Russian Jews of Tientsin

As you may have guessed from my previous blog entry, I’ve started to look more closely at Hong Kong’s role as a post-war transit port for Jewish refugees leaving China. Many of these refugees were Russians (either stateless / Soviet passport holders) from Harbin or Tientsin. You can read more about the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that governed these migrations in my blog post From Harbin to Beverley Hills.

I’ve found an interesting monograph written by Lazar Epstein, leader of ‘The Bund’ in China, Japan and the United States (you can find out more about Epstein here) which details the early beginnings of the Russian Jewish community in Tientsin and the exodus of this community from China in the early 1950s.

The Russian Jews of Tientsin, China 1900 – 1950 by Lazar Epstein (no date)

Our Russian Jews came to China from the Ukraine, from the areas around the Polish border and the biggest group of all, from Siberia, late in the nineteenth-century. Some among them were the Honourable Descendants Citiziens, whose parents had paid 1.500 rubbles for registration fees to be members of the First Guild of Merchants, thus acquiring the opportunity to live out of the Pale of Settlement which restricted Jews from travelling or living in any sea or river port or capital city in Russia. Others were descendants of the Cantonists (later known as the Nikolacvsky Soldati) a tragic group of Jewish men who earned their right to travel and settle freely after having served in the Tsar’s army for 25 odd years. The Cantonists were young Jewish boys required by the Tsars Alexander I (1801-1825) and Nicholas (1825 – 1855) to be gleaned from the Jewish community in most of the Pale of Settlement. It was decreed that Jewish communities should supply youngsters aged nine to twelve to be trained for prolonged Army service. This was an attempt to assimilate young boys based on the premise that Jewish children conscripted early into the military could be persuaded to adopt Christianity. They were provided instructions in drill and military training (usually in Siberia), rudimentary education and very strict discipline was maintained by threat of starvation and corporal punishment. At the age of 18 they were drafted into the regular Army where – if by then they had not converted to Christianity – they served for 25 years.

Jews who left Russia to go East left for the same reasons and at the same time that so many did go west. From our interviews we can establish that these reasons were: to escape conscription into the Army; to escape the pogrom which followed each crisis that Russia suffered, the defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War and the failed revolution of the same year. Then the revolution of 1917 and the Civil war in 1921 precipitated further needs to escape. By mid 1930s there were about ten thousand Russian Jews in China. They lived a very self-centred life there, formed lasting ties with each other and it is a fascinating fact that now, almost twenty-five years after the community ceased to exist as a localised unit in China, its members are still very much aware of each others lives and form a kind of non-geographical unity despite the fact that they are scattered to the USA, Australia, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Hong Kong and Israel, countries which absorbed the immigrants from China since 1948.

With the occupation of Tientsin by the Japanese Military Dictatorship, the Chinese government ceased to exist, and the White Russians collaborated with the Japanese – in fact, instigated – the few examples of anti-Semitic experience that were to occur. As the Second World War ended, the civil war in China between the communists and the Kuomintang (Nationalist) increased in intensity. Fighting went on, although still some distance from Tientsin. Export and import business was no longer easy. Goods were very expensive, money was hugely inflated and people carried it in their suitcase in order to pay employees. We quote from a letter (anonymous) sent out from Tientsin on July 28, 1946: ‘The atmosphere in town is not good. Life is getting more and more expensive, taxation is hard to understand and consequently it is hard to plan your business. Labour is much more expensive than in the States – they just get you by the throat and you cannot help it. When I am not busy, I will make copies of Shanghai bills and you will see that hundreds of thousands of dollars there count for nothing. The situation with our citizenship turned out to be a washout, and burns me up. We are asked to forget that we are Jews and to remember that first we are Soviets, and I will be damned if I will conform to that. We stand a good chance to have our Jewish organisations such as school, hospital and club, turned into Soviet organisations, with Russians included. And you know what kind of Russians we have here, the kind we ran away from in Russia …’   

These words became reality very soon. People who were born in Russia and did not have foreign passports were notified that they had to take out Soviet citizenship. The Chinese government provided residents’ identification papers. People who had business with the USA started the trend of getting visas to get out. By 1948 the exodus had begun. People could still leave taking their belongings and their money. With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the first shiploads from China arrived in Israel – mainly young people in their early twenties, members of the Betar, the Macabees, graduates from the Tientsin Jewish school. The Communist takeover in Tientsin was actually swift and virtually bloodless – on the cold clear January 10th  of 1949. The Jewish School was very soon to be closed and Kunst was taken over to become the Soviet Citizens Club – a gathering place for Russian-speakers, Jews and others. Children from the Jewish school had little choice but go to the Soviet School to become Pioneers and members of the Komsomol and like their parents, to be Soviet citizens. The Chinese people or government really interfered very little in the lives of the Jews even at this juncture. It was the Soviets who completely took over.

In the early fifties it became very obvious that the permanence of the Jewish businessmen in Tientsin was no longer desirable or practical. Export regulations and heavy taxes practically paralysed the commercial activities. People’s investigative committees were looking into businessmen’s war-time deals, connections with the Japanese, money transfers or black-market exchange activities. China was going through the first san-fan u-fan (three-year, five-year self cleansing) period. One was expected to confess one’s own misdeeds or anyone else’s (usually the latter) to the government and many Chinese as well as foreign businessmen were arrested, others committed suicide, all worried. It was a period of great tension and again, those Russian Jews who
had visas, chose to leave as soon as they could. To Israel, Australia, Brazil.

 

From Harbin to Beverly Hills: Russian-Jewish Refugee Transit via Hong Kong, 1950

 

I recently came across a file in a UK archive that chronicled the post-war migration of an elderly Russian-Jewish couple from Harbin, China, to the United States from May 1950 to December 1950. Although the couple had lived in Harbin for the past twenty years, life in China was becoming increasingly difficult. Harbin was under Soviet occupation in 1945 until 1947, when Jewish community leaders were arrested and sent to the Soviet interior, while other stateless nationals were pressured to return to Russia by Soviet agents. The Communist Party came to power in China in 1949 and it soon became clear that life could not continue as it had before. The couples’ son, Leonard, and his young family had already left Harbin and were living in the States, where they were anxiously waiting to be reunited. The hardships faced by this family sheds light on the complexity of post-war migration and the use of Hong Kong as a transit hub for stateless Russians and Jewish refugees.

At the end of World War Two, thousands of Displaced Persons used Hong Kong as a transport hub to reach other destinations, such as Australia, Israel, or South America. DP’s also attempted to reach the colony to make use of its consular facilities as American Embassies and consulates in China started to close their doors after 1949.

The Russian couple planned to apply for a U.S. visa as well as a visa to Ecuador, where immigration control was less strict. Using South America as a base, they could then re-apply for another U.S. visa. Crucially though, the couple could not accept a permanent resettlement visa to any other country, or they would be excluded from the Displaced Persons Act (for China Refugees). After much wrangling, the couple were able to leave Harbin and travel south to the port city of Tientsin (today’s Tianjin), the site of a once vibrant Jewish community. In Tientsin they visited the British Crown Consulate, where they needed to prove they had:

  1. An assurance from Hong Kong that an onward passage was secured from Hong Kong to Ecuador
  2. The address of the person whose house they could stay at while in Hong Kong
  3. A letter of assurance from a local transport company (such as Butterfield & Swire) that their departure tickets from Hong Kong had been reserved and paid for by someone in Hong Kong.

Once the British Consulate had interviewed the couple, they would verify the information with their sponsors in Hong Kong. It was a long waiting game.

Leonard wrote to his parents warning them of the challenges that lay ahead: ‘I was told, however, that the British authorities are very strict about letting anybody to Hong Kong and require sponsors and a guarantee that the visitors would not be a public charge’. The family’s Hong Kong sponsor was keen to help but he noted that the Hong Kong Police were ‘sticky’ when it came to in-transit refugees and that finding accommodation would be a challenge due to the colony’s ever-growing refugee population.

The Hong Kong branch of the International Refugee Organisation further described the bureaucratic entanglements involved:

  1. ‘Very little can be done until actual Ecuadorian visas arrive
  2. The visas, or photostatic copies, should be immediately forwarded to [the couple] in Tientsin
  3. On the basis of 2 and 3 above, the British Consulate in Tientsin will issue a Hong Kong transit visa. The Immigration Authorities here may call you by phone to confirm your guarantee, accommodation and on-forwarding passages before giving Tientsin permission to issue the visas
  4. When the [couple] arrive in Hong Kong, they will proceed to the American Consulate and try to ascertain how long it will take for their US visas to come through
  5. I have written a letter to the Immigration Authorities … requesting at least 60 days in transit be given to persons coming to Hong Kong for the purpose of further processing their USA visas. Assuming the Immigration Authorities accept my request favourably, there should be no difficulty in the [couple] remaining here until their visas are granted, only as long, of course, as the Ecuadorian visas are valid
  6. Since the [couple] have been registered with IRO and declared eligible for legal and political assistance only, their case would be covered in my letter to Immigration
  7. I suggest the blue completed personal history forms be forwarded to the American Consulate to be placed in the [couple’s] visa application dossier.’

At the end of an arduous year spent anxiously waiting for visas, chasing bureaucrats and living out of a battered suitcase, the couple finally left China via Hong Kong and set sail for Beverly Hills. Once settled in the U.S., they sent a postcard and a family photograph to their Hong Kong sponsor thanking him for his help and generosity. The photograph showed the couple smiling. The sun was shining. They were surrounded by Leonard’s dogs and their grandchildren.