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Cities of Ice

A dispatch from frozen Harbin, where Jews once flourished—and melted away

Dara Horn
April 19, 2019
Illustrations: Ilya Milstein
Illustrations: Ilya Milstein
Illustrations: Ilya Milstein
Illustrations: Ilya Milstein

One of my strange and vivid memories from my first trip to Israel, when I was 9 years old, is of a brief cartoon I watched at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. The cartoon described the travels of Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th-century Spanish Jewish merchant who documented his six-year journey traversing the known world, across the Mediterranean to Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia, and reporting on India and China, and sharing crowded boats and wagons in-between. The Diaspora Museum has since been revamped and rebranded as the Museum of the Jewish People, but in 1986 it was a dark and openly depressing place, its dour displays all leading to a “Scrolls of Fire” atrium describing how hapless Jews were expelled or burned alive.

But the cartoon was bright and curious. Benjamin was a ridiculous bowling-pin figure with googly eyes, bobbing across the screen and cheerfully reporting on thriving Jewish communities around the world—the Jews in France who inexplicably lived in a castle, the Jews in Babylonia who had their own googly eyed king, the Jews in Yemen who joined local Arab armies and stampeded with them in a cloud of dust, the Jews in Syria who pacified wiggly eyebrowed assassins with free silk scarves. For reasons I could not articulate at the age of 9, I was utterly enchanted.

I feel that same enchantment now when I am seduced by the travel industry’s branding of the world as an amazing place full of welcoming people who beneath it all are actually the same. My personal experience as a tourist in over 50 countries has contradicted this hopeful messaging entirely—in reality, the more time I spend in any place, the more I notice the differences between myself and the inhabitants, and the more alienated, uncomfortable, and anxious I become. Yet colorful photos of exotic places on TripAdvisor lure me every time.

So it is not surprising that I was eager to make my way to a city called Harbin in a remote province of northeastern China, south of Siberia and north of North Korea, where the temperature hovers around minus 30 Celsius for much of the year, and where every winter, over 10,000 workers construct an entire massive city out of blocks of ice. I’d seen photos and videos of the Harbin Ice Festival, which dwarfs similar displays in Canada and Japan by orders of magnitude, its enormous ice buildings laced through with LED lighting and sometimes replicating famous monuments at or near life size. It attracts over 2 million visitors a year, because it’s the kind of thing that needs to be seen to be believed. As I considered whether a trip to Harbin was worth it, my mindless travel-industry scrolling took me to a list of other local tourist attractions, including synagogues.

Yes, synagogues. Plural. And then I discovered something deeply strange: The city of Harbin was built by Jews.

Only later would I discover that the ice city and the Jewish city were actually the same, and that I was being actively lured to both, in ways more disturbing than I could have possibly imagined. Like a googly eyed Benjamin of Tudela, I had to go.

Jews have lived in China for more than 1,000 years, which is as long as they have lived in Poland. But Harbin is a special case. The story of the Jews of Harbin, and of Harbin itself, begins with the railroad. Before the railroad, Harbin did not exist.

Like most Chinese cities you’ve never heard of, 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. Building this route would shave two weeks off the trip from Moscow to Vladivostok, making every railroad tie worth its weight in gold. The route would also include a branch line deeper into China, requiring a large administrative center at the junction—essentially, a town. Mikhail Gruliov, a Jew who had converted to Russian Orthodoxy in order to become a general in the Russian army, selected the site that became Harbin.

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: the Jews.

Russia’s crippling anti-Semitic laws and violent pogroms were already driving hundreds of thousands of Jews to America, including my own ancestors. Khorvat argued that getting capital and talent to Manchuria was a piece of cake. 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.

The first Jews arrived in 1898 and incorporated an official community in 1903, by which time this plan was working splendidly. A 1904 National Geographic article written by a U.S. consul to Manchuria reported, wide-eyed, that “one of the greatest achievements in city construction that the world has ever witnessed is now going on in the heart of Manchuria,” and that “the capital for most of the private enterprises is furnished by Siberian Jews.” These Jewish entrepreneurs created Harbin’s first hotels, banks, pharmacies, insurance companies, department stores, publishing houses, and more; by 1909, 12 of the 40 members of Harbin’s City Council were Jewish. These initial entrepreneurs were joined by Jewish refugees fleeing the 1905 pogroms, then by even more refugees fleeing World War I and the Russian Civil War.

At its peak, Harbin’s Jewish community numbered around 20,000. The “Old” Synagogue was built in 1909, and by 1921 there was enough demand for a “New” Synagogue a few blocks away, as well as a kosher slaughterer, ritual bath, and matzo bakery, not to mention a Jewish elementary and secondary school, a hospital, a charity kitchen, a free loan association, an old-age home, multiple magazines and newspapers, performances of Jewish music and theater, and Zionist clubs that were the center of many young people’s lives. Harbin hosted major international Zionist conferences that drew Jews from all over Asia. Zionist parades were held in the streets.

You already know this story has to end badly. Like almost every place Jews have ever lived, Harbin was great for the Jews until it wasn’t—but in Harbin, the usual centuries-long rise and fall was condensed into something like 30 years. The flood of refugees from the 1917 Russian Revolution included many non-Jewish “White” (anti-Communist) Russians, whose virulent anti-Semitism was soon institutionalized in a fascist party that burned the Old Synagogue in 1931. That was also the year the Japanese occupied Manchuria, noticed rich Jews there, and decided they wanted their money. Conveniently, White Russian thugs were ready to help.

The Japanese gendarmerie embarked on a partnership with White Russian criminals, whom they used to target Jewish business owners and their families for extortion, confiscation, kidnapping, and murder. Later they manipulated the Jewish community for their purposes, sending Abraham Kaufman, a respected physician and the community’s elected leader, off to two separate audiences with the Japanese emperor, and forcing him to publish official statements from Harbin’s Jewish community announcing their love for Nazi-allied Japan. Things did not improve when the Soviets took over in 1945; the first thing they did was round up the city’s remaining Jewish leaders, including Dr. Kaufman, and send them to gulags. Dr. Kaufman endured 11 years in a gulag and then five years in exile in Kazakhstan before he was allowed to join his family in Israel. He was the luckiest; no one else survived. Then again, dying in a gulag was less dramatic than the fate of some Jews under the Japanese. While retreating from the Manchurian town of Hailar, the Japanese military beheaded its Jewish residents.

By 1949 Chinese Maoists controlled Harbin. The thousand-plus Jews still in town were gradually stripped of their businesses and livelihoods, while Israel’s government made secret contact with Harbin’s remaining Jews and began arranging for them to leave—a process that mostly involved submitting to extortion. As one Israeli official explained, “It is obvious that the Communist government is keen to clear the country of the foreign element. However … the authorities make things very difficult as long as the person who wants to leave is still in funds, and lets the person go only after making quite sure that his personal funds are exhausted.” The last Jewish family left town in 1962. After that, only one Jew remained in the city, a woman named Hannah Agre who refused to leave. Leaning into the crazy-old-lady motif, she moved into a tiny room in the Old Synagogue (by then the building, its interior subdivided, was being used as government office space) and died there in 1985, the official Last Jew of Harbin.

She wasn’t quite the last, though. Today there is one Jew in Harbin, an Israeli in his 70s named Dan Ben-Canaan. Ben-Canaan was covering the Far East for Israeli news media when he decided to go native, getting himself a job at a local university and settling permanently in Harbin in 2002. Ben-Canaan is a busy man, not only because of his university responsibilities and his work editing local English-language news programs, but because his enormous research into Harbin’s Jewish past has made him indispensable to the local government as they restore Jewish sites—the result being that he is also basically employed as the semi-official One Jew of Harbin.

Instead of traveling the world and visiting Jews, you are visiting their graves.
Instead of traveling the world and visiting Jews, you are visiting their graves.Ilya Milstein

Ben-Canaan spends enough of his time being the One Jew of Harbin that when I interview him over Skype, he has his one-liner ready: “I’m the president of the community here, which consists of me and me alone. It’s great because I don’t have anyone to argue with.” Ben-Canaan’s interest in Harbin’s Jewish history, stemming from his days as a journalist, intensified when he learned that Harbin’s government owns the Jewish community’s official archives—and keeps them under lock and key. “I tried to get them to reopen the archives, and they refused,” he tells me. “I’ve been given two reasons for it. One is that it contains politically sensitive material, and the other is that they’re afraid of being sued for property restitution. There were some wealthy Jews here whose property was worth millions.”

The lack of access motivated Ben-Canaan to re-create the archives himself by collecting photographs, memorabilia, and testimony from over 800 former Harbin Jews and their descendants around the world. As a result, as he put it, “I’ve become an address” for Harbin’s Jewish history. When the provincial government decided—for reasons that only gradually become clear to me—to spend $30 million to restore, renovate, or reconstruct its synagogues and other Jewish buildings, they hired him.

The One Jew of Harbin speaks with me for nearly two hours, because that’s how long it takes him to describe the Jewish sites whose refurbishment he has supervised. There is, it seems, a lot to see. Being no chump, the One Jew of Harbin spends his winters in southern China. But he sets me up with a former student of his who now works as a tour guide, to see the sights.

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.” By calling these places “Jewish Heritage Sites,” all those pesky moral concerns—about, say, why these “sites” exist to begin with—magically evaporate in a mist of goodwill. And not just goodwill, but goodwill aimed directly at you, the Jewish tourist. For you see, these non-Jewish citizens and their benevolent government have chosen to maintain this cemetery or renovate this synagogue or create this museum purely out of their profound respect for the Jews who once lived here (and who, for unstated reasons, no longer do)—and out of their sincere hope that you, the Jewish tourist, might someday arrive. But still, you cannot help but feel uncomfortable, and finally helpless, as you engage in the exact inverse of what Benjamin of Tudela once did: Instead of traveling the world and visiting Jews, you are visiting their graves.

Harbin is enjoying a heat wave when I arrive, a balmy 10 below with a wind chill of a mere minus 18. I only need to wear a pair of thermals, a shirt, a sweater, a fleece, a parka, a balaclava, a neck warmer, a hat, gloves, three pairs of socks, and three pairs of pants to go outdoors.

My first stop is the city’s Jewish cemetery, billed by tour companies as the largest Jewish cemetery in the Far East—except that it’s not a cemetery, since cemeteries contain dead bodies, and this one doesn’t have any. In 1958, Harbin’s local government was redesigning the city and decided that the Jewish cemetery, home to around 2,300 dead Jews, had to go. The city offered families the option of moving their dead relatives’ graves to the site of a large Chinese cemetery called Huangshan, an hour’s drive outside the city, for the price of about $50 per grave. Many Jewish families were long gone by then, so only about 700 graves were moved—and, as it turned out, only the gravestones made the trip, since city authorities saw no reason to move the bodies, too. The human remains from the old cemetery are now in what the Chinese call “deep burial”—that is, the space containing them has been paved over and turned into an amusement park. “It is nice for them to be there,” my tour guide—who I’ll call Derek to keep him out of trouble—says of the dead Jews under the rides. “They are always with happy people now.”

The drive to Huangshan takes about an hour through industrial wastelands and frozen fields, culminating in a grandiose toll plaza with enormous Russian-style onion domes and then several miles more of abandoned warehouses, with a few bundled people by the roadside selling stacks of fake money to burn as offerings—because Huangshan is really a vast Chinese cemetery, filled with endless rows of identical shiny white tombstones on miniplots containing cremated remains. After driving past tens of thousands of dead Chinese people, we find the entrance to the cemetery’s Jewish section, pay our fee, and enter the gates.

The Jewish section is compact and stately, with gravestones elaborately carved in Hebrew and Russian, along with many modern metal plaques sponsored by former Harbin Jews whose relatives’ original stones weren’t moved. Many of the original grave markers have ceramic inserts with photographic portraits of the deceased, which would have been intriguing if every single one weren’t shattered or removed. The damage is clearly deliberate, which might explain the cemetery employee following us around. The idea that Jewish cemetery desecration is currently in vogue in Harbin is a tad depressing, but to my surprise, this snowy Jewish Heritage Site doesn’t feel at all lonely or bereft. In fact, it’s rather glam.

Inside the gate is a plaza with a massive granite Star of David sculpture, next to a two-story-high domed synagogue building festooned with more Stars of David. The synagogue’s doors are locked, but through its windows I can see that the building is a shell, with nothing inside but some scattered tools and junk. When I ask what it’s for, Derek laughs. “They built it for Olmert’s visit,” he explains. “Now it’s just used by the cemetery workers to stay warm.” Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister who served prison time for corruption, has roots in Harbin. His father was born here, and his grandparents, or at least their gravestones, are in Huangshan—markers that have now been outdone by a 12-foot-high black marble obelisk. The obelisk, crowned with yet another Jewish star, is carved with greetings written in English in Olmert’s handwriting and painted in gold: “Thank you for protecting the memory of our family, and restoring dignity into [sic] the memory of those who were part of this community and [illegible] a reminder of a great Jewish life which a long time ago was part of Harbin.” The words are a dashed-off scribble, suggesting that Olmert didn’t quite expect them to be set in stone. His grandparents’ gravestones have been replaced with black-and-gold marble ones to match the obelisk, outshining the plebeians with their smashed ceramic photos. Near their graves stands a trash can designed to look like a soccer ball.

Olmert’s visit to Harbin in 2004 as Israel’s deputy prime minister was a big deal, but the (fake) synagogue built in his honor at the (also fake) cemetery was just one part of an enormous and expensive project on the part of the local provincial government to restore Jewish Heritage Sites. The government’s explicit goal is to attract Jewish money, in the form of both tourism and investment by foreign Jews.

In our interview, the One Jew of Harbin had only praise for these efforts, in which he is deeply involved. “The restoration cost $30 million—it’s unheard of here. Everything was of the highest quality,” Ben-Canaan told me, adding that Harbin’s Jewish Heritage Sites have the same official designation as Chinese landmarks like the Forbidden City. One of the many sources on Harbin he shares with me is a long 2007 news article from a Chinese magazine by a journalist named Su Ling, who he describes as one of China’s rare investigative reporters. The article, titled “Harbin Jews: The Truth,” traces a very particular history: not Harbin’s Jewish Heritage, but the Heilongjiang provincial government’s attempts to capitalize on that Heritage.

The story begins innocently enough, with a social-scientist-cum-real-estate-agent named Zhang Tiejiang, who discovered the prior Jewish ownership of many historic homes that he was supposed to demolish for a city-planning project in 1992. Taking an interest, he studied the Jewish graves in Huangshan cemetery, translating their Russian text with the help of a computer program. His timing was auspicious: 1992 was the year China established diplomatic relations with Israel, and in 1999 China’s premier made his first official visit to Jerusalem. Also auspicious: Heilongjiang province, long reliant on declining industries like coal mining, had hit an economic slump. Zhang Tiejiang seized the moment in 1999 to publish his brilliant idea, in an article for a state news agency titled “Suggestions for the Study of Harbin Jews to Quicken Heilongjiang Economic Development.”

This article made its way to the province’s higher-ups, who dispatched an official to Heilongjiang’s Academy of Social Sciences to “intensify the study of the history of Harbin Jews.” A Center for Jewish Studies was established, complete with a massive budget. “Develop[ing] the travel industry and attracting business investments,” the center’s original website announced, was “the tenet of our existence and purpose.” A boondoggle ensued, with unqualified people producing minimal research while enjoying trips abroad. In the years since, the government’s $30 million has produced more tangible results, including not only the cemetery refurbishment, but also the transformation of the New Synagogue into a Jewish museum, the reconstruction of the Old Synagogue and the Jewish secondary school, and the landmark-labeling of formerly Jewish-owned buildings in the city’s historic heart.

This attempt to “attract business investments” by researching Jewish history seems, to put it gently, statistically unsound. Among the tens of millions of tourists to China each year, 40,000 annual Israeli visitors and even fewer Jewish tourists from elsewhere amount to a rounding error. And the idea that Israeli or other Jewish-owned companies would be moved to invest in Heilongjiang Province out of nostalgia for its Jewish Heritage seems unlikely. The only way to understand this thinking is to appreciate the role Jews play in the Chinese imagination.

Most Chinese people know next to nothing about Jews or Judaism. But in a 2009 essay reviewing trends in Jewish studies in China, Lihong Song, a professor of Jewish studies at Nanjing University, points out a common pattern in what they do know. “My students’ first association with Jews is that they are ‘rich and smart,’” he notes. Those students didn’t get that idea from nowhere. “The shelves of Chinese bookstores,” Song explains, “are lined with bestsellers on Jewish subjects.” What Jewish subjects might those be? Well, some of those bestselling titles are Unveiling the Secrets of Jewish Success in the World Economy, What’s Behind Jewish Excellence?, The Financial Empire of the Rothschilds, Talmudic Wisdom in Conducting Business, and of course, Talmud: The Greatest Jewish Bible for Making Money. Song claims that this is not anti-Semitic, but rather “some sort of Judeophilia.”

At a 2007 “International Forum on Economic Cooperation Between Harbin and the World’s Jews,” held in Harbin with dozens of invited Jewish guests who ranged from the Israeli ambassador to a group of Hungarian Jewish dentists, Harbin’s mayor welcomed participants by citing esteemed Jews such as J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller (neither of whom was Jewish). He then announced that “the world’s money is in the pockets of the Americans, and the Americans’ money is in the pockets of the Jews. This is the highest acclaim and praise to Jewish wisdom.”

Former Harbin Jews often remember Harbin as a kind of paradise. “They owned the town,” Irene Clurman, a daughter of former Harbin Jews, told me, describing the nostalgia that many “Harbintsy”—ex-Harbiners—expressed for their beloved city. “It was a semicolonial situation; they had Chinese servants and great schools and fur coats.” Or in the words of her grandmother Roza (later Ethel) Clurman in a 1986 interview, “Harbin was a dream.”

It’s also worth noting here that Roza Clurman’s husband—Irene Clurman’s grandfather—was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in Harbin during the Japanese anti-Semitic reign of terror, after which his lucrative business (he introduced indoor plumbing to Manchuria) and his high-end rental building were confiscated, leaving his family with nothing. But let’s focus on the positive: After all, Roza Clurman was 5 during the 1905 Odessa pogrom, hiding in an attic for days on end while the neighborhood was ransacked and her neighbors murdered. True, her husband also wound up murdered—but “my grandmother absolutely had a nostalgia for Harbin,” Irene Clurman insists. In her interview, Roza Clurman admits that “everything changed” in Harbin, but she spends far more time describing its glory: the steaks the family ate, their household staff, the children’s private lessons.

The ascent from pogroms to private lessons was dizzyingly fast, obscuring the community’s equally precipitous decline. One Harbintsy descendant, Jean Ispa, told me how her father, an orphan, made his way to Harbin alone solely to study music, since Russian conservatories didn’t take Jewish students. “He was 16 when he made this journey,” Ispa tells me in wonder. “He gave concerts in Harbin. I even have the programs he played.” Another Harbin exile, Alexander Galatzky, was 8 during the pogroms of the 1919-1920 Russian Civil War, when he and his mother repeatedly barricaded themselves in their apartment in Ukraine and listened to the screams of their neighbors being murdered and raped. When the ship fare his father sent from New York was stolen, their only hope was to go east to Manchuria. In reminiscences he wrote down for his family, Galatzky described boarding a cattle car to leave Ukraine: “Mother has a bundle of old clothes with her. The soldier on guard of the cattle car is trying to take it from her. She clutches at it, crying, kissing the soldier’s hand. We have no money or valuables and the old clothes can be bartered for food en route. Without them we would starve.” After a life like that, Manchuria was paradise.

Of course, one could tell the same story about Russian Jews who emigrated to New York. But in Harbin, where Russian Jews created their own Russian Jewish bubble, their sense of ownership and pride was greater—and that pride turned the story of their community’s destruction into a footnote. Of the Harbintsy descendants I interviewed, most mentioned friends or relatives who were kidnapped, tortured or murdered during the Japanese occupation. All had their family’s hard-earned assets seized by Manchuria’s various regimes. But in the next sentence they would tell me, again, how Harbin was “a golden age.” An entire organization in Israel, Igud Yotzei Sin (Association of Chinese Exiles), exists solely to connect homesick “Chinese Jews” around the world with each other through networking, social events, scholarships, and trilingual newsletters which run to hundreds of pages. Until recent years, members gathered weekly in Tel Aviv to play mahjong, drink tea, and reminisce. Teddy Kaufman, who ran the organization until his death in 2012, published a memoir titled The Jews of Harbin Live On in My Heart, extolling the Jewish paradise. His father was the community president who wound up in a gulag.

Harbin’s Jewish “golden age” lasted less than one generation. Even before the Japanese occupation, things were unpleasant enough that leaving was, for many, a foregone conclusion. Alexander Galatzky, the boy whose mother bartered old clothes to feed him on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, kept diaries as a teenager from 1925 to 1929 that his daughter Bonnie Galat recently had translated. The diaries reveal assumptions that most happy teenagers don’t live with: Everyone plans to leave, and the only question is where to go. He counts off his friends’ departures—to Palestine, to Russia, to Australia, to America—and waxes nostalgic about leaving, as he capitalizes in his diary, “FOR GOOD.”

Many came to recall the community’s destruction as if it were almost expected, like snow or rain. Alex Nahumson, who was born in Harbin and emigrated in 1950 at the age of 3 with his family, reports only “very happy memories” discussed by his parents, like most Harbintsy I spoke with. “The Chinese never did anything bad to us, just the Russians and the Japanese,” he tells me by phone in Hebrew from his home in Israel. This memory is remarkable, considering that his family’s assets were plundered by the Maoist regime. “When my parents talked about Harbin, they only talked about their dacha [country home], the theater, the opera,” he avers. The fact that his parents’ memories also overlap with the Japanese occupation is equally remarkable. When I bring up the kidnappings, he verbally shrugs. “That’s just crime,” he insists. “Crime happens everywhere.” Later in our conversation he mentions, almost casually, that his own grandfather was kidnapped and tortured by the Japanese.

It is hard to describe what, exactly, is wrong with Harbin’s New Synagogue Jewish Museum—or as it says on my ticket, the “Construction Art Museum.” One feels the overwhelming need to applaud this (mostly) Jewish museum’s mere existence, to carefully delineate its many strengths, to thank the locals for their bountiful goodwill. For it does have enormous strengths, and the goodwill is abundant. Still, from the moment I arrive at the large domed building and enter its wide-open space with an enormous Star of David decorating the floor—it only occurs to me later how ridiculous this detail is, since the floor would have been covered with seats when the synagogue was in use—I feel that creeping “Jewish Heritage” unease. But then, my actual Jewish heritage kicks in, consisting of centuries of epigenetic instincts reminding me that I am only a guest. I smile, and snap pictures.

The Jewish history exhibition fills the second floor—the women’s gallery of the synagogue. Here, in vast arrays of photographs, smiling well-dressed people build synagogues, celebrate weddings, attend Zionist meetings, patronize a library, pose in scout uniforms, work in a hospital, rescue neighbors from a flood, and skate on the river. The displays are informative enough, even if their translated captions sometimes descend into word salad. Beneath one portrait of a man wearing a tallis and a tall clerical hat, for instance, the English caption reads: “Judean assembly mark in harbin choir leading singer gram benefit maxwell minister radical.” I ask Derek what the original Chinese caption means. He smiles apologetically and says, “I’m not sure.”

It’s all admirably thorough, if a little garbled. But toward the far end of the gallery, on the part of the floor that has been constructed over the alcove where the ark for Torah scrolls once stood (the actual alcove for the ark is now a foyer leading to a restroom), I enter a set of little rooms whose content puzzles me. The first room is dominated by a large wooden desk, with a life-size white plaster sculpture of a bald and bearded Western man seated before an ancient typewriter. The brass plaque in front of him reads, “Real workplace of Jewish industrialist in Harbin.” Confused by the word “real,” I ask Derek if this is supposed to be a specific person. He glances at the plaque and explains, “It is showing a Jew in Harbin. He is doing business.”

In subsequent rooms, more tableaux of frozen Jews unfold. There are life-size plaster Jews frozen at a grand piano, a life-size plaster Jew frozen in a chair with knitting needles, and two child-size plaster Jews frozen on a bed, playing eternally with plaster blocks. This, the brass plaque informs me, is “The display of the Jews’ family in Harbin.” The plaque continues: “At the first half of the 20th century, not only was the display of the Jews’ family simple, but also practical and the children lived a colorful life there.” The children’s blocks, like the children, are devoid of color. Later I discover the unnamed inspiration for this display: Harbin’s annual Snow Sculpture Park, full of figures carved from blocks of manufactured snow.

After the rooms full of frozen Jews, the parade of mostly dead Jews resumes, dominated by photographs of “real Jewish industrialists” who “brought about numerous economic miracles” in Harbin, including the founders of Harbin’s first sugar refinery, first soybean export business, first candy factory, and China’s first brewery. The wall text explains how Harbin “offered the Jews an opportunity for creating new enterprises and providing a solid foundation for their later economic activities in Europe and America.” This is true, I suppose, if one thinks of Harbin as a kind of business-school exercise, rather than a place where actual Jews created actual capital that was subsequently seized, transforming them overnight into penniless refugees, if they were lucky.

One enterprise prominently featured in the museum, for instance, is the Skidelsky Coal Mine Corporation. The Skidelskys were among the “Siberian Jews” who provided the initial capital for Harbin—although “initial capital” is an understatement. In an account of his family’s holdings in Prospect magazine, Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords and a Harbin native, described how his great-grandfather Leon Skidelsky held the contract in 1895—prior to Harbin’s founding—to build the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Manchuria to Vladivostok. The Skidelskys were one of only 10 Jewish families allowed to live in Vladivostok, since the railroad desperately needed them. They owned 3,000 square kilometers of timber in Siberia and Manchuria, and enough mining property to make them one of the region’s largest employers. They continued supplying the railroad as it changed hands from the Russians to the Chinese to the Japanese. In 1924, Leon’s son Solomon even charmed a local warlord into selling him a 30-year lease on a mine, by repeatedly and deliberately losing to him in poker.

In 1945, Solomon Skidelsky was still nine years shy of running out the lease when the Soviets sent him and his brother to die in a gulag, and Communists—first Soviet and then Chinese—seized the mines. Decades later, Lord Skidelsky filed his claim. “In 1984,” Lord Skidelsky recounts, “I received a cheque for 24,000 English pounds in full settlement of a claim for compensation that amounted to 11 million pounds.” When he visited Harbin in 2005, local TV crews trailed him and presented him with flowers, which were worth somewhat less than 11 million pounds.

When I express my sense that this museum is only telling part of a story, Derek raises an issue that Ben-Canaan brought up with me repeatedly, that this museum focuses exclusively on wealthy people—thus underscoring the idea that Jews are rich. “Obviously there were poor Jews here too,” Derek points out. “The building across the street was the Jewish Free Kitchen.”

There is a tourist-industry concept, popular in places largely devoid of Jews, called ‘Jewish Heritage Sites.’
There is a tourist-industry concept, popular in places largely devoid of Jews, called ‘Jewish Heritage Sites.’

It is only as I am leaving, through the enormous mezuza-less door, that I look back at what was once the sanctuary and understand what, exactly, is wrong with this museum. Above the first-floor paintings of Russian churches, the museum is dominated by an enormous blown-up photograph of a 1930s farewell banquet, its rows of Harbin Jews in their tuxedos gathered to say goodbye to yet another Jewish family fleeing, as Alexander Galatzky put it, “FOR GOOD.” Suddenly the Jewish Heritage miasma melts away, and I realize the blindingly obvious: Nothing in this museum explains why this glorious community no longer exists.

Harbin is a rather hideous city, its Soviet-style apartment blocks stretching as far as the eye can see. But the city’s historic heart has been restored so thoroughly that if not for the Chinese crowds and street signs, one could imagine being in Europe. The historic tree-lined Central Avenue has been transformed into a pedestrian mall that doubles as an outdoor architectural museum, where each original building—80 percent of which were once Jewish-owned—is labeled with a plaque describing its past. The restoration also included installing loudspeakers that constantly blast high-volume Western music that someone decided was atmospheric. When I arrive, they’re playing “Edelweiss”: Bless my homeland forever. The music makes it hard to think.

Derek points out the various restored buildings on Central Avenue and elsewhere in the neighborhood: the Jewish-owned pharmacy, the Jewish Free Kitchen, the Jewish People’s Bank, and many private homes, all now occupied by other enterprises. The “Heritage Architecture” plaques affixed to each historic building couldn’t be more direct: “This mansion,” a typical one reads, “was built by a Jew.”

The most impressive Central Avenue building “built by a Jew” is the Modern Hotel, a building whose story captures the Harbin Jewish community’s roller coaster of triumph and horror. The Modern Hotel was built by the Jewish entrepreneur Joseph Kaspe, and from the moment it opened, in 1906, it was the height of Manchurian chic. The Modern wasn’t merely a high-class establishment frequented by celebrities and diplomats. Its premises also included China’s first movie theater. Kaspe also created other Modern-labeled luxury products like jewelry and high-end food. In other words, the Modern was a brand.

When the Japanese occupied Harbin, they immediately set their sights on the Modern. But Joseph Kaspe was one step ahead of them. His wife and two sons had moved to Paris, where they had acquired French citizenship—so Kaspe put the Modern in his son’s name and raised the French flag over the hotel. He assumed the Japanese wouldn’t risk an international incident just to steal his business. He was wrong.

In 1932, Kaspe invited his older son, Semion, a celebrated pianist, back to Manchuria for a concert tour. On the last night of his tour, Semion was kidnapped. Instead of paying the bankruptcy-inducing ransom, Joseph Kaspe went to the French Consulate. It didn’t help; the kidnappers upped the ante, mailing Kaspe his son’s ear. After three months, Semion’s body was found outside the city. When Kaspe saw his son’s maimed and gangrenous corpse, he went insane. Friends shipped him off to Paris, where he died in 1938. His wife was deported and died at Auschwitz three years later. His younger son escaped to Mexico, where he died in 1996, refusing to ever discuss Harbin.

The Modern Hotel is still in operation today, though at a few stars lower than the Holiday Inn where I’m staying down the street. The large pink stone building with its glamorous arched windows and turrets still dominates Central Avenue, its girth expanding for an entire city block, Cyrillic letters spelling out “MODERN” running down one corner of its facade. Outside, a long line of people winds its way down the street toward one end of the hotel, the hordes queuing in minus-10 degrees. The line, Derek explains, is for the Modern’s famous ice cream. “In Harbin, we love eating cold foods at cold temperatures,” he grins. It’s true; the streets of Harbin are lined with snack stands selling skewers of frozen fruit. The Kaspes figured this out and created China’s first commercially produced ice cream. Passing up the frozen treats, I go inside.

The Modern Hotel’s lobby today is shabby and nondescript, except for an exhibit celebrating the hotel’s illustrious history. It begins with a bronze bust of Joseph Kaspe, with wall text in Chinese and English describing the accomplishments of the Modern Corporation and its founder, “The Jew of Russian Nationality Mr. Alexander Petrovich Kaspe.” (The “Alexander” is inexplicable; Joseph Kaspe’s actual first name appears in Russian on the bust.) As the wall text explains, this impressive Jew founded this “flagship business in Harbin integrated with hotel, cinema, jewelry store, etc.” “In recent years,” the text continues, “the cultural brand of Modern is continuously consolidated and developed.” It then lists the numerous businesses now held by this storied company—including the Harbin Ice Festival, which belonged to the Modern Corporation until the provincial government took it over a few years ago. “Currently,” the wall text gloats, “Modern Group … is riding on momentum, and is shaping a brand-new international culture industry innovation platform.” Mr. Kaspe’s descendants would no doubt be proud of this Heritage, if any of them had inherited it.

But let’s put the mean-spirited cynicism aside. After all, the Modern Hotel clearly honors its Jewish Heritage! Here on its walls are enlarged photos of Joseph Kaspe’s family, including his murdered son, sexy in his white tie and tails, frozen over his piano. Here, under glass, are Real Historic Items from the Kaspe family, including silver candlesticks, an old-timey telephone, and a samovar! And here, in one particularly dusty glass case near the floor, are “the Kaspe collection of household utensils of Judaism sacrificial offerings,” including an actual Seder plate!

I squat down for a closer look at this display, and see that there are two plates inside it. The Seder plate has a bronzy Judaica motif suspiciously familiar from my own American Jewish childhood. I squelch my skepticism until I see that it is carved all around with English words. The second plate, a ceramic one, sports an Aztec-ish design, with the word “Mexico” painted across the bottom—a 1980s airport souvenir. At that point it becomes clear that this display was sourced from eBay.

I put my balaclava back on and go out into the cold again, past the hundreds of Chinese people clamoring for Kaspe’s ice cream, and head to the Old Synagogue, which is now a concert hall. The result of a multimillion-dollar renovation project for which the One Jew of Harbin served as an adviser, the building is part of an entire “Jewish block” that includes the music school next door, which was once the Jewish secondary school. Ben-Canaan was meticulous about the project, gathering and examining old photographs and descriptions to exactly replicate the ark with its granite Ten Commandments motif, the pillars, the gallery that was once the women’s section, and the seats with their prayer-book stands. His only concession, he told me, was to make the bimah (the platform before the ark) wide enough to accommodate a chamber orchestra. When the person manning the ticket booth refuses to let me peek inside, I buy a ticket for that night’s string quartet.

The Old Synagogue’s interior shocks me. I don’t know what I was expecting, but what I didn’t expect was to be standing in a synagogue no different than every single urban early-20th-century synagogue I’ve ever entered around the world, from my own former shul in New York City to others as far as London and Moscow and Capetown and Buenos Aires and Melbourne, all those buildings around the world where you walk into the sanctuary (usually after passing an armed guard) and could literally be in any synagogue anywhere. The One Jew of Harbin did a marvelous job—so marvelous that as I walk into the large hall and see the massive ark looming before me, with its familiar Hebrew inscription imploring me to Know Before Whom You Stand, I instinctively listen for what part of the service I’m walking in on, how late I am this time, whether they’re up to the Torah reading yet. My thoughts about how far back I should sit finally give way to logic, and I look at the seat number on my ticket.

But when I take my seat in the third row, I still cannot shut down my muscle memory. My hands go straight to the slot in the seat in front of me, reaching for a prayer book that isn’t there. I almost can’t stop myself from reciting all the words I’ve recited in rooms like this, the words I’ve repeated my entire life, the same words recited by all the people who have gathered in rooms like this over the past 20 centuries, in Yavneh and Pumbedita and Aleppo and Rome and Marrakesh and New York and Capetown and Buenos Aires and Harbin, facing Jerusalem. I am awed, googly eyed. In that moment I suddenly know, in a vast sense that expands far beyond space and time, before whom I stand.

Then a Chinese string quartet walks up to the bimah in front of the ark, and instead of bowing before the ark, they bow before me. The lights drop, and they play, spectacularly well, Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and inexplicably, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”

And suddenly I am very, very tired.

Somewhere in between the synagogues, the Belle Époque-style bookstore named for Nikolai Gogol, the pool carved out of the frozen river with people swimming in minus-30-degree water, and the hundreds of dead Jews, I find myself in a “Siberian Tiger Park,” where 700 of the world’s remaining tigers loll behind high chain link fences or pace in isolation cells, in what resembles a tiger re-education camp. Here, after riding the requisite bus painted with tiger stripes through bare icy yards full of catatonic-looking tigers, I am encouraged to buy slabs of raw meat—since, as Derek explains, the facility only provides the animals with meager rations, with the assumption that tourists will make up the difference. This potent combination of novelty and guilt, which feels strikingly similar to the uncomfortable emotions I experienced at Harbin’s various Jewish Heritage Sites, brings me to a woman selling buckets of raw pork slabs, which visitors feed to the tigers with tongs through the chain-link fencing. The woman selling the slabs also offers a crate of live chickens which I could alternatively purchase as tiger food; this would involve buying a live chicken and thrusting it into the tiger enclosure via a dedicated chicken chute. For the first time in my life, I buy pork.

As I struggle to pick up slippery pieces of meat with the tongs, I remember a moment in the Talmud (The Greatest Jewish Bible for Making Money) when the rabbis claim that the last thing created during the week of creation was the world’s first pair of tongs, since tongs can only be forged with other tongs—a story whose haunting image of human limits transcends its lack of logic. When I succeed in wielding the meat, the otherwise catatonic tigers pounce against the fence at me in a cartoon-like fury, rattling the Soviet-style barriers to an unnerving degree as they battle each other for the scraps of flesh. Watching these almost mythic captives feels oddly similar to my other visits on this trip, throwing guilt-induced scraps at something beautiful trapped under glass. Much later, I come across a National Geographic article claiming that this “park” is in fact a tiger farm, where these endangered animals—only seven of which still exist in the northeastern Chinese wild, outnumbering Jews in the region by 700 percent—are bred and slaughtered for trophies and traditional medicines. It all feels like an elaborate con. Or if not quite a con, a display.

The Harbin Ice Festival is the greatest display of all, surpassing my most fevered expectations. It is much, much larger and more elaborate than I imagined from the photos and videos that lured me to Harbin. I’d been amply warned by online strangers about how difficult the festival is to endure, since it requires long periods outside, at night, in punishing temperatures. But once I’m here, I’m shocked by how easy it is. All I needed were long underwear, three sweaters, one fleece, one parka, a scarf, a hat, a balaclava, two pairs of gloves, three pairs of pants, one pair of ski pants, three pairs of wool socks, hand warmers stuck into my gloves and boots, and ice cleats, and I’m good to go. I had been told that I wouldn’t be able to bear the cold for more than 40 minutes. I stay for three hours, in the company of my approximately 10,000 closest friends who are also visiting that evening, a number that in the vastness of the festival scarcely even creates a crowd.

Among the ice castles and ice fortresses clustered around a snow Buddha the size of a high school, I recognize shimmering tacky neon versions of places I’ve visited in real life, cataloging them in my brain like Benjamin of Tudela: the Wild Goose Pagoda of Xian, the Summer Palace outside Beijing, the gate to the Forbidden City, Chartres Cathedral, the Campanile tower near Venice’s original Jewish ghetto, the Colosseum built by Jewish slaves brought from Jerusalem to Rome. I wander around and through these flashing structures, their colors changing every few seconds as the LED wiring blinks within each ice block, passing over bridges and through moon gates and up staircases and down slides that wind their way through castles of ice. China is a place full of enormous, gaudy, extravagantly impersonal monuments made possible through cheap labor, from a 2,000-year-old tomb filled with 10,000 terra cotta warriors in Xian, to the medieval Great Wall outside Beijing, to the 1994 Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. The Harbin Ice Festival is the gargantuan fluorescent opposite of intimate or subtle. It is mind-blowing, and mindless. It is the most astounding man-made thing I have ever seen.

What is most shocking about the Ice Festival is the bizarre fact that all of it is temporary. In another month, this vast city will begin to melt. But unlike what I ignorantly assumed, the ice city does not simply vanish on its own. Instead, when the melting begins, 10,000 workers return to hack apart the millions of ice blocks, remove their electrical wiring, and then haul them out and dump them in the river. Like all cities, there is nothing natural about its creation, and also nothing natural about its destruction.

Nothing simply disappears. As I leave Harbin, I think of Hannah Agre, the last Jew of Harbin—the crazy old lady who refused to leave the city after every other Jew had gone, dying alone in 1985 in an office space that she had rejiggered into an apartment on the second floor of the Old Synagogue, 23 years after the last Jewish family left. It occurs to me, as I pass through the industrial wastelands and endless high-rises on my way to the airport, that maybe she wasn’t so crazy. Maybe she didn’t like being told to leave. Maybe she was physically enacting what all the other Harbintsy spent the rest of their lives trying to do, as they gathered in San Francisco and Tel Aviv to play mahjong and share photos of their samovars and fur coats. Maybe she wanted to keep the castle her family had built, preserved in ice.

By the time I reach the airport, the Harbin Holiday Inn’s breakfast buffet of dragon fruit and lychee nuts is a distant memory, and I’m hungry. Fortunately, right next to my gate there is a hip-looking eatery, the kind of place with historic black-and-white photos framed on trendy brick walls. Its sign reads: “Modern 1906.”

I almost can’t believe it, but yes, here it is once more: Joseph Kaspe’s business. As if responding to my private disbelief, a giant flat screen on a brick wall flashes a photo of Kaspe’s family, then one of Kaspe’s face. I stare at the photos before they blink away, looking at this murdered family and then at Kaspe, the man who built a city only to lose his son, his property, and his mind. I suddenly feel shaken by the “success” of this business that has apparently endured through magic since 1906, by the sheer chutzpah of this open bragging about a corporate “Heritage,” by the enduring quality of stolen goods. It’s 20 below outside, but I buy an ice cream in a flavor labeled “Original.” The sweet frozen cream melts in my mouth, gone before I even put away my Chinese change.

I’m in the last row of the Air China plane leaving Harbin, and the only Westerner on board. There’s an intense smell of barbecued pork as someone in the row in front of me celebrates the Year of the Pig. I think of Alexander Galatzky leaving Harbin “FOR GOOD,” boarding the train to Shanghai and then the boat to Ceylon and on through the Suez Canal, nine years after he first traversed the world as a child on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, with his mother and her bag of old clothes. A cheerful animated panda on the screen in front of me explains the many safety features of this aircraft, including what to do if we should require, as the awkward English translation puts it, “Emergency Ditching.” I think of the Clurmans, the Kaspes, the Nahumsons moving between the raindrops, ditching as needed, ditching as expected. I watch the animation and remember Benjamin of Tudela, the chipper cartoon of the perilous journey around the world, where every Jewish community is documented and counted and marveled at, full of cheery animated people who never feel the need to ditch, where cities never melt away.

Within two minutes of takeoff, Harbin is no longer visible. Outside my window, I see only snow-dusted farmland and the gleam of sunlight on the frozen river. The land is vast and empty. The enormous city is gone.

Dara Horn is the award-winning author of five novels and the essay collection People Love Dead Jews.