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Finding Family Roots at Harbin's Jewish Cemetery

A curtain of rain enveloped the solemn Huangshan (Royal Hill) Jewish Cemetery, located in an eastern suburb of Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, on June 25, 2004. Praying in Hebrew and putting stones on the grave in accordance with Jewish tradition, Ehud Olmert, visiting Israeli vice premier and trade minister, paid his respects at the tomb of his grandfather. 

Olmert's grandfather, J.J. Olmert, left war-torn Russia after World War I and went to Harbin, where he lived until 1941. J.J.'s son, Mordechai, grew up in the city and was one of the founders of the Betar, the Revisionist Zionist Youth Organization. He never forgot his Chinese hometown after moving to Israel in the early 1930s. "When he died at the age of 88, he spoke his last words in Chinese," recalled Ehud Olmert.


"Many Jews with the dream of Zionism rest in peace in the cemetery. Today I want to tell them in the capacity of a Jewish country's vice premier that their Zionist dream has come true," said Olmert as he stood before his grandfather's tomb.


Starting from the late 19th century, Jews fleeing czarist Russia's persecution flooded into Harbin, their population peaking at some 25,000 in the 1920s. The emigrants turned the city into the largest Jewish political, economic and cultural center in the Far East.


The Jewish cemetery was initially built in downtown Harbin in 1903. The municipal government and what was then the Jewish Religious Association together moved over 600 tombs in 1958 to Huangshan. "The 836-square-meter cemetery today holds 583 well-preserved graves, and is the biggest and best-protected Jewish cemetery in the Far East," said Li Shuxiao, deputy director of the Harbin Jews Research Center of the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.


On September 2, 2004, a group of more than 100 Jews from Israel, the United States, Russia, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and France went to the cemetery to visit their relatives' graves. They were in the city to attend the International Seminar on Jewish History and Culture in Harbin, which opened on August 31 under the aegis of the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, the Israel-China Friendship Society, and the Association of Former Residents of China.


It was the second time Lily Klebanoff-Blake, from the United States, had come to visit the Huangshan cemetery. Her grandfather, a musician and one of the pioneer Jewish settlers of Harbin, arrived in the city around 1903 and opened a music store, making his contribution to what became, by the 1920s, a thriving music scene.


When she first visited his tomb in 1999, Klebanoff was pleased to see that her grandfather, who died in 1944, was buried under a blossoming tree with birds singing in the branches. She told the cemetery's manager, "My grandfather was a musician and he must feel happy to be buried under the tree with wonderful singing birds."


While his wife made rubbings from the somewhat eroded inscriptions on the tombstone, Henry M. Strage, from London, displayed his family tree in front of his grandfather's tomb. Strage's grandfather fled Russia in 1903 and walked to what was then Manchuria. In 1905 he went to Harbin to open a small shop engaging in the fur trade. By then, his entire family of ten brothers and sisters were all living in Harbin. Strage's grandfather, who died in 1945, was buried in the city, as were two of his sisters. The rest went to the United States, Canada and Australia.


"After all these years I'm very happy to be able to leave some stones on my grandfather's grave to show we were here," said Strage. "It's very nice for the city to make such a beautiful cemetery for the people who lived here many years ago. Everybody appreciates it and feels grateful to come to this nice place to pay respects to his or her relatives.


"I have ten grandchildren. In the years ahead they might come here as well to say hello to their forefathers," said Strage.


Paul Agran, from the United States, was born in Harbin in 1922. His family's history in Harbin can be traced back to 1905, when his grandparents moved to the city.



Agran's father, a businessman, still lived in Ukraine. It normally took him 80 days to accompany a shipment of grain to China and return. "One day he told my mother at home, 'It's ridiculous. Your parents are already in China, and the Chinese are wonderful people. Let's move to China!' So they came to Harbin sometime in 1911."


However, Agran has only a blurred memory of his father, since he was just five years old when the elder Agran died. Burdened with the responsibility of feeding his family, Agran started to work for an American company at the age of 16. He worked and attended night classes at Harbin Technical Institute -- predecessor of today's Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) -- for more than four years.


Agran met and eventually married his wife, Esther, in Harbin, and the couple had their first daughter just before they left the city in 1949.


Agran was not to return to his hometown for the next 55 years. "I'm an old man now," he said. "The main reason to come back is that I want to visit the Huangshan cemetery, where we buried my grandfather, grandmother, father, uncles, aunts, and other relatives -- seven or eight people altogether."


Esther Agran reminded her husband that he likes to tell people his tale of fishing on the Songhua River more than half a century ago.


When he was young, recalled Agran, fishing was his favorite pastime. Once, after spending an entire day fishing on the Songhua River, he suddenly realized it had grown dark. Fluent in Chinese at that time, Agran rowed to a nearby farmhouse and asked the peasant there if he could spend the night, since it was too late to return to the city. The man welcomed him without hesitation.


"Once inside, I found the peasant was in straitened circumstances. Except for a heatable adobe bed, which was called a kang in northern Chinese dialect, there was nothing but four bare walls in the house."


Agran said that despite his obvious poverty, the peasant did everything he could to serve a hearty breakfast of sorghum the following morning. He firmly refused Agran's attempt to give him some money.


As he left, Agran saw the peasant's six-year-old daughter playing in the courtyard. Putting some money in her hand, he told her to give it to her father.


He walked about two kilometers before the peasant caught up with him.


"Gasping for breath, he apologized for his 'badly-behaved' daughter first, and then put the money back in my hand. What made that poor and uneducated peasant who was in deadly need of help so generous and selfless? And why?" asked Agran.


Agran pauses, and then answers himself: "I guess we can only seek clues from the 5,000 years of culture that has been deeply inscribed in every Chinese heart and mind.


"Whenever people ask me why I can get along with the Chinese so well, I always tell them this story."


(China.org.cn by staff reporter Shao Da, September 14, 2004)

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