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UPDATED: July 29, 2008 Web Exclusive
The Jewish Community of Harbin
Unearthing Jewish Life in Harbin

In Harbin Huangshan Cemetery, there is a specially separated cemetery dedicated to Jewish people who had lived in the city in the early 20th century. (SHI GANG)

Not many people know that the current Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert's second hometown is Harbin, an ice city in the northern part of China.

In 2004, Mr. Olmert, the then deputy prime minister and minister of industry, trade, labor and communication, went to Harbin to worship his grandfather and three other relatives in Huangshan Cemetery in Harbin, the municipal capital of Heilongjiang Province.

People could not help wondering: why was Mr. Olmert's grandfather buried in China? What was the connection between Mr. Olmert and China?

Puzzled by the fascinating question, Beijing Review reporters recently went to Harbin to track down Jewish history in the city.

In Harbin Huangshan Cemetery, there is a specially separated cemetery, which is dedicated to Jewish people who had lived in the city in the early 20th century. The inscription on the tombs was in either Hebrew or Russia. Cemetery guards said it was now the biggest and best-preserved Jewish cemetery in East Asia, covering a space of 836 square meters.

Over 600 Jewish people are buried there. Most of them were Jews of Russian nationality who came to Harbin in the early 20th century from Russia. A large proportion of Jews who had lived in Harbin went back to Israel in or after 1948 when the country was founded. But some stayed in China, and spent the rest of their lives in Harbin.

In 1901, the Middle East railway started function, connecting China's northern provinces with Russia more closely. After the railway was constructed, a lot of Jewish with Russia nationalities went to Harbin and added much exotic flavor to the city.

Qu Wei, President of Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences and a Jewish study expert, said that at that time anti-Jewish sentiments in Russia forced many Jewish to leave their hometowns and make a living in other places. Qu said Harbin was once the biggest destination for Jews arriving in the Far East, with approximately 25,000 inhabitants at the peak.

Israel Epstein, a remarkable and accomplished journalist, and former editor-in-chief of China Today, traveled all the way from Warsaw of Poland to China when he was two years old. He lived and studied in Harbin with his parents.

During the time of living in Harbin, the Jews played an important role in the city's political, economic and cultural lives, and exerted a far-reaching influence in the overall development of the city.

Qu said, Harbin was acknowledged in the world as a "City of Music"in the first half of the 20th century. He attributed the recognition to Jewish musicians. From the 1920s, a large number of eminent Jewish musicians gathered in Harbin, either making performances or teaching people how to play musical instruments. Their positive activities greatly promoted the musical appreciation of the Harbin people.

The Jewish residents in Harbin also contributed a lot to the city's architecture. The Central Avenue, the very center of Harbin City, is filled with extravagant European style construction. One of the famous architecture models is the Modern Hotel, which was the most extravagant hotel in the Far East in the early 20th century, and was also the first foreign-invested hotel in Harbin. It was established by a Jew. Each night, there would be singers showing off their singing skills and musicians playing musical instruments from violin to piano until midnight.

Harbin Municipal Government paid high attention to the Chinese and Jewish traditional connections. The experience brought the two peoples closer together in the new era. In recent years, in order to remember the presence of Jewish history in Harbin, the municipal government has not only revamped the Huangshan Cemetery, but also revamped the historical sites of the Jewish synagogue, school and hospital. The new Jewish synagogue has become a museum displaying the Jewish lifestyle and culture when they were in Harbin.

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