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A Dispatch From Frozen Harbin, Where Jews Once Flourished, and Melted Away – Tablet Magazine


ne of my unusual and vivid reminiscences from my first trip to Israel, once I was 9 years previous, is of a quick cartoon I watched on the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. The cartoon described the travels of Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th-century Spanish Jewish service provider who documented his six-year journey traversing the recognized world, across the Mediterranean to Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia, and reporting on India and China, and sharing crowded boats and wagons in-between. The Diaspora Museum has since been revamped and rebranded because the Museum of the Jewish Individuals, but in 1986 it was a darkish and brazenly miserable place, its dour shows all leading to a “Scrolls of Fire” atrium describing how hapless Jews have been expelled or burned alive.

However the cartoon was brilliant and curious. Benjamin was a ridiculous bowling-pin figure with googly eyes, bobbing throughout the display and cheerfully reporting on thriving Jewish communities all over the world—the Jews in France who inexplicably lived in a citadel, the Jews in Babylonia who had their very own googly eyed king, the Jews in Yemen who joined native Arab armies and stampeded with them in a cloud of mud, the Jews in Syria who pacified wiggly eyebrowed assassins with free silk scarves. For causes I couldn’t articulate at the age of 9, I was completely enchanted.

I feel that same enchantment now when I am seduced by the travel industry’s branding of the world as a tremendous place filled with welcoming people who beneath it all are literally the identical. My private expertise as a tourist in over 50 nations has contradicted this hopeful messaging totally—in reality, the more time I spend in anywhere, the extra I notice the differences between myself and the inhabitants, and the more alienated, uncomfortable, and anxious I turn out to be. Yet colourful photographs of exotic places on TripAdvisor lure me each time.

So it isn’t shocking that I used to be wanting to make my approach to a city referred to as Harbin in a remote province of northeastern China, south of Siberia and north of North Korea, where the temperature hovers around minus 30 Celsius for much of the yr, and the place every winter, over 10,000 staff assemble a whole large city out of blocks of ice. I’d seen pictures and movies of the Harbin Ice Pageant, which dwarfs comparable displays in Canada and Japan by orders of magnitude, its monumental ice buildings laced via with LED lighting and typically replicating well-known monuments at or near life measurement. It attracts over 2 million visitors a yr, because it’s the type of thing that must be seen to be believed. As I thought-about whether a visit to Harbin was value it, my mindless travel-industry scrolling took me to an inventory of different native tourist points of interest, together with synagogues.

Yes, synagogues. Plural. And then I found something deeply unusual: The town of Harbin was built by Jews.

Only later would I uncover that the ice city and the Jewish city have been truly the identical, and that I was being actively lured to each, in methods more disturbing than I might have probably imagined. Like a googly eyed Benjamin of Tudela, I had to go.


ews have lived in China for more than 1,000 years, which is so long as they have lived in Poland. However Harbin is a special case. The story of the Jews of Harbin, and of Harbin itself, begins with the railroad. Before the railroad, Harbin did not exist.

Like most Chinese language cities you’ve by no means heard of, Harbin right now is larger than New York, with a inhabitants round 10 million. But as late as 1896, there was no Harbin, only a cluster of small fishing villages around a bend in a river. That yr Russia acquired a concession from China to build a part of the Trans-Siberian Railroad by means of Manchuria—the normal identify for the huge, frigid, and at that time, barely populated area of northeastern China. Building this route would shave two weeks off the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok, making every railroad tie value its weight in gold. The route would additionally embrace a branch line deeper into China, requiring a big administrative middle at the junction—primarily, a town. Mikhail Gruliov, a Jew who had transformed to Russian Orthodoxy as a way to develop into a basic in the Russian military, chosen the location that turned Harbin.

With an unlimited funding to protect, railroad officials shortly realized that they might not rely upon native warlords or Siberian peasants to create this not-yet-existent town. They needed skilled Russian-speaking entrepreneurs. But who would ever need to move to Manchuria? That was when the railroad’s administrator, Common Dmitri Khorvat, hit on a genius concept: the Jews.

Russia’s crippling anti-Semitic legal guidelines and violent pogroms have been already driving tons of of hundreds of Jews to America, together with my very own ancestors. Khorvat argued that getting capital and expertise to Manchuria was a bit of cake. Simply tell the Jews that they will stay freed from anti-Semitic restrictions, he argued to the regime in St. Petersburg, without studying a new language or turning into backside feeders in New York’s sweatshops. The only catch was that they’d have to maneuver to Manchuria.

The regime reluctantly agreed. So did a whole lot, and then hundreds, of Russian Jews.

The first Jews arrived in 1898 and included an official group in 1903, by which era this plan was working splendidly. A 1904 National Geographic article written by a U.S. consul to Manchuria reported, wide-eyed, that “one of the greatest achievements in city construction that the world has ever witnessed is now going on in the heart of Manchuria,” and that “the capital for most of the private enterprises is furnished by Siberian Jews.” These Jewish entrepreneurs created Harbin’s first lodges, banks, pharmacies, insurance corporations, department shops, publishing homes, and more; by 1909, 12 of the 40 members of Harbin’s Metropolis Council have been Jewish. These preliminary entrepreneurs have been joined by Jewish refugees fleeing the 1905 pogroms, then by even more refugees fleeing World Warfare I and the Russian Civil Warfare.

At its peak, Harbin’s Jewish group numbered around 20,000. The “Old” Synagogue was inbuilt 1909, and by 1921 there was sufficient demand for a “New” Synagogue a couple of blocks away, as well as a kosher slaughterer, ritual tub, and matzo bakery, to not mention a Jewish elementary and secondary faculty, a hospital, a charity kitchen, a free mortgage association, an old-age residence, a number of magazines and newspapers, performances of Jewish music and theater, and Zionist golf equipment that have been the middle of many young individuals’s lives. Harbin hosted major international Zionist conferences that drew Jews from all over Asia. Zionist parades have been held in the streets.

You already know this story has to finish badly. Like virtually every place Jews have ever lived, Harbin was great for the Jews till it wasn’t—but in Harbin, the standard centuries-long rise and fall was condensed into something like 30 years. The flood of refugees from the 1917 Russian Revolution included many non-Jewish “White” (anti-Communist) Russians, whose virulent anti-Semitism was soon institutionalized in a fascist get together that burned the Previous Synagogue in 1931. That was also the yr the Japanese occupied Manchuria, observed wealthy Jews there, and determined they needed their money. Conveniently, White Russian thugs have been prepared to assist.

The Japanese gendarmerie launched into a partnership with White Russian criminals, whom they used to target Jewish enterprise house owners and their families for extortion, confiscation, kidnapping, and homicide. Later they manipulated the Jewish group for his or her functions, sending Abraham Kaufman, a revered physician and the group’s elected leader, off to 2 separate audiences with the Japanese emperor, and forcing him to publish official statements from Harbin’s Jewish group saying their love for Nazi-allied Japan. Issues didn’t improve when the Soviets took over in 1945; the very first thing they did was spherical up the town’s remaining Jewish leaders, including Dr. Kaufman, and ship them to gulags. Dr. Kaufman endured 11 years in a gulag and then five years in exile in Kazakhstan before he was allowed to hitch his household in Israel. He was the luckiest; no one else survived. Then once more, dying in a gulag was less dramatic than the destiny of some Jews beneath the Japanese. Whereas retreating from the Manchurian city of Hailar, the Japanese army beheaded its Jewish residents.

By 1949 Chinese language Maoists controlled Harbin. The thousand-plus Jews still on the town have been progressively stripped of their companies and livelihoods, whereas Israel’s government made secret contact with Harbin’s remaining Jews and began arranging for them to go away—a course of that principally involved submitting to extortion. As one Israeli official explained, “It is obvious that the Communist government is keen to clear the country of the foreign element. However … the authorities make things very difficult as long as the person who wants to leave is still in funds, and lets the person go only after making quite sure that his personal funds are exhausted.” The last Jewish household left city in 1962. After that, just one Jew remained in the city, a lady named Hannah Agre who refused to go away. Leaning into the crazy-old-lady motif, she moved right into a tiny room in the Previous Synagogue (by then the building, its inside subdivided, was being used as authorities workplace area) and died there in 1985, the official Final Jew of Harbin.

She wasn’t fairly the last, though. As we speak there’s one Jew in Harbin, an Israeli in his 70s named Dan Ben-Canaan. Ben-Canaan was overlaying the Far East for Israeli information media when he determined to go native, getting himself a job at an area college and settling permanently in Harbin in 2002. Ben-Canaan is a busy man, not only because of his university obligations and his work modifying native English-language news packages, but as a result of his monumental analysis into Harbin’s Jewish previous has made him indispensable to the native authorities as they restore Jewish websites—the end result being that he is additionally principally employed as the semi-official One Jew of Harbin.

As an alternative of touring the world and visiting Jews, you’re visiting their graves.

Ben-Canaan spends enough of his time being the One Jew of Harbin that once I interview him over Skype, he has his one-liner ready: “I’m the president of the community here, which consists of me and me alone. It’s great because I don’t have anyone to argue with.” Ben-Canaan’s interest in Harbin’s Jewish historical past, stemming from his days as a journalist, intensified when he discovered that Harbin’s government owns the Jewish group’s official archives—and retains them beneath lock and key. “I tried to get them to reopen the archives, and they refused,” he tells me. “I’ve been given two reasons for it. One is that it contains politically sensitive material, and the other is that they’re afraid of being sued for property restitution. There were some wealthy Jews here whose property was worth millions.”

The shortage of access motivated Ben-Canaan to re-create the archives himself by accumulating pictures, memorabilia, and testimony from over 800 former Harbin Jews and their descendants around the globe. Consequently, as he put it, “I’ve become an address” for Harbin’s Jewish history. When the provincial government decided—for causes that only steadily develop into clear to me—to spend $30 million to revive, renovate, or reconstruct its synagogues and other Jewish buildings, they employed him.

The One Jew of Harbin speaks with me for almost two hours, because that’s how long it takes him to describe the Jewish websites whose refurbishment he has supervised. There’s, it appears, rather a lot to see. Being no chump, the One Jew of Harbin spends his winters in southern China. However he units me up with a former scholar of his who now works as a tour guide, to see the sights.


here is a tourist-industry concept, well-liked in locations largely devoid of Jews, referred to as “Jewish Heritage Sites.” The term is a very ingenious piece of selling. “Jewish Heritage” is a phrase that sounds completely benign, or to Jews, maybe ever so slightly dutiful, suggesting a place that you simply certainly ought to visit—in any case, you came all this manner, so how might you not? It’s a a lot better identify than “Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.” By calling these locations “Jewish Heritage Sites,” all those pesky ethical considerations—about, say, why these “sites” exist to begin with—magically evaporate in a mist of goodwill. And not just goodwill, however goodwill aimed immediately at you, the Jewish vacationer. For you see, these non-Jewish residents and their benevolent authorities have chosen to take care of this cemetery or renovate this synagogue or create this museum purely out of their profound respect for the Jews who once lived here (and who, for unstated causes, not do)—and out of their honest hope that you simply, the Jewish vacationer, may someday arrive. But still, you can’t assist but really feel uncomfortable, and finally helpless, as you interact in the actual inverse of what Benjamin of Tudela as soon as did: As an alternative of traveling the world and visiting Jews, you’re visiting their graves.

Harbin is having fun with a heat wave once I arrive, a balmy 10 under with a wind chill of a mere minus 18. I only have to wear a pair of thermals, a shirt, a sweater, a fleece, a parka, a balaclava, a neck warmer, a hat, gloves, three pairs of socks, and three pairs of pants to go outside.

My first cease is the town’s Jewish cemetery, billed by tour corporations as the most important Jewish cemetery in the Far East—except that it’s not a cemetery, since cemeteries include lifeless bodies, and this one doesn’t have any. In 1958, Harbin’s local government was redesigning the town and decided that the Jewish cemetery, house to round 2,300 lifeless Jews, needed to go. The town provided households the option of shifting their lifeless relations’ graves to the location of a giant Chinese language cemetery referred to as Huangshan, an hour’s drive outdoors the town, for the worth of about $50 per grave. Many Jewish households have been long passed by then, so only about 700 graves have been moved—and, because it turned out, solely the gravestones made the journey, since city authorities noticed no purpose to maneuver the bodies, too. The human stays from the previous cemetery at the moment are in what the Chinese language call “deep burial”—that’s, the area containing them has been paved over and was an amusement park. “It is nice for them to be there,” my tour information—who I’ll call Derek to maintain him out of hassle—says of the lifeless Jews beneath the rides. “They are always with happy people now.”

The drive to Huangshan takes about an hour by way of industrial wastelands and frozen fields, culminating in a grandiose toll plaza with monumental Russian-style onion domes and then a number of miles more of abandoned warehouses, with a number of bundled individuals by the roadside promoting stacks of faux money to burn as choices—as a result of Huangshan is mostly a huge Chinese cemetery, full of infinite rows of similar shiny white tombstones on miniplots containing cremated stays. After driving past tens of hundreds of lifeless Chinese individuals, we discover the entrance to the cemetery’s Jewish section, pay our payment, and enter the gates.

The Jewish part is compact and stately, with gravestones elaborately carved in Hebrew and Russian, along with many trendy metallic plaques sponsored by former Harbin Jews whose kin’ unique stones weren’t moved. Most of the unique grave markers have ceramic inserts with photographic portraits of the deceased, which might have been intriguing if every single one weren’t shattered or removed. The injury is clearly deliberate, which might clarify the cemetery worker following us round. The concept Jewish cemetery desecration is at present in vogue in Harbin is a tad miserable, however to my surprise, this snowy Jewish Heritage Website doesn’t feel in any respect lonely or bereft. The truth is, it’s moderately glam.

Inside the gate is a plaza with an enormous granite Star of David sculpture, next to a two-story-high domed synagogue building festooned with more Stars of David. The synagogue’s doorways are locked, however by way of its windows I can see that the constructing is a shell, with nothing inside but some scattered instruments and junk. Once I ask what it’s for, Derek laughs. “They built it for Olmert’s visit,” he explains. “Now it’s just used by the cemetery workers to stay warm.” Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister who served prison time for corruption, has roots in Harbin. His father was born here, and his grandparents, or no less than their gravestones, are in Huangshan—markers that have now been outdone by a 12-foot-high black marble obelisk. The obelisk, crowned with yet one more Jewish star, is carved with greetings written in English in Olmert’s handwriting and painted in gold: “Thank you for protecting the memory of our family, and restoring dignity into [sic] the memory of those who were part of this community and [illegible] a reminder of a great Jewish life which a long time ago was part of Harbin.” The words are a dashed-off scribble, suggesting that Olmert didn’t fairly anticipate them to be set in stone. His grandparents’ gravestones have been replaced with black-and-gold marble ones to match the obelisk, outshining the plebeians with their smashed ceramic photographs. Close to their graves stands a trash can designed to appear to be a soccer ball.

Olmert’s visit to Harbin in 2004 as Israel’s deputy prime minister was an enormous deal, however the (pretend) synagogue inbuilt his honor on the (also pretend) cemetery was just one part of an unlimited and expensive undertaking on the a part of the native provincial government to revive Jewish Heritage Websites. The government’s specific aim is to draw Jewish cash, within the form of both tourism and funding by overseas Jews.

In our interview, the One Jew of Harbin had only reward for these efforts, through which he’s deeply concerned. “The restoration cost $30 million—it’s unheard of here. Everything was of the highest quality,” Ben-Canaan informed me, including that Harbin’s Jewish Heritage Websites have the identical official designation as Chinese language landmarks like the Forbidden Metropolis. One of many many sources on Harbin he shares with me is an extended 2007 information article from a Chinese magazine by a journalist named Su Ling, who he describes as one among China’s rare investigative reporters. The article, titled “Harbin Jews: The Truth,” traces a very specific historical past: not Harbin’s Jewish Heritage, but the Heilongjiang provincial authorities’s makes an attempt to capitalize on that Heritage.

The story begins innocently enough, with a social-scientist-cum-real-estate-agent named Zhang Tiejiang, who discovered the prior Jewish possession of many historic houses that he was alleged to demolish for a city-planning venture in 1992. Taking an interest, he studied the Jewish graves in Huangshan cemetery, translating their Russian text with the help of a computer program. His timing was auspicious: 1992 was the yr China established diplomatic relations with Israel, and in 1999 China’s premier made his first official go to to Jerusalem. Also auspicious: Heilongjiang province, long reliant on declining industries like coal mining, had hit an financial stoop. Zhang Tiejiang seized the moment in 1999 to publish his sensible concept, in an article for a state information agency titled “Suggestions for the Study of Harbin Jews to Quicken Heilongjiang Economic Development.”

This article made its solution to the province’s higher-ups, who dispatched an official to Heilongjiang’s Academy of Social Sciences to “intensify the study of the history of Harbin Jews.” A Middle for Jewish Research was established, complete with an enormous price range. “Develop[ing] the travel industry and attracting business investments,” the center’s unique website introduced, was “the tenet of our existence and purpose.” A boondoggle ensued, with unqualified individuals producing minimal analysis whereas enjoying journeys overseas. In the years since, the government’s $30 million has produced extra tangible results, together with not solely the cemetery refurbishment, but in addition the transformation of the New Synagogue right into a Jewish museum, the reconstruction of the Previous Synagogue and the Jewish secondary faculty, and the landmark-labeling of formerly Jewish-owned buildings in the metropolis’s historic heart.

This try and “attract business investments” by researching Jewish historical past appears, to put it gently, statistically unsound. Among the many tens of hundreds of thousands of tourists to China annually, 40,000 annual Israeli visitors and even fewer Jewish tourists from elsewhere quantity to a rounding error. And the concept Israeli or different Jewish-owned corporations can be moved to spend money on Heilongjiang Province out of nostalgia for its Jewish Heritage seems unlikely. The one approach to perceive this considering is to understand the position Jews play in the Chinese language imagination.

Most Chinese individuals know subsequent to nothing about Jews or Judaism. However in a 2009 essay reviewing tendencies in Jewish studies in China, Lihong Music, a professor of Jewish studies at Nanjing College, factors out a standard pattern in what they do know. “My students’ first association with Jews is that they are ‘rich and smart,’” he notes. These students didn’t get that idea from nowhere. “The shelves of Chinese bookstores,” Music explains, “are lined with bestsellers on Jewish subjects.” What Jewish topics may these be? Nicely, some of those bestselling titles are Unveiling the Secrets and techniques of Jewish Success in the World Financial system, What’s Behind Jewish Excellence?, The Financial Empire of the Rothschilds, Talmudic Wisdom in Conducting Enterprise, and in fact, Talmud: The Biggest Jewish Bible for Making Money. Track claims that this isn’t anti-Semitic, but somewhat “some sort of Judeophilia.”

At a 2007 “International Forum on Economic Cooperation Between Harbin and the World’s Jews,” held in Harbin with dozens of invited Jewish friends who ranged from the Israeli ambassador to a gaggle of Hungarian Jewish dentists, Harbin’s mayor welcomed individuals by citing esteemed Jews comparable to J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller (neither of whom was Jewish). He then introduced that “the world’s money is in the pockets of the Americans, and the Americans’ money is in the pockets of the Jews. This is the highest acclaim and praise to Jewish wisdom.”


ormer Harbin Jews typically keep in mind Harbin as a type of paradise. “They owned the town,” Irene Clurman, a daughter of former Harbin Jews, informed me, describing the nostalgia that many “Harbintsy”—ex-Harbiners—expressed for their beloved city. “It was a semicolonial situation; they had Chinese servants and great schools and fur coats.” Or in the words of her grandmother Roza (later Ethel) Clurman in a 1986 interview, “Harbin was a dream.”

It’s additionally value noting here that Roza Clurman’s husband—Irene Clurman’s grandfather—was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in Harbin through the Japanese anti-Semitic reign of terror, after which his lucrative enterprise (he launched indoor plumbing to Manchuria) and his high-end rental building have been confiscated, leaving his family with nothing. However let’s concentrate on the constructive: In any case, Roza Clurman was 5 through the 1905 Odessa pogrom, hiding in an attic for days on end while the neighborhood was ransacked and her neighbors murdered. True, her husband additionally wound up murdered—but “my grandmother absolutely had a nostalgia for Harbin,” Irene Clurman insists. In her interview, Roza Clurman admits that “everything changed” in Harbin, but she spends much more time describing its glory: the steaks the family ate, their family employees, the youngsters’s personal lessons.

The ascent from pogroms to non-public lessons was dizzyingly fast, obscuring the group’s equally precipitous decline. One Harbintsy descendant, Jean Ispa, informed me how her father, an orphan, made his solution to Harbin alone solely to review music, since Russian conservatories didn’t take Jewish college students. “He was 16 when he made this journey,” Ispa tells me in marvel. “He gave concerts in Harbin. I even have the programs he played.” One other Harbin exile, Alexander Galatzky, was eight through the pogroms of the 1919-1920 Russian Civil Conflict, when he and his mother repeatedly barricaded themselves of their condominium in Ukraine and listened to the screams of their neighbors being murdered and raped. When the ship fare his father sent from New York was stolen, their only hope was to go east to Manchuria. In reminiscences he wrote down for his family, Galatzky described boarding a cattle automotive to go away Ukraine: “Mother has a bundle of old clothes with her. The soldier on guard of the cattle car is trying to take it from her. She clutches at it, crying, kissing the soldier’s hand. We have no money or valuables and the old clothes can be bartered for food en route. Without them we would starve.” After a life like that, Manchuria was paradise.

Former Harbin Jews typically keep in mind Harbin as a sort of paradise.

In fact, one might inform the identical story about Russian Jews who emigrated to New York. But in Harbin, the place Russian Jews created their own Russian Jewish bubble, their sense of possession and delight was larger—and that delight turned the story of their group’s destruction right into a footnote. Of the Harbintsy descendants I interviewed, most mentioned associates or kinfolk who have been kidnapped, tortured or murdered in the course of the Japanese occupation. All had their household’s hard-earned belongings seized by Manchuria’s numerous regimes. However in the subsequent sentence they might inform me, again, how Harbin was “a golden age.” A whole organization in Israel, Igud Yotzei Sin (Association of Chinese Exiles), exists solely to connect homesick “Chinese Jews” around the globe with one another by way of networking, social occasions, scholarships, and trilingual newsletters which run to a whole lot of pages. Till current years, members gathered weekly in Tel Aviv to play mahjong, drink tea, and reminisce. Teddy Kaufman, who ran the group until his demise in 2012, revealed a memoir titled The Jews of Harbin Reside On in My Coronary heart, extolling the Jewish paradise. His father was the group president who wound up in a gulag.

Harbin’s Jewish “golden age” lasted lower than one era. Even earlier than the Japanese occupation, things have been unpleasant enough that leaving was, for many, a foregone conclusion. Alexander Galatzky, the boy whose mother bartered previous clothes to feed him on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, stored diaries as a young person from 1925 to 1929 that his daughter Bonnie Galat just lately had translated. The diaries reveal assumptions that the majority joyful teenagers don’t stay with: Everyone plans to go away, and the one question is where to go. He counts off his pals’ departures—to Palestine, to Russia, to Australia, to America—and waxes nostalgic about leaving, as he capitalizes in his diary, “FOR GOOD.”

Many got here to recall the group’s destruction as if it have been virtually expected, like snow or rain. Alex Nahumson, who was born in Harbin and emigrated in 1950 on the age of 3 together with his household, studies only “very happy memories” discussed by his mother and father, like most Harbintsy I spoke with. “The Chinese never did anything bad to us, just the Russians and the Japanese,” he tells me by telephone in Hebrew from his residence in Israel. This memory is exceptional, contemplating that his household’s belongings have been plundered by the Maoist regime. “When my parents talked about Harbin, they only talked about their dacha [country home], the theater, the opera,” he avers. The fact that his mother and father’ reminiscences additionally overlap with the Japanese occupation is equally exceptional. Once I convey up the kidnappings, he verbally shrugs. “That’s just crime,” he insists. “Crime happens everywhere.” Later in our dialog he mentions, virtually casually, that his personal grandfather was kidnapped and tortured by the Japanese.


t is tough to explain what, precisely, is fallacious with Harbin’s New Synagogue Jewish Museum—or as it says on my ticket, the “Construction Art Museum.” One feels the overwhelming have to applaud this (principally) Jewish museum’s mere existence, to rigorously delineate its many strengths, to thank the locals for their bountiful goodwill. For it does have monumental strengths, and the goodwill is ample. Still, from the moment I arrive at the giant domed building and enter its wide-open area with an unlimited Star of David adorning the floor—it solely happens to me later how ridiculous this detail is, because the flooring would have been coated with seats when the synagogue was in use—I feel that creeping “Jewish Heritage” unease. However then, my precise Jewish heritage kicks in, consisting of centuries of epigenetic instincts reminding me that I’m solely a guest. I smile, and snap footage.

The Jewish historical past exhibition fills the second flooring—the women’s gallery of the synagogue. Right here, in huge arrays of pictures, smiling well-dressed individuals construct synagogues, have fun weddings, attend Zionist meetings, patronize a library, pose in scout uniforms, work in a hospital, rescue neighbors from a flood, and skate on the river. The shows are informative enough, even when their translated captions typically descend into word salad. Beneath one portrait of a person sporting a tallis and a tall clerical hat, for example, the English caption reads: “Judean assembly mark in harbin choir leading singer gram benefit maxwell minister radical.” I ask Derek what the original Chinese caption means. He smiles apologetically and says, “I’m not sure.”

It’s all admirably thorough, if slightly garbled. However towards the far end of the gallery, on the a part of the ground that has been constructed over the alcove where the ark for Torah scrolls as soon as stood (the precise alcove for the ark is now a lobby resulting in a restroom), I enter a set of little rooms whose content material puzzles me. The primary room is dominated by a large picket desk, with a life-size white plaster sculpture of a bald and bearded Western man seated earlier than an historic typewriter. The brass plaque in entrance of him reads, “Real workplace of Jewish industrialist in Harbin.” Confused by the word “real,” I ask Derek if that is presupposed to be a selected individual. He glances at the plaque and explains, “It is showing a Jew in Harbin. He is doing business.”

In subsequent rooms, more tableaux of frozen Jews unfold. There are life-size plaster Jews frozen at a grand piano, a life-size plaster Jew frozen in a chair with knitting needles, and two child-size plaster Jews frozen on a mattress, enjoying eternally with plaster blocks. This, the brass plaque informs me, is “The display of the Jews’ family in Harbin.” The plaque continues: “At the first half of the 20th century, not only was the display of the Jews’ family simple, but also practical and the children lived a colorful life there.” The youngsters’s blocks, like the youngsters, are devoid of shade. Later I uncover the unnamed inspiration for this show: Harbin’s annual Snow Sculpture Park, filled with figures carved from blocks of manufactured snow.

After the rooms filled with frozen Jews, the parade of principally lifeless Jews resumes, dominated by pictures of “real Jewish industrialists” who “brought about numerous economic miracles” in Harbin, including the founders of Harbin’s first sugar refinery, first soybean export business, first sweet manufacturing unit, and China’s first brewery. The wall textual content explains how Harbin “offered the Jews an opportunity for creating new enterprises and providing a solid foundation for their later economic activities in Europe and America.” This is true, I suppose, if one thinks of Harbin as a sort of business-school exercise, relatively than a spot where actual Jews created precise capital that was subsequently seized, reworking them in a single day into penniless refugees, if they have been lucky.

One enterprise prominently featured within the museum, as an example, is the Skidelsky Coal Mine Corporation. The Skidelskys have been among the “Siberian Jews” who offered the preliminary capital for Harbin—although “initial capital” is an understatement. In an account of his household’s holdings in Prospect magazine, Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British Home of Lords and a Harbin native, described how his great-grandfather Leon Skidelsky held the contract in 1895—previous to Harbin’s founding—to build the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Manchuria to Vladivostok. The Skidelskys have been certainly one of solely 10 Jewish households allowed to reside in Vladivostok, because the railroad desperately wanted them. They owned 3,000 sq. kilometers of timber in Siberia and Manchuria, and sufficient mining property to make them one of the area’s largest employers. They continued supplying the railroad because it changed arms from the Russians to the Chinese to the Japanese. In 1924, Leon’s son Solomon even charmed an area warlord into promoting him a 30-year lease on a mine, by repeatedly and deliberately dropping to him in poker.

In 1945, Solomon Skidelsky was nonetheless nine years shy of operating out the lease when the Soviets sent him and his brother to die in a gulag, and Communists—first Soviet and then Chinese language—seized the mines. Many years later, Lord Skidelsky filed his claim. “In 1984,” Lord Skidelsky recounts, “I received a cheque for 24,000 English pounds in full settlement of a claim for compensation that amounted to 11 million pounds.” When he visited Harbin in 2005, local TV crews trailed him and introduced him with flowers, which have been value somewhat lower than 11 million kilos.

Once I categorical my sense that this museum is just telling part of a narrative, Derek raises a problem that Ben-Canaan introduced up with me repeatedly, that this museum focuses solely on rich individuals—thus underscoring the concept Jews are wealthy. “Obviously there were poor Jews here too,” Derek factors out. “The building across the street was the Jewish Free Kitchen.”

It is just as I am leaving, by way of the big mezuza-less door, that I look again at what was as soon as the sanctuary and understand what, precisely, is incorrect with this museum. Above the first-floor work of Russian churches, the museum is dominated by an unlimited blown-up photograph of a 1930s farewell banquet, its rows of Harbin Jews in their tuxedos gathered to say goodbye to yet one more Jewish household fleeing, as Alexander Galatzky put it, “FOR GOOD.” Instantly the Jewish Heritage miasma melts away, and I understand the blindingly obvious: Nothing on this museum explains why this superb group not exists.

There’s a tourist-industry concept, fashionable in places largely devoid of Jews, referred to as “Jewish Heritage Sites.”


arbin is a somewhat hideous metropolis, its Soviet-style condominium blocks stretching as far as the eye can see. However the city’s historic coronary heart has been restored so completely that if not for the Chinese language crowds and road indicators, one might think about being in Europe. The historic tree-lined Central Avenue has been reworked right into a pedestrian mall that doubles as an outside architectural museum, the place each unique constructing—80 % of which have been once Jewish-owned—is labeled with a plaque describing its previous. The restoration additionally included installing loudspeakers that continually blast high-volume Western music that somebody decided was atmospheric. Once I arrive, they’re enjoying “Edelweiss”: Bless my homeland ceaselessly. The music makes it onerous to assume.

Derek factors out the varied restored buildings on Central Avenue and elsewhere within the neighborhood: the Jewish-owned pharmacy, the Jewish Free Kitchen, the Jewish Individuals’s Bank, and many personal houses, all now occupied by different enterprises. The “Heritage Architecture” plaques affixed to each historic constructing couldn’t be extra direct: “This mansion,” a typical one reads, “was built by a Jew.”

Probably the most impressive Central Avenue constructing “built by a Jew” is the Trendy Lodge, a building whose story captures the Harbin Jewish group’s roller coaster of triumph and horror. The Trendy Lodge was constructed by the Jewish entrepreneur Joseph Kaspe, and from the moment it opened, in 1906, it was the peak of Manchurian stylish. The Trendy wasn’t merely a high-class institution frequented by celebrities and diplomats. Its premises also included China’s first movie theater. Kaspe additionally created different Trendy-labeled luxury merchandise like jewelry and high-end meals. In different phrases, the Trendy was a model.

When the Japanese occupied Harbin, they immediately set their sights on the Trendy. However Joseph Kaspe was one step forward of them. His spouse and two sons had moved to Paris, the place that they had acquired French citizenship—so Kaspe put the Trendy in his son’s identify and raised the French flag over the lodge. He assumed the Japanese wouldn’t danger a world incident just to steal his business. He was fallacious.

In 1932, Kaspe invited his older son, Semion, a celebrated pianist, back to Manchuria for a live performance tour. On the last night time of his tour, Semion was kidnapped. As an alternative of paying the bankruptcy-inducing ransom, Joseph Kaspe went to the French Consulate. It didn’t help; the abductors upped the ante, mailing Kaspe his son’s ear. After three months, Semion’s physique was discovered outdoors the town. When Kaspe saw his son’s maimed and gangrenous corpse, he went insane. Associates shipped him off to Paris, where he died in 1938. His wife was deported and died at Auschwitz three years later. His youthful son escaped to Mexico, the place he died in 1996, refusing to ever talk about Harbin.

The Trendy Lodge continues to be in operation as we speak, although at a number of stars decrease than the Vacation Inn where I’m staying down the street. The massive pink stone building with its glamorous arched windows and turrets nonetheless dominates Central Avenue, its girth increasing for a whole city block, Cyrillic letters spelling out “MODERN” operating down one corner of its facade. Outdoors, an extended line of people winds its means down the road toward one end of the lodge, the hordes queuing in minus-10 degrees. The road, Derek explains, is for the Trendy’s famous ice cream. “In Harbin, we love eating cold foods at cold temperatures,” he grins. It’s true; the streets of Harbin are lined with snack stands promoting skewers of frozen fruit. The Kaspes figured this out and created China’s first commercially produced ice cream. Passing up the frozen treats, I’m going inside.

The Trendy Lodge’s foyer immediately is shabby and nondescript, apart from an exhibit celebrating the lodge’s illustrious historical past. It begins with a bronze bust of Joseph Kaspe, with wall text in Chinese and English describing the accomplishments of the Trendy Company and its founder, “The Jew of Russian Nationality Mr. Alexander Petrovich Kaspe.” (The “Alexander” is inexplicable; Joseph Kaspe’s precise first identify seems in Russian on the bust.) Because the wall textual content explains, this spectacular Jew founded this “flagship business in Harbin integrated with hotel, cinema, jewelry store, etc.” “In recent years,” the text continues, “the cultural brand of Modern is continuously consolidated and developed.” It then lists the numerous companies now held by this storied company—together with the Harbin Ice Pageant, which belonged to the Trendy Company until the provincial government took it over a couple of years ago. “Currently,” the wall textual content gloats, “Modern Group … is riding on momentum, and is shaping a brand-new international culture industry innovation platform.” Mr. Kaspe’s descendants would little question be pleased with this Heritage, if any of them had inherited it.

But let’s put the mean-spirited cynicism aside. In any case, the Trendy Lodge clearly honors its Jewish Heritage! Here on its walls are enlarged photographs of Joseph Kaspe’s household, including his murdered son, attractive in his white tie and tails, frozen over his piano. Right here, underneath glass, are Real Historic Gadgets from the Kaspe household, including silver candlesticks, an old-timey telephone, and a samovar! And right here, in one notably dusty glass case near the floor, are “the Kaspe collection of household utensils of Judaism sacrificial offerings,” together with an actual Seder plate!

I squat down for a better take a look at this show, and see that there are two plates inside it. The Seder plate has a bronzy Judaica motif suspiciously familiar from my very own American Jewish childhood. I squelch my skepticism till I see that it is carved throughout with English phrases. The second plate, a ceramic one, sports an Aztec-ish design, with the phrase “Mexico” painted across the bottom—a 1980s airport memento. At that point it becomes clear that this display was sourced from eBay.

All I wanted have been lengthy underwear, three sweaters, one fleece, one parka, a scarf, a hat, a balaclava, two pairs of gloves, three pairs of pants, one pair of ski pants, three pairs of wool socks, hand heaters stuck into my gloves and boots, and ice cleats, and I’m good to go.

I put my balaclava back on and go out into the chilly once more, past the lots of of Chinese individuals clamoring for Kaspe’s ice cream, and head to the Previous Synagogue, which is now a concert corridor. The result of a multimillion-dollar renovation undertaking for which the One Jew of Harbin served as an adviser, the building is a part of a whole “Jewish block” that includes the music faculty subsequent door, which was as soon as the Jewish secondary faculty. Ben-Canaan was meticulous concerning the undertaking, gathering and analyzing previous pictures and descriptions to precisely replicate the ark with its granite Ten Commandments motif, the pillars, the gallery that was once the ladies’s part, and the seats with their prayer-book stands. His solely concession, he advised me, was to make the bimah (the platform earlier than the ark) extensive sufficient to accommodate a chamber orchestra. When the individual manning the ticket sales space refuses to let me peek inside, I purchase a ticket for that night time’s string quartet.

The Previous Synagogue’s interior shocks me. I don’t know what I used to be anticipating, but what I didn’t anticipate was to be standing in a synagogue no totally different than every single urban early-20th-century synagogue I’ve ever entered all over the world, from my very own former shul in New York Metropolis to others so far as London and Moscow and Capetown and Buenos Aires and Melbourne, all these buildings around the globe where you stroll into the sanctuary (often after passing an armed guard) and might actually be in any synagogue anyplace. The One Jew of Harbin did a wonderful job—so marvelous that as I walk into the massive hall and see the huge ark looming before me, with its acquainted Hebrew inscription imploring me to Know Earlier than Whom You Stand, I instinctively pay attention for what part of the service I’m walking in on, how late I’m this time, whether they’re as much as the Torah studying but. My ideas about how far back I should sit lastly give option to logic, and I take a look at the seat quantity on my ticket.

However once I take my seat in the third row, I nonetheless can’t shut down my muscle memory. My palms go straight to the slot in the seat in entrance of me, reaching for a prayer guide that isn’t there. I virtually can’t cease myself from reciting all the phrases I’ve recited in rooms like this, the words I’ve repeated my whole life, the same phrases recited by all of the people who have gathered in rooms like this over the past 20 centuries, in Yavneh and Pumbedita and Aleppo and Rome and Marrakesh and New York and Capetown and Buenos Aires and Harbin, dealing with Jerusalem. I’m awed, googly eyed. In that moment I instantly know, in an enormous sense that expands far beyond area and time, before whom I stand.

Then a Chinese string quartet walks up to the bimah in front of the ark, and as an alternative of bowing earlier than the ark, they bow before me. The lights drop, and they play, spectacularly properly, Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and inexplicably, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”

And out of the blue I am very, very tired.


omewhere in between the synagogues, the Belle Époque-style bookstore named for Nikolai Gogol, the pool carved out of the frozen river with individuals swimming in minus-30-degree water, and the a whole lot of lifeless Jews, I discover myself in a “Siberian Tiger Park,” the place 700 of the world’s remaining tigers loll behind high chain link fences or pace in isolation cells, in what resembles a tiger re-education camp. Right here, after driving the requisite bus painted with tiger stripes by way of naked icy yards filled with catatonic-looking tigers, I am inspired to purchase slabs of uncooked meat—since, as Derek explains, the power solely offers the animals with meager rations, with the idea that vacationers will make up the difference. This potent combination of novelty and guilt, which feels strikingly just like the uncomfortable emotions I skilled at Harbin’s numerous Jewish Heritage Websites, brings me to a lady selling buckets of raw pork slabs, which guests feed to the tigers with tongs by means of the chain-link fencing. The lady promoting the slabs also provides a crate of stay chickens which I might alternatively purchase as tiger meals; this might involve shopping for a reside hen and thrusting it into the tiger enclosure by way of a devoted hen chute. For the primary time in my life, I purchase pork.

As I wrestle to select up slippery items of meat with the tongs, I keep in mind a second in the Talmud (The Biggest Jewish Bible for Making Cash) when the rabbis claim that the last thing created through the week of creation was the world’s first pair of tongs, since tongs can solely be cast with different tongs—a narrative whose haunting image of human limits transcends its lack of logic. Once I achieve wielding the meat, the otherwise catatonic tigers pounce towards the fence at me in a cartoon-like fury, rattling the Soviet-style obstacles to an unnerving degree as they battle one another for the scraps of flesh. Watching these virtually mythic captives feels oddly just like my other visits on this journey, throwing guilt-induced scraps at one thing lovely trapped beneath glass. Much later, I come throughout a Nationwide Geographic article claiming that this “park” is actually a tiger farm, the place these endangered animals—solely seven of which nonetheless exist within the northeastern Chinese wild, outnumbering Jews within the region by 700 %—are bred and slaughtered for trophies and conventional medicines. It all seems like an elaborate con. Or if not fairly a con, a display.

The Harbin Ice Pageant is the greatest show of all, surpassing my most fevered expectations. It’s much, much bigger and more elaborate than I imagined from the photographs and movies that lured me to Harbin. I’d been amply warned by on-line strangers about how troublesome the pageant is to endure, because it requires lengthy durations outdoors, at night time, in punishing temperatures. However as soon as I’m right here, I’m shocked by how straightforward it is. All I wanted have been lengthy underwear, three sweaters, one fleece, one parka, a scarf, a hat, a balaclava, two pairs of gloves, three pairs of pants, one pair of ski pants, three pairs of wool socks, hand warmers stuck into my gloves and boots, and ice cleats, and I’m good to go. I had been informed that I wouldn’t have the ability to bear the chilly for more than 40 minutes. I keep for three hours, within the firm of my roughly 10,000 closest buddies who are also visiting that evening, a number that in the vastness of the pageant scarcely even creates a crowd.

Among the many ice castles and ice fortresses clustered around a snow Buddha the dimensions of a highschool, I acknowledge shimmering cheesy neon versions of locations I’ve visited in actual life, cataloging them in my brain like Benjamin of Tudela: the Wild Goose Pagoda of Xian, the Summer time Palace outdoors Beijing, the gate to the Forbidden City, Chartres Cathedral, the Campanile tower near Venice’s unique Jewish ghetto, the Colosseum constructed by Jewish slaves introduced from Jerusalem to Rome. I wander round and via these flashing buildings, their colors changing each few seconds because the LED wiring blinks inside each ice block, passing over bridges and by means of moon gates and up staircases and down slides that wind their approach by means of castles of ice. China is a place filled with monumental, gaudy, extravagantly impersonal monuments made potential by way of low cost labor, from a 2,000-year-old tomb full of 10,000 terra cotta warriors in Xian, to the medieval Great Wall outdoors Beijing, to the 1994 Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. The Harbin Ice Pageant is the gargantuan fluorescent opposite of intimate or delicate. It’s mind-blowing, and senseless. It’s the most astounding man-made factor I have ever seen.

What’s most surprising concerning the Ice Pageant is the weird reality that each one of it is momentary. In one other month, this vast metropolis will start to melt. But in contrast to what I ignorantly assumed, the ice metropolis does not merely vanish by itself. As an alternative, when the melting begins, 10,000 staff return to hack apart the hundreds of thousands of ice blocks, remove their electrical wiring, and then haul them out and dump them in the river. Like all cities, there’s nothing pure about its creation, and also nothing natural about its destruction.

Nothing simply disappears. As I depart Harbin, I think of Hannah Agre, the last Jew of Harbin—the loopy previous woman who refused to go away the town after each different Jew had gone, dying alone in 1985 in an workplace area that she had rejiggered into an condo on the second flooring of the Previous Synagogue, 23 years after the final Jewish household left. It occurs to me, as I cross by way of the economic wastelands and infinite high-rises on my option to the airport, that perhaps she wasn’t so loopy. Perhaps she didn’t like being advised to go away. Perhaps she was bodily enacting what all the other Harbintsy spent the rest of their lives making an attempt to do, as they gathered in San Francisco and Tel Aviv to play mahjong and share pictures of their samovars and fur coats. Perhaps she needed to maintain the fort her family had constructed, preserved in ice.

By the point I attain the airport, the Harbin Vacation Inn’s breakfast buffet of dragon fruit and lychee nuts is a distant memory, and I’m hungry. Luckily, right subsequent to my gate there is a hip-looking eatery, the type of place with historic black-and-white photographs framed on fashionable brick partitions. Its sign reads: “Modern 1906.”

I virtually can’t consider it, but sure, here it is once extra: Joseph Kaspe’s enterprise. As if responding to my personal disbelief, an enormous flat display on a brick wall flashes a photograph of Kaspe’s household, then considered one of Kaspe’s face. I stare on the photographs earlier than they blink away, taking a look at this murdered family and then at Kaspe, the person who built a metropolis only to lose his son, his property, and his thoughts. I all of the sudden really feel shaken by the “success” of this business that has apparently endured by way of magic since 1906, by the sheer chutzpah of this open bragging a few company “Heritage,” by the enduring high quality of stolen goods. It’s 20 under outdoors, but I purchase an ice cream in a flavor labeled “Original.” The candy frozen cream melts in my mouth, gone earlier than I even put away my Chinese change.

I’m in the last row of the Air China aircraft leaving Harbin, and the only Westerner on board. There’s an intense odor of barbecued pork as someone within the row in entrance of me celebrates the Yr of the Pig. I consider Alexander Galatzky leaving Harbin “FOR GOOD,” boarding the practice to Shanghai and then the boat to Ceylon and on by means of the Suez Canal, 9 years after he first traversed the world as a toddler on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, together with his mother and her bag of previous clothes. A cheerful animated panda on the display in front of me explains the various safety features of this aircraft, including what to do if we should always require, because the awkward English translation puts it, “Emergency Ditching.” I think of the Clurmans, the Kaspes, the Nahumsons shifting between the raindrops, ditching as wanted, ditching as anticipated. I watch the animation and keep in mind Benjamin of Tudela, the chipper cartoon of the perilous journey all over the world, the place each Jewish group is documented and counted and marveled at, filled with cheery animated individuals who never really feel the necessity to ditch, where cities by no means soften away.

Inside two minutes of takeoff, Harbin is not seen. Outdoors my window, I see solely snow-dusted farmland and the gleam of daylight on the frozen river. The land is vast and empty. The big metropolis is gone.


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