Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Russian Cafe 

Got an email from a friendly American school teacher I met when I was up in Harbin last month. She took this picture of me, and then came over and introduced herself. I was sitting in my favorite Russian cafe near the Songhua River, just off the old Russian street. Things Russian have a tourist value in Harbin, so I am always a little suspicious of "Russian Food" signs. But this place is genuine, I think. The guy who runs it is Chinese, but his mother was Russian, and the menu items I tried were pretty good. The portions were not huge, but that didn't hurt me any. Actually, the thing I ordered here more than anything else was bread and jam. You can't buy that kind of bread in China. They call it "Russian Bread," and there is one place along the Russian Street where the local people line up every day to buy a few loaves of it. But between you and me, it's just homemade brown bread. Really good.

Speaking of Harbin, I got an email from Professor Dan Ben-Canaan of the Sino-Israel Research and Study Center at Heilongjiang University. You can skip over this part if you're not into history, but it's quite informative:Dear Eric,

The following web site contains historical information as well as photographs and a new mapping of the Harbin Jewish Cemetery.


From 1896 when Russians explored the Dongqing Railway (CER) to the time it was completed, the number of people in Harbin increased gradually. Limited living conditions and frequent prevalence of epidemic diseases led to increasing mortality. Thus, the city government at that time permitted building private or organizational burial grounds called “cemetery”, allocating the land for burial, appointing the site and burying coffins together. From 1896 to 1936, 30 private, group, and public cemeteries were built in Harbin. In total they covered an area of 27,575,480 square meters, and included cemeteries set up by foreign consulates in Harbin after the municipal government allocated the appropriate land. From 1898 to 1930, the united cemetery of seven countries, the Jewish cemetery, the Russian Orthodox cemetery, the Korean cemetery, the Japanese cemetery, the cemetery of the poor Russians, and the old cemetery of Russians were built, covering an area of 5,886,819 square meters. The united cemetery of seven countries (Poland, Czech, Britain, U.S.A, German, France and Italy) was the first to be built in 1898 and was located on Ping’an Street, Nangang District (now the site of Ice Sports Activity Center of Heilongjiang Province). Then the Russian Orthodox cemetery (now the Cultural Park) was built in 1902, and the Jewish cemetery (now the Ice Sports Activity Center of Heilongjiang Province) was built in 1903, with the latter one separated only by a wall from the united cemetery. Among all the foreign cemeteries, the Jewish cemetery was the largest one covering an area of 2,426,470 square meters. Next in size were the United Cemetery of Seven Countries, the Cemetery of the Poor Russians, and the Japanese Cemetery. The Russian Orthodox cemetery and Jewish cemetery were the ones that were best constructed. (From documents of the Harbin Municipal Government City Planning Bureau and the Harbin Huangshan Cemetery Management Department.)

Between 1956 and 1958, the Funeral and Burial Management Department of the Harbin Civil Administration Bureau relocated parts of the Russian Orthodox cemetery and Jewish cemetery to the Huangshan (Royal Mountain) Public Cemetery, in the eastern outskirts about 10 km from the center of Harbin. All other cemeteries, including large parts of the Russian Orthodox cemetery and the Jewish cemetery, were destroyed and the area was used for public constructions.

Out of over 3000 graves and tombstones at the old Jewish Cemetery, only less than 680 were moved but only about 430 are identifiable in the new site, and several, including the tombstone of Joseph Olmert, were replaced by new ones. A new and very large monument carrying Ehud Olmert’s name was erected at the entrance about two and a half years ago by the authorities.

During the Cultural Revolution, maintenance of the new cemeteries ceased. Some slabs subsided, and tombstones inclined, cracked, collapsed, or damaged. According to the Harbin Huangshan Cemetery Management Department renovation works at the Jewish Cemetery started as early as 1991. The Russian Orthodox Cemetery remained untouched until this very day and is decaying. A new iron fence was erected around the site about three years ago, and a “fake”* cemetery for the fallen Russian soldiers was created outside the eastern part of the Russian Orthodox cemetery, in preparations for the signing of a strategic treaty between China, Russia and India, a ceremony that took place in Harbin about two years ago. (*I hold photographs collection of the construction works DBC)

We are working on research concerning your questions (“…do you know what kind of supervision, if any, was provided by the Jewish community? Is there any way to ascertain that the tombs were actually exhumed? And the work of matching grave to gravestone…”). It seems that there was no supervision, and the graves were not exhumed. I found also that several graves are on the Chinese cemetery side (on the other side of a new iron fence), which may lead to several possible conclusions.

Hope to see you in Harbin again.


I think perhaps the bodies were not exhumed. The reason I say that is that the same thing happened with the grave marker for Hudson Taylor, which I talked about back in February of 2007. They put a factory over the graves of Hudson Taylor and his wife, and the marker was basically discarded. It was broken in three pieces. Fortunately, it was only three pieces, so local believers were able to mortar it back together.

Whatever the case may be, the contribution of the Russian Jews to the development of modern China must not be ignored. There are other Jewish communities of note, too, particularly the Jewish community in Shanghai, which I have not really discussed in much detail on this blog, but will probably talk about sometime. There are a couple good videos on YouTube concerning the history of the Shanghai Jews.

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