The Chinese City Founded by Russian Jews

April 23, 2019 | Dara Horn

Best known for its annual ice-sculpture festival, the Chinese city of Harbin—located near both North Korea and Siberia—was largely founded by Russian Jews, who made up a large share of its population for the first decades of its existence, and owned 80 percent of its real estate. Dara Horn, having returned from a visit to the city, recounts its history:

Harbin today is larger than New York, with a population around 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 year Russia received a concession from China to build part of the Trans-Siberian Railroad through Manchuria—the traditional name for the vast, frigid, and at that time, barely populated region of northeastern China. . . . The route would also include a branch line deeper into China, requiring a large administrative center at the junction. . . .

With an enormous investment to protect, railroad officials quickly realized that they could not depend on local warlords or Siberian peasants to create this not-yet-existent town. They needed experienced Russian-speaking entrepreneurs. But who would ever want to move to Manchuria? That was when the railroad’s administrator, General Dmitri Khorvat, hit on a genius idea: . . . just tell the Jews that they can live free of anti-Semitic restrictions, he argued to the regime in St. Petersburg, without learning a new language or becoming bottom-feeders in New York’s sweatshops. The only catch was that they’d have to move to Manchuria.

The regime reluctantly agreed. So did hundreds, and then thousands, of Russian Jews.

By 1920 Harbin was home to some 20,000 Jews, two synagogues, a variety of Jewish institutions, and myriad Jewish-owned businesses. Yet by this point the Jewish community’s decline had already begun. First Harbin became a refuge for viciously anti-Semitic opponents of the Russian revolution, then it was taken over successively by the Japanese (who allied with these anti-Semites), the Soviets (who sent prominent surviving Jews to the gulag), and Maoist China (which expropriated whatever property its predecessors had failed to plunder). Horn describes the Chinese government’s efforts to make the city into a destination for Jewish tourists:

There is a tourist-industry concept, popular in places largely devoid of Jews, called “Jewish Heritage Sites.” The term is a truly ingenious piece of marketing. “Jewish Heritage” is a phrase that sounds utterly benign, or to Jews, perhaps ever so slightly dutiful, suggesting a place that you surely ought to visit—after all, you came all this way, so how could you not? It is a much better name than “Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.”

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