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Jews Return to Childhood Homes

"I've carried it with me all my life -- Harbin is my hometown," said 74-year-old Isaac Shapiro, who returned to revisit his happy childhood in Harbin, capital of northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.
Although 70 years have passed since he left Harbin, Shapiro still remembers clearly his good days in Harbin as a boy. "In my childhood memory, Chinese people were all around: in the candy store, in the shop and in my grandfather's factory," Shapiro said. 

"I grew up surrounded by so many kind-hearted Chinese people, and I never felt I was a foreigner," said Shapiro. "We spoke Chinese and Russian, we had traditional Jewish food and Chinese dishes, and Chinese kids could also be seen in the Jewish school." 

In the late 19th century, large numbers of Jewish people began moving to Harbin to avoid harsh discrimination in czarist Russia and in some other European countries, said Li Shuxiao, deputy head of the Jewish Studies Center affiliated to the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.
The number of Jewish people living in Harbin topped 25,000 in the 1920s, the largest Jewish community in the Far East at that time. They developed a complete social system of their own and they were called the "Harbin Jews," Li said.
Harbin and other Chinese cities such as Shanghai also became home to Jewish people fleeing Europe's Nazi Holocaust. In recent years, more than 100 Jewish people came to Harbin to find the roots of their families and pay their respects to their ancestors each year, Li said.
Shapiro is one of them. He said he has many sweet memories of his childhood in Harbin, especially during traditional Chinese festivals, when he and peers went to see colorfully dressed people performing acrobatics and walking on high stilts.
Shapiro said even after his family moved to the United States, his mother often spoke of the old days in China. "My mother told me that the Chinese people had always been friendly toward Jews and had never stopped helping Jewish people, even though they themselves were in a national crisis," Shapiro recalled. "My mother said Chinese people are admirable."
Following the Japanese invasion and occupation of China's northeast regions in 1931, anti-Semitic activities supported by Japanese and German fascists became rampant. Robbery of Jewish stores and schools, destruction of synagogues and kidnapping of Jewish businessmen happened frequently in Harbin, which was once a safe shelter for Jews.
Shapiro's mother often spoke to him about the "Kaspe Incident" of August, 1933. Simon Kaspe, son of a Jewish businessman and a talented pianist, was kidnapped and murdered on his way to meet his girlfriend, who later became Shapiro's mother.
The "Kaspe Incident" ignited protests against Japanese invaders in northeast China by Jewish communities in Harbin and Shanghai. Thousands of Chinese also joined Jewish people in demanding that Japanese authorities punish the murderer.
With discriminatory activities escalating in Europe, more Jews came to China and settled in Chinese cities. Shanghai alone hosted more than 30,000 Jewish refugees coming from Europe between 1933 and 1941. By December 1941, there were still about 25,000 Jewish people in Shanghai. The number of Jewish people accepted by China was more than the total received by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.
Wang Jian, deputy head of the Jewish Studies Center affiliated to the Shanghai Municipal Academy of Social Sciences, said almost all Jews in China survived the war thanks to the support given by the Chinese people and Jewish people in other parts of the world.
The Jewish people have not forgotten their Chinese friends, neighbors and those who had helped them at that harsh time. Today, Jewish people who formerly lived in China and now live in other parts of the world have set up many organizations to commemorate the old days in China and friendship with Chinese people.
In June 2004, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid respects to his grandfather's tomb in a Harbin Jewish Cemetery. Hesaid, "Thank you for protecting the memory of our family and restoring dignity into the memory of those who were part of this community -- a reminder of a great Jewish life which was part of Harbin."
"I feel comfortable just like returning to my childhood," said Shapiro. "You can walk around where you lived and the synagogues are still there. In the cemetery I recognized many names I knew as a boy."
In the minds of "Harbin Jews" and their descendants, who now live in all parts of the world, Harbin is a place of rebirth and a hometown, just like what famous Israeli Photographer Sara Ross wrote in a photo album she presented to Harbin: "Harbin enriched our childhood, gave us hope and happiness in our youth and guaranteed us the greatest dignity."
Harbin has extended great attention to protecting the Harbin Jewish Cemetery, which covers 836 square meters and consists of about 600 tombs, the largest of its kind in the Far East. The city government has spent one million yuan (US$120,900) in repairing and preserving the tombs of Jews and has established files for owners of the identified tombs.
The Shanghai government erected a monument to the World War II Jewish refugees who lived in the city's Hongkou District.
Li Fangbin, a worker at the Harbin Jewish Cemetery, said that each year at the Qingming Festival, also known as the tomb-sweeping festival in China, cemetery workers would clean every tombstone with Hebrew and Russian inscriptions carefully, and lay bundles of flowers in front of them.
The tomb-sweeping festival is one of the few traditional Chinese holidays that follow the solar calendar, and it always falls in early April. During the festival, Chinese people tend the graves of and pay respect to their deceased ancestors and relatives.

(Xinhua News Agency May 2, 2005)

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