The Jews of Harbin, China - Museum of the Jewish People (2023)

Jews of Harbin, China

dr. Irena Vladimirsky
Historian and researcher in the History Department of the Achva College of Education, Israel, specializing in Central Asian history.

Harbin City is the capital of Heil Kiang Province in North Manchuria, northeast China.

In the 19th century, Harbin was not a city, just the general reference to a group of small towns on the banks of the Songhua River. Harbin's development began with the start of the Russian invasion of Manchuria in the late 19th century. The Russo-Manchurian Treaty of 1897 granted Russia the concession to build the China Eastern Railway and Harbin became its administrative center with a 50 km line. wide area along the railway. The chief engineer of the China Eastern Railway Construction Department was Alexander Jugovich. Born into a Jewish family that converted to Orthodox Christianity, he was a civil engineer, specializing in building railroads in the desert and highlands. The China East Railway would pass through Manchuria, Harbin, Pogranichny and Changchun with Port Arthur in Korea as the final destination.

Construction of the line began in August 1897 and opened to traffic in November 1903. In the same year, several Russian Jewish families moved to Harbin. They had the approval of the Tsarist government, which was interested in urbanizing the area as quickly as possible. Jews who settled in Harbin were given a better status than Jews in Russia.

Jews, along with other minorities such as Karaites, were given land on the outskirts of the city. They were not allowed to work directly on the railroad. However, as the area developed, they were able to establish businesses as traders and contractors.

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early 20th century

By 1903, an autonomous community of about 500 Jews existed in Harbin. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, many demobilized Jewish soldiers settled in Harbin. They were followed by refugees from the pogroms of 1905-1907 in the southwestern provinces (regions) of Russia. In 1908, around 8,000 Jews lived in the city. The growing Jewish population decided to build a new synagogue, which was called the "Main Synagogue". It was built on Artilleriiskaya Street, Pristan District (now Tongjiang Street, Daoli District). The foundation stone was laid on May 3, 1907, and construction was completed in January 1909. China's first Jewish cemetery opened in Harbin in 1903, which later had over 2,000 graves. Several institutions sprang up in the community, including clubs, a nursing home, and a hospital, serving both Jews and the general population. In Harbin, a heder (religious primary school) was founded in 1907 and a Jewish secondary school (Evreiskaya Gimnaziya) in 1909, which had over 100 students in 1910. However, since then, 70% of Jewish students have not attended enough classes in non-Jewish schools in Harbin's Jewish schools.

The chief rabbi of the Harbin Jewish community in 1913 was Alexander Kisilev (1866-1949), the author of several works on halacha and books (Natsionalizm i evreistvo - "Nationalism and Judaism"), published in 1941 in Russian. Family dynasties such as the Bonner, Kabalkin, Krol, Mendelevich, Samsonovich and Skidelsky families played important roles in the development of local industry, particularly the timber and coal industries. They were also instrumental in expanding trade relations with the Russian Empire, as well as European countries, Japan, and the United States.

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In November 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, the Jewish community in Harbin joined EKOPO (Jewish Committee for the Assistance of War Victims). This voluntary organization was active during the war years and was dissolved in 1920 at the request of the Bolsheviks. For example, Dr. Abraham Kaufman, head of the Harbin branch of EKOPO, in February 1914, a telegram from the Committee for Assistance to Pogrom Victims from the city of Samara on the Volga, requesting assistance. During its mission, EKOPO helped more than 200,000 war refugees. The committee organized food distribution among the refugees, set up dormitories, hospitals, vocational courses and much more to help people.

After World War I

The Jewish community was greatly enlarged by the influx of Jewish refugees during World War I, the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Russian Civil War. It peaked at 10,000-15,000 in the early 1930s, but dropped to around 5,000 by 1939. Several Jewish organizations established themselves in Harbin. Among them were a Jewish secondary school (1919-1924), Talmud Torah (later Jewish National School 1920-1950), a Mishmeret Holim hospital (1920-1934), a Moshav Zkenim nursing home (1920-1943), a of vocational training school for women (1922 – 1940), a Jewish library and the “New Synagogue”.

A Jewish National Bank was established in 1923 after the efforts of A. M. Pataka, D. N. Ganansky, Dr. A. Kaufman, M. Y. Elkin, M. I. Trotsky, Dr. S. M. Vechter, GB Drisin, M. I. Schister and Y. Beiner, who started this project ... as early as 1919. The bank's main customers were Jewish businesses that needed cheap credit, but later it also served the needs of the wider business community . In 1950, the bank ceased operations.

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The city's first establishment with modern hotels, banks, shops, cafes, newspapers and publishing houses was started by members of the Jewish community and helped to boost business in the city. Virtually every business in Harbin at the time, be it bakeries, coal mines or mills, was closely linked to Jewish economic activity, and by 1926 there were 28 Jewish-owned businesses.

Harbin was also a well-known cultural center. In the 1920s and 1930s, many famous Jewish actors came to Harbin to perform. This helped to promote the spread of Western music in China, where the Jewish influence on music education in Harbin can be seen today.

Between 1918 and 1930, around 20 Jewish newspapers and magazines were also founded. All were in Russian, except the Yiddish Der Vayter Mizrekh ("The Far East"), which appeared three times a week. It had a circulation of around 300 copies in 1921-22. From 1929 to 1940, the Russian-language weekly Yevreiskaya Zhisn' ("Jewish Life", which was called Sibir-Palestine until 1926) was published with distribution in Manchuria and northern China. An English supplement was added to coincide with the establishment of the National Jewish Council in the Far East.

the zionist movement


The Zionist movement, led by Abraham Kaufman, and various youth clubs played an important role in community life. In 1921, Harbin Zionists were members of Russian and Siberian Zionist organizations and attended their conferences. In order to promote the activities of the Zionist movement, a branch of the Maccabi Jewish youth movement was founded in 1921 and operated until 1925. The Harbin Jewish Women's Association, affiliated with the WIZO, was founded in Harbin in 1922 and the first meeting of the WIZO was held that same year. From 1921 to 1925, several groups of young people belonging to the Zionist HaShomer HaTzair movement emigrated to Palestine. The Harbin branch of HaShomer HaTzair was formed in 1927, and in 1929 the Betar Zionist youth movement was formed, mainly from a large group of former members of the HaShomer HaTzair movement.

The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) into the Soviet Union in 1925 triggered another wave of Jewish emigration, some crossing the borders illegally, others receiving help from the Jewish community to pay the Soviet government's large sums of foreign currency. for the issuance of the required Visa.

When Zionism was banned from the Soviet Union, Harbin became an island of Russian-speaking Zionism. In 1924-1931, the Soviet regime, largely preoccupied with internal problems, exercised limited influence over Manchurian territory. In 1931, the Japanese army occupied Harbin and Manchuria.

The first of three Zionist conferences of Far Eastern Jewish communities was held in Harbin in December 1937. During this first conference, due to ideological differences, an independent Zionist revisionist wing became politically active. Revisionist Zionists held three more conferences attended by Japanese and Manchurian officials.

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The Japanese tried to use Jewish communities in Harbin and Shanghai to attract Western investment into their "common sphere of prosperity". The second conference suggested the possibility of a green and white Jewish flag with a Star of David, or a blue and white flag of the Revisionist Zionist Party. The Japanese maintained relations with the Jewish communities of Harbin and Shanghai in hopes of attracting investment and positive influence from Western Jews (the so-called "Fugu Plan"). The second conference took place in 1938 and the third in 1939. The last conference discussed the possible integration of German and Austrian Jews seeking refuge in China. These conferences were important in leading to the consolidation of Jewish communities in China. The Japanese authorities did not allow the fourth conference, scheduled for 1940.

Under Russian rule, Harbin Jews enjoyed the same rights as all other foreigners and could develop in their own way. However, when the China Eastern Railway was handed over to the Chinese in 1928, an economic crisis broke out and many Jews left Harbin. Some went to the Soviet Union, others to Shanghai, Tien-Tsin and other cities in China. This situation deteriorated dramatically with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (1931-45) and the establishment of a puppet regime under which Jews were subjected to terror and extortion.


1. The Jews of China | FULL EPISODE
(A Rood Awakening!)
2. Radhanites and Jews of China (Harif, 17 January 2023)
(HARIF UK Association of MENA Jews)
3. Harbin, My Home Forever
(Hi China)
4. Jews in WWII China: Life and Literature
(Susan Blumberg-Kason)
5. Harbin Jewish Museum
(Sam Amiel)
6. The History of Jewish Refugees in China (Part 1) | Ep. 208
(Teacup Media)


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