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A Home for Jews in China

Harbin welcomes back 'smart, rich' former residents, hoping for prosperous ties. The visitors, now elderly, are drawn by nostalgia.

September 21, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

HARBIN, China — Esther and Paul Agran look over Harbin's rather dowdy Xinyang Square, see the mud and the snarled traffic, then count the buildings from the corner. "One, two, three -- that's it!" says Esther, 80. "That's the building where we had our wedding reception! It was a beautiful building. I think it rubbed off -- we've been together 56 years."

A half-century after most of the Jewish community fled Harbin, pushed out by an increasingly unfriendly Communist government wary of "imperialist capitalists," former residents are venturing back for a nostalgic look. Many were born and lived their early lives in this once-booming city in China's northeast.

Now, after years of not being welcomed, they are returning to a city that is eager to see them. Harbin recently announced a $3.2-million renovation of its main synagogue, and it is stepping up efforts to preserve other historically significant buildings and sprucing up the Jewish cemetery, Asia's largest.

For the Chinese, it's less a warm and fuzzy embrace of the old days than a fairly blatant bid to spur the struggling local economy. Last month, at an international conference on "Jewish History and Culture in Harbin" that was attended by nearly 100 former residents and their families, officials gushed about the "always smart" and "always good with money" Jews who might help return Harbin to its former glory.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Harbin, China -- An article in some editions of Tuesday's Section A about Jews returning to Harbin, China, spelled the name of Jack Liberman, a San Diego resident, as Yaacov Liberman and Jack Lieberman

"We haven't heard such compliments since the days of Moses," says Yaacov Liberman, 81, a Harbin native now living in San Diego. Liberman was on his first trip back since his family left China in 1948.

Although most people don't tend to associate Jews with China, Harbin was an enclave of relative tolerance in the first half of the 20th century, as chaos, war and revolution raged in a troubled world. Jews, mainly from Russia, came to see it as a sanctuary and a land of opportunity.

The first Jew reportedly arrived in Harbin around 1899, leading what would eventually be three waves of immigration, says Li Shuxiao, vice director of Jewish research at the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences. The first group, in the early 20th century, came in search of opportunity after the opening of the Russia-China railroad. The second fled the 1917 Russian Revolution. A third sought to escape a Russia-China border conflict in 1929. The peak was around 1920, when the local Jewish population reached 20,000.

"Most Russian Jews came to China without money and worked hard," says Pan Guang, a history professor at the Institute of European and Asian Studies in Shanghai. "It paid off, and they became solidly middle-class."

Many of those now returning for a visit to Harbin, once known as the "little Paris of the East," recall a privileged life with Chinese and Russian maids, a whirl of social events and winters crossing the Songhua River on Russian telhai, sleds pushed by an attendant.

"It was 30 below zero," recalls Hannah Muller, who left China for Israel in 1949 and hadn't been back since. "It was wonderful. We were all wrapped up in bearskins."

Harbin wasn't always enthusiastic about having them come back. For much of the last decade, officials feared that the returnees would demand reparations for the factories, houses and personal effects that were expropriated after Mao Tse-tung came to power in 1949. But relations picked up after that didn't happen.

Fifty-seven people reportedly still have property claims not covered by bilateral treaties, which, theoretically, they could pursue. But most of those in their 70s and 80s who have recently returned say they can't be bothered.

"What's past is past," says Harbin-born Bernard Darel, 75, an import-export businessman now living in Tel Aviv whose family's button factory and apartment were taken over by the Communists in 1949. "It's a long time ago, a long way to Tipperary."

For most of the prosperous returnees, who were bantering in Russian, English and Hebrew, the real draw was the chance to catch up with long-lost friends and relive memories of what many see as a golden era.

For Esther and Paul Agran, Harbin is more than a hometown -- it's the birthplace of their lifelong romance. Esther was popular and good-looking, from a wealthy family that owned a cosmetics factory just behind the synagogue. "In school she was unreachable," Paul recalls. "I didn't think I had a chance."

One cold November day, however, she came to his uncle's fur shop, and their eyes met. In a few months, they were married in a gala wedding with 400 guests.

"She had great legs in those days," says Paul, 82, looking at a black-and-white photo. "Hey, she still has great legs today."

On one rainy evening during the group's weeklong stay, Jack Lieberman weaves across Harbin's torn-up Tongjiang Street past head-high piles of sand and dirt and into a hulking, 70-year-old building housing a rail car manufacturer.

"What are you doing? This is a business!" a rattled security guard barks as Lieberman leads a stream of visitors past him.

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