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Home >> Life
UPDATED: 09:32, June 21, 2006
Jews visit city where they were born, grew up
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Though Harbin, capital of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, was credited as an international municipality with exotic historical architectural style, the sudden arrival of nearly 100 Jews was still something to marvel at.

They are not visitors, but were excited to stand again in the old synagogue, streets, houses and schools they were so familiar with about more than half a century ago.

They came to take part in a three-day international forum on the history and culture of Harbin Jews, which concluded on Monday, and also to witness the opening of an exhibition of the same theme.

Yehudit Bein could not conceal her excitement to see the house she was born in 66 years ago.

"It is still there after so many years," the Israeli scholar said in scattered English sentences.

Her former home still stands on Central Street, the city's earliest business centre. Her house is just across the street from the Modern Hotel, one of the most famous hotels founded by Jews in 1913. But Bein was a little disappointed to learn the house's entrance is being restored.

"I really want to see the apartment I was born in," she said.

For several decades from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, more than 20,000 Jewish people came to Harbin. They came to escape the waves of anti-Semitism in Russia and Europe, according to Qu Wei, president of the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.

"Harbin people, with their unique and broad-minded hospitality, accepted and developed long-lasting friendships with them," Qu said. "That history is a brilliant page in China's humanitarian record."

Bein said that she represented the "young Israeli generation" who still remembers Harbin. People of her age left the city around the age of 10.

"Even today, we are still called 'the Harbin kids,'" she said.

Bein expressed her appreciation of the peaceful childhood she enjoyed in Harbin.

"During the war, when the whole of Europe was aflame, we enjoyed a comfortable life," she said.

By the end of the World War II, there were about 30,000 Jews in China.

"Thirty thousand people came and 30,000 people left China," said Teddy Kaufman, President of Association of Former Residents of China and Israel China Friendship Society.

"Nobody was killed," he said.

"A person may experience many important moments during his lifetime and today is one of them," said Kaufman, while attending the opening ceremony of the exhibition of the history and culture of Harbin last Saturday.

The permanent exhibition was held in the newly-restored Jewish New Synagogue, which was first built in 1921.

"Only a great nation and people with the broadest minds can do such great things," he said.

The city made great efforts in preserving Jewish buildings and relics.

Harbin has preserved the largest Jewish cemetery in East Asia, which has about 600 tombstones and includes the grave of the grandfather of the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The city's dozens of Jewish assembly halls, hotels, schools, hospitals, banks, shopping malls, dwelling houses, kindergartens and office buildings, some of which are nearly a century old, are protected by Harbin municipal government.

Some of buildings have been repaired and maintained in large scale, like the Jewish New Synagogue, which was restored in 2005.

"The Jewish people have contributed a lot to the economy of many countries in the world," said Ora Nanmir, former Israel ambassador to China. "But no country, no city has done something like that."

"For a long time, no matter how the city expanded or relocated, these historical buildings or relics are basically preserved," Qu said.

Kaufman said that there are a few thousand ex-Harbin Jews in the world today. He hoped these people would come back to visit and do business in Harbin.

"It is very important that the heritage of Jewish past was preserved, they will keep it as they keep it now," he said.

"We have a quite large Jewish community in Shanghai now, but 80 years ago, there was more business here than in Shanghai today."

Source: China Daily

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