Cover Story / The Jews of China
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

Manchuria Memories

By Riva Moiseef Bassin

THIS STORY BEGINS in the early 1900s in Manchuria, a dominion of China situated on the Yellow Sea and bounded on the north and east by Siberia and Mongolia. On the border where Manchuria meets its neighboring countries was a small village, also called Manchuria, which was populated by some 30,000 Chinese and Mongolian peasants. It was in this remote, isolated haven that my parents and a handful of other Russian Jewish families sought refuge from the tyranny and brutal antisemitism of Czar Nikolai. And it was there that this tiny kehillah (community) established a fertile island of Yiddishkeit amidst a surging foriegn sea.

Despite the hardships we endured in a climate where winter temperatures often plunged to forty degrees below zero, our community flourished. The remoteness of our village worked to our advantage: the ruling authorities, continually occupied with internal strife, could not be bothered with insignificant outlying towns, and we were therefore free at last to lead the lives we chose without governmental interference. The kehillah built a shul, a school and a mikveh, established a chevrah kadish (burial society), opened a kosher abattoir and grocery, and religious communal life proceeded in a manner theretofore unknown.

From an economic standpoint, as well, our destination was wisely chosen. My father, a fur merchant, now had ready access to the vast fur markets of Mongolia, and his business thrived. At the time, Russia and China were jointly and simultaneously constructing the K.V.G.D. -- the Great East Chinese Railway -- stretching from Siberia all the way to Dairen, a port city on the coast of China near Japan. Situated at the point of intersection of the two railway lines, Manchuria had a distinct commercial advantage.

This strategic location provided another, even greater advantage. A seemingly endless tide of World War I refugees and victims of the Bolshevik Revolution -- en route to America, Palestine, or wherever -- flowed through our village. Gemillas chessed (acting kindly) was a way of life for the Jews of Manchuria, who opened their doors and their hearts to the homeless. Our house was a way station for countless strangers, overnight guests, close and distant relatives, some of whom became, for varying periods, members of our family. A number of refugees, including many White Russian gentiles, remained in Manchuria, but most traveled on, often with packets of money, clothing and food pressed upon them by members of the kehillah to ease their passage.

Our anxiousness to help the war refugees was a reflection of Mama's philanthropic middos (character traits). But our ability to accommodate large numbers of them for extended periods was a function of the spaciousness of our house. The family homestead was comprised of a very large residence, and a sizeable farm, where we raised vegetable crops, dairy cows and poultry. Both farm and household help were abundant: Our Chinese peasant neighbors were for the most part poor farmers who eagerly accepted employment in our home in exchange for food or modest wages.

Our house was not like anything one might imagine to have existed at the turn of the century, and certainly not in that remote part of the world. Papa's frequent business trips abroad and his commercial ties with the outside world enabled us to furnish our home in a grand style. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors imported from Belgium, carpets, draperies and chandeliers graced our parlor. How these fragile items survived their journey intact, I will never know. Nor will I know how Papa achieved the near-miraculous engineering feat of providing our house with indoor plumbing!

A massive table stood in our dining room and it was from this spot that Papa would "hold court" each morning. As Predsedatel (official representative) of the kehillah and an active member of the town council, school and shul committees, Papa was appointed deputy mayor of Manchuria (the mayor was Chinese) and thus he bore a tremendous sense of responsibility towards the villagers. All would seek his advice and counsel on subjects ranging from legal matters to family problems. Only halachic (Jewish legal) decisions were outside his purview: That was Rav Zhuravel's domain. From early morning they lined up in our front hall: The Jews, the Russian gentiles, even the Chinese peasants, awaiting their turn at the table.

While Papa ruled over the dining room, Mama reigned supreme in the kitchen, in the center of which stood a massive, wood-burning brick oven. Though Mama rarely had to soil her hands with housework, she did love to bake and of course she had to manage the household help. This was not a simple chore as the size of our "extended family" plus numerous and frequent guests made it necessary for food preparation to be undertaken on the scale of a small factory.

In the summer and fall, when produce was plentiful, enormous vats and jars were filled with fruit preserves and pickled vegetable and stored in the cellar, along with vast quantities fo potatoes, onions, carrots, which we buried in the earthen floor, all this in preparation for the long winter ahead.

We had a separate cellar exclusively for Pesach utensils. Pesachdik vegetables went directly from the soil of the fields into the soil of the Pesach cellar. A subterranean cold-storage room, dug deep in the permafrost and packed with cakes of ice, was our summer refrigerator for dairy products: Home-made cheese, cream, butter and milk. At the onset of winter, the shochet (ritual slaughterer) would make a "house call" and shecht fowl by the score -- chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks -- enough for the entire winter. The women would then clean and kasher (kosherize) the poultry and store it in the outdoor meat shed, where nature took over. In no time at all, the shed became one huge walk-in meat freezer.

The day after Purim, the Pesach "factory" went into full operation. The school basement, sealed during the rest of the year, was equipped with an oven and was devoted solely to matzah-baking. The shmurah matzos baked by the townsfolk were loaded onto the special Pesach wagon, driven by a Jew and used exclusively for matzah-delivery. Back at home, the Pesach kitchen was a hive of activity. Jewish workers decanted home-made wine from huge glass bottles into smaller, individual ones, while the Chinese scrubbed and polished every inch of the house. We hung Pesach draperies of white hand-embroidered cloth and laid white Pesach rugs, made from the white cotton sacking in which the Pesach matzah mehl (matzah meal) was delivered. Even the doormats were changed so that not a mote of chametz could cross our doorstep.

Whether it was for Yom Tov or Shabbes, winter or summer, the quantities of food prepared far exceeded the needs of even our "extended family." When all the cooking was done, our Chinese boyka (Russian parlance for "errand boy"), nicknamed Ivan, would don his white tunic and, laden with baskets of culinary delights, deliver food to certain needy families. That was Mama's way: To give with an open hand.

There were several factors which contributed to the beauty fo Shabbes and Yom Tov in Manchuria. The most important element was the pure joy of being able to observe the mitzvos without fear. For this reason, I think, we celebrated the Yomim Tovim (Festivals) with tremendous hislahavus (enthusiasm), perhaps to compensate for the years of religious persecution suffered at the hands of the Russians. Another factor was the intense bond my family always had with tradition and heritage. We did not change our "Old Country" ways to suit the environment but rather our environment and neighbors adapted to us and our minhagim (customs). The Chinese not only became accustomed to our holidays, but in many cases played an active role in their observance.

No one, for example, had to make his way home on foot after a long Yom Kippur fast: The Chinese would line up their horse-drawn carriages outside the shul to offer the weary Jews a ride. Before Pesach, the Chinese carpenter, clad in a glistening white tunic and with his tool kit over his shoulder, would walk through the streets crying, "Pesach, Pesach" -- it was his job to plane down our kitchen work tables, removing the layers of chametz and exposing a new surface (which we covered in any case). On Shavuos eve, Chinese farmers went from door to door with wagon loads of newly-cut grass with which we virtually carpeted the house.

No doubt the abundance of help relieved many burdens, but it is unlikely that we would have been otherwise able to welcome so many into our home. The laundry and linens alone represented a mountainous job. The washerwoman came to our home twice a week. She would spend the entire day, from dawn to dusk, scrubbing by hand in the laundry shed and hanging all the clothes and linens on the washlines. But in a sub-zero climate, as one might expect, the wash quickly froze. At the end of the day, she would stack the stiff, ice-laden laundry in baskets and bring it into the house. The fragrance of freshly-laundered, frozen linens melting by the fireside still lingers in my memory and brings tears of nostalgia to my eyes. Two days later, when the wash had completely defrosted and partially dried, she would return to do the ironing.

Frozen laundry was a signal to the children that Chanukah was not far off. Chanukah was a joyous time of year for us. By December, winter held Manchuria in its icy grip; we were literally snowbound. Night fell at 3:00 p.m. and by 4:00 we were all warmly ensconced around the samovar, with hot drinks and latkes. Every year, Papa would carefully hollow out eight potatoes and fill the hollows with olive oil from Palestine, placing a wick in each. Though we could easily acquire a finer menorah, maintaining old family traditions was more important. Reciting the brachos, (blessings) Papa would proudly display his primitive creation on the window sill, to fulfill the obligation of "publicizing the miracle." Family and guests all joined in for the traditional singing of Psalms that follows the candle lighting ceremony; the children played dreidl with hand carved wooden tops; Papa told us stories in Yiddish 'til the wee hours of the night; and we all believed this contented life would last forever.

Our dreams were abruptly shattered when Japan invaded Manchuria in the 1930s, and we had our first taste of oppression. The kehillah was forced to move on. My family resettled in Harbin, a comparatively large Chinese metropolis, two days' journey by train from Manchuria. The Jewish community of Harbin was quite substantial, numbering around 100,000, and enjoyed total freedom and security. There existed every conceivable Jewish social and religious service, including shuls and yeshivos, an old-age home, a Jewish hospital, a Jewish cemetery, and a "soup kitchen" which was open to the needy public at large and whose sign proudly proclaimed its purpose. Die Yiddishe Biliger Umziste Kuch. Many of the 700,000 Chinese benefited regularly from this service.

But the idyll that was Jewish Harbin was not destined to last. Though unscathed by the ravages of World War II, the Jews of Harbin saw the handwriting on the wall when Mao began his Long March. In 1950, along with 40 other young couples, my husband and I made our way to Eretz Yisrael to settle down and raise a family of our own.

A happy footnote to this story is the fact that the Chinese graciously allowed the Jewish communities to resell their properties to the local inhabitants and to transfer the funds out of China. It was with their share of these funds that the Association of Immigrants from China in Israel built a beautiful shul in "Shikun Shanghai" near Tel Aviv.

There are so many dear friends and relatives that are not mentioned here, some who have sadly passed on to the Next World, zichronam livrachah, others with whom we still maintain close ties, and others in distant lands with whom we have lost touch over the years. All live on in my heart, but this story is my story: the memories of a small Jewish child of Manchuria.

Riva Moiseef Bassin lives in Israel.


© 1998, Riva Moiseef Bassin