Harbin: "The World's Treasures"


Heilongjiang Province
January 12, 2008

My Dear Friends and Family around the World,

Now, here's a list of names from the 1920's:

Kulas, Soskin, Longovich, Kabalkin, Gofman, Makievsky, Katz, Azachovski, Trabgin, Kagan, Skidelski, Kisiliov, Kaufman, Drizin, Dobisov, Mordokovich. Russians all. One Austrian: Rosenfield.

Such names! Are they from the Lower East Side of New York? Northeast Philadelphia? The Near Westside of Chicago? Moscow?
None of the above.

Here's a list of businesses from 1920:

Central Pharmacy, Miniature Café, Candy Store and Bakery, Jewelry and Watch Shop, Optik Glasses, Kantilena Musical Instruments, Flour Mill, Candle Factory, Mineral Water, Joint Beer and Beverage Factory, Textile Factory, Union Clothes Shop, Electric Mill and Oil Mill, Orient Trade Company, Sugar Refinery, Forestry Products, Coal Mine, Insurance Company. The Municipal Bank.

Schools, Youth Centers, Soup Kitchens, Flood Rescue and Relief, Hospitals, Cemeteries. Such businesses! Such groups! Are they in Johannesburg? Montreal? Boston? No.

Almost all of those charitable organizations and businesses had the same first name. The first name was "Harbin." Harbin, China. And every shop, factory and club was established and nurtured by an immigrant - the names on the very first list.

"In the late 19th century, Russian Jewish communities were founded in Harbin, Tianjin and elsewhere in China. The project to construct a Russian railway to East Asia was centered in Harbin. Anxious to populate the city, the Russian government provided incentives to minorities, including Jews and Karaites, to settle there." (The railroad linked Vladivostok to Harbin and Dalian, a Chinese seaport on Korea Bay.)

"In the early years of the 20th Century, Jews fleeing pogroms in the Pale of Settlement and demobilized soldiers from the Russo-Japanese War joined the early immigrants, raising the Jewish population of Harbin to approximately 8,000 by 1908. The Russian Revolution of 1917 practically doubled the size of the community, and served as a stimulus to Zionist activism." By the late 1920's, the Jewish population of Harbin grew to more than 20,000. It was a political, economic and cultural center and the largest Jewish community in the Far East.

"Japanese annexation of Harbin in 1931 brought increased restrictions on many facets of life, and many Jews left for free countries. Most of the Russian Jews remaining at the end of World War II emigrated to the West. Some were repatriated, both voluntarily and involuntarily, to the Soviet Union" *

"The Jewish people fled persecution and found a new home in China, and were well treated by the Chinese," said Chen Haosu, President of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. **

Apparently, the Russian Jews were very well-treated by the Chinese and the community flourished. From cafes to clinics to coal mines to candy stores, businesses, schools, hospitals, charities and athletic teams grew and contributed to the economic, political and cultural life of the city. The violinists Efrem Zimbalist, Misha Elmer and Yascha Haifitz performed here.

The Jewish New Synagogue was built in 1921. Covering an area of more than 1,230 square meters, it was the largest synagogue in Northeast China. The synagogue could accommodate up to eight hundred worshipers.

The synagogue was closed after the city's Jewish people left in the 1950's. It was renovated in 2004 and the two upper floors are now a museum of Jewish History and Culture. An art gallery for local artists is on the ground floor.

I smiled as I wandered around the picture galleries of this elegant synagogue. There were large photographs of weddings and parties and gala formal events. Some of the men and women in the photos look like my uncles and aunts and my grandparents. The synagogue is a lovely and surprising "treasure" in this city of almost five million people.

The business areas of Harbin are filled with modern "treasures." Skyscrapers in a variety of shapes and colors line the boulevards. Shops carry the latest fashions in shoes and winter boots. Sprinkled everywhere are Russian style government buildings with ornate brick facades and baroque decoration. And like the women of Rajasthan who wear red, gold and green clothing to offset their bleak desert landscape, the colorful structures of Harbin provide a cheerful contrast to the long sub-freezing winter.

My guidebook describes another "treasure" in Harbin:

"Harbin's Russian legacy lives on in the Daoliqu area, along the cobblestone-lined pedestrian plaza and the surrounding side streets. Though the early 1900's buildings here are now up-scale shops, restaurants and hotels, much of the architecture still shows a strong Russian influence, with spires, cupolas and scalloped turrets." *** Ice sculptures dot the sidewalks, and one ice block building has an ice bar that serves…you guessed it…cold sub-freezing glasses of viscous vodka.

Many buildings in Daoliqu have been restored to their original pastel colors of bright yellow, light beige, bright green and powder blue. Their history is recorded in English on exterior plaques. One bank and a hotel and restaurant were founded by Russian Jewish immigrants.

Harbin's most-photographed "treasure" is the Church of St. Sofia. "Dating from 1907, it is also the largest Russian Orthodox church in the Far East. This Byzantine-style red-brick cathedral is topped with a green onion-shaped dome." **** The interior is filled with bright paintings of saints and biblical scenes.

My artist friend Tom and his wife Marty used the word "treasures" when they wrote to me recently: "Great description and terrific pictures, Jan….Your celebration of the world's treasures continues."

I met Tom and Marty many years ago at an outdoor performance of "Aida" at the Terme di Caracalla, one of Rome's impressive venues. (Camels and horses march across the stage.) Tom and Marty know that I love to visit the treasures of the city, treasures like an underground food market, the Church of St. Sophia and the restored Daoiqu district in Harbin. And I am sure they agree with me that there are smaller "treasures" – surprising "nuggets" of information that await our discovery.

One such nugget for me is the history of the Jews of China. There is archeological evidence that Jews lived in China in the 8th Century. The guidebooks mention that Jewish merchants came to Kaifeng from India and Persia along the Silk Road in the 12th Century. I knew about the successful Iraqi Jewish entrepreneurs in Hong Kong and Shanghai. But what a happy surprise it was to learn of the Russian Jewish immigrants who prospered in Harbin in the early Twentieth Century. #

I learned that Ehud Olmert's parents were born in Harbin. Olmert, now the Prime Minister of Israel, recently visited the grave of his grandfather in Harbin. Olmert's grandparents and their fellow immigrants left a legacy that motivates and stimulates until today. One hundred years ago, the Chinese understood that "others" would be a "treasure."

My Fellow Americans,

My own grandfather Polacek was born in Czechoslovakia. My father was born in Germany. They are buried in the USA. My other grandfather Lifschitz, then Lifson, was born in Russia. He also is buried in the USA. They were immigrants, refugees really, and my family prospered.

My non-American friends are usually amazed when I repeat the oft-repeated phrase, "In America, everyone comes from somewhere else."

Here is a list of a few of my American friends and acquaintances, citizens all:

Abdul-Magid, Alimuddin, Alito, Alinsky, Armbrust, Assardo, Bartimole, Benowitz, Berkowitz, Berkovitz, de Jesus, Delmarco, Fecske, Finstein, Frohling, Ginsburg, Hausslein, Israel, Ksiazyk, Meichenbaum, Metviner, Milman, Moran, Muscarella, Needelman, O'Neil, O'Reilly, Reich, Ricco, Riviere, Schackmann, Taxier, Theoharis, Tran, Van Lindt, Wiesenfeld, Youdovin and Zupan.

Are any of those names "American" names? My American friends themselves or their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents came from somewhere else.

Even the families of some of my other friends and acquaintances – Abrams, Bush, Campbell, Carlson, Cole, Edwards, Frank, Gibbs, Gordon, Leaf, Lewis, May, Roberts, Ross, Shaw, Smith and Thomson - came from somewhere else. Unless your name is Running Bear, Sitting Bull or Pocahontas, you came from somewhere else.

Will you be watching the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games this summer? At the Opening Ceremony the athletes will march behind their national flag. Notice the Swedes. They all look like Swedes. The Kenyans look like Kenyans. The Chinese look Chinese. The Turks look Turkish. The Americans? We look like everyone. "Everyone" is our national treasure.

Recently, on the Internet, I saw a photograph and read a news story about a lost treasure. The photo was of a line of men in prison clothing. These criminals, hands handcuffed behind their backs, were being marched to a chartered airplane to be deported to their native country. They had been living in the United States but they were illegal immigrants.

My "strict constructionist" friends are pleased. The men broke the law and they deserve their fate. Of course, it is likely that there were a few miscreants in the group. But there was another story….

….Roberto lived in El Salvador. He is divorced and has two children. He wanted to educate his children, but it was impossible since he earned only $10.00 a day. He decided to make an expensive and dangerous trip north, through Mexico to the USA.

….Roberto succeeded. In the USA he made a legitimate $100.00 a day, and every month, for several years, he remits $500.00 to his children in El Salvador.

….Roberto met and married a Colombian woman who is a legal resident of the United States. Together they had two children. Since the children were born in the USA, they are automatically American citizens with all the rights and privileges of every other citizen.

….The Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested Roberto. They said he broke the law. He failed to show up for a hearing two years ago. Roberto said he moved and never received the notice. Regardless, Roberto is on the plane and gone. His wife now has no husband and his children are fatherless….

What has happened to us? Have we forgotten where we came from? Have we forgotten that we are Americans? Americans! Americans!!! Is this the way we treat our neighbors? Surely one of our clever government officials can devise a plan to halt the decay of our traditional sense of generosity and fair play. Surely we must find the means to forestall the drain on our national "treasury."

When that oh-so-fully-booked INS airplane flies south again, I hope that Roberto will fly north in one of the empty seats and come back home.

I want my treasure back!


* http://chinese-school.netfirms.com/Jews.html
** http://www.10thnpc.org.cn/english/2006/Jan/154523.htm
*** China. Lonely Planet. 2007
**** China. Dorling Kindersley. 2005




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