages on the banks of the Songhua River. It owes its expansion to Russia’s construction of the China Eastern Railway, the eastern branch of the Siberia Railroad.
Eager to populate the burgeoning city, the czarist government encouraged Russian Jews to move to Harbin. After World War I, more people fleeing Russia’s civil wars and anti-Semitism in Germany found refuge in Harbin. By the 1920s there were over 20,000 Jewish settlers living in the city. They established banks, libraries, schools, hospitals, synagogues, stores, theatres, breweries, tobacco factories, charities, insurance companies and publishing houses, contributing greatly to the city’s development.
Nonetheless, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s spurred many of Harbin’s Jews to leave, and the exodus continued throughout World War II. By 1951, nearly all Jews in Harbin had emigrated, mostly to Israel but also to Australia, the United States, Canada and elsewhere.
Those who once lived in Harbin cherish their memories of the city. They have set up “Jews from China” associations in many cities, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the US, and Sydney and Melbourne in Australia.
To promote studies on the Jewish history and culture of Harbin, the provincial academy of social sciences established the Harbin Jews Research Center in April 2000. “One of the center’s goals is to study the successful experience of Jewish people in economics, science and technology, culture and education,” said academy president Qu Wei in his opening address.
The center held a “Jews in Harbin” exhibit in 2002. “Visitors to the exhibition have totaled well over 50,000,” said Qu. In August 2003, the center published an album titled The Jews in Harbin with photos covering people, places and events over the past century.
In cooperation with a Hong Kong publisher, during the conference Heilongjiang unveiled the first issue of Sino-Jewish Cultural Research Magazine. At the conclusion of the conference, a collection of research papers on the Harbin Jews will be published.
The Harbin government has invested substantial time and money to protect the heritage of the local Jewish community. For example, it relocated the Huangshan Jewish Cemetery, the largest and best-preserved Jewish cemetery in the Far East, where more than 500 immigrants are buried.
“The municipal government will invest more than 20 million yuan (US$2.5 million) to reconstruct three Jewish buildings: the New Synagogue, the Old Synagogue and the Jewish school, which were built in 1909, 1921 and 1918 respectively,” announced Heilongjiang Province Governor Zhang Zuoji at the seminar. The reconstruction of the New Synagogue is scheduled to be completed within the year.
(China.org.cn by staff writer Shao Da, September 1, 2004)