Off the Shelf: Jews in Manchuria

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There’s a joke about Jewish holidays that says, “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.” When thinking of recorded Jewish history, that statement could be changed to read, “They invited us to live there. We prospered, so they hated us and tried to destroy us. Then we left.” This is a simplified version of what occurred in the former Jewish community of Harbin, China, as described in Scott D. Seligman’s “Murder in Manchuria: The True Story of a Jewish Virtuoso, Russian Fascists, a French Diplomat, and a Japanese Spy in Occupied China” (Potomac Books). Using the kidnapping and murder of Semyon Kaspé, a young Jewish musician whose father owned a large hotel in Harbin, as his starting point, Seligman looks not only at the development of the Jewish community in that area, but the larger socio-political elements that affected that community. 

The first Jews arrived in Harbin during the last years of the 19th century. At its height, the community numbered around 20,000. Although the last remaining Jew in Harbin died in 1985, a major exodus occurred during the second half of the 1930s. The murder of Kaspé played a major role in this emigration, although his death was only part of a continuing campaign against the Jews in the area. 

Russian Jews had originally been encouraged to move to Harbin to help its growing economy. The idea was appealing because life in Russia was not easy. Seligman notes, “Jews [in Russia] were subject to special taxes, banned from some professions, and subjected to school quotas. Jewish boys could be conscripted into military service at age twelve and forced to serve for decades, usually as cannon fodder, never as officers. Plus, Jews were the all-too-frequent targets of violent pogroms – genocidal attacks, often religiously motivated – that killed or injured many and were sometimes even sanctioned by the local authorities.” For many, Harbin must have originally looked like a wonderful opportunity, a place to live a better and safer life.

However, although Harbin might have been considered safer at first, this haven was not to continue. Seligman writes of the wars between Russia and Japan over this area of China, with each nation alternately assuming control. At the time of Kaspé’s kidnapping and murder in 1933, the area was technically an independent nation called Manchukuo, which was supposed to be run by the Chinese living in the area, but which was really controlled by the Japanese. Harbin was also populated by White Russians, those who had supported the losing side in the Russian Revolution. Many of them were Fascists who hated Jews because they believed all Jews had supported the revolution – even when those Jews were capitalists who had also left Russia for similar reasons. 

According to Seligman, the Japanese needed money to finance their control of Manchukuo – money that could not come from Japan. The Japanese believed all Jews were wealthy, in addition to their being able to exert great political and financial control across the world. But the Japanese did not want to be the ones who actually extorted the money. The author notes, “The Japanese would use the reactionary Russian émigrés to bilk [the Jews] – people of wealth like Josef Kaspé [Semyon’s father] – for all they were worth. But it all had to be done covertly; to be seen to be behind it could spoil Japan’s plans for gaining international recognition of its puppet state, and for attracting foreign investment to it.”

Semyon was not the first or last Jew in Harbin to be kidnapped, but Seligman believes his kidnapping was a watershed event – one that made it clear to the Jewish community it was time to leave Harbin. The author offers information about the kidnapping and the problems entailed in trying to ransom Semyon. One thing that the kidnappers had not considered was that Josef simply did not have the funds necessary to pay the ransom. Attempts to find Semyon and his kidnappers were stymied because members of the police force had taken part in planning the kidnapping and warned the kidnappers when searchers were close. The conclusion to the kidnapping was not unexpected: Semyon was found dead, his body in terrible shape from abuse and hunger. 

Even though some of Semyon’s kidnappers were arrested, justice eluded the family. Antisemitism played a major role in this failure because his kidnappers were called Russian patriots who planned to use the money to overthrow the Soviet government – making the kidnapping a political act, rather than a criminal one. False claims about Josef – for example, that he sold stolen Russian national treasures – were treated in much of the press as if they were fact. Although during the first trial, the Chinese judges found the kidnappers guilty and condemned them to life imprisonment, not only were their sentences quickly vacated, but the judges themselves were arrested for conducting a fair trial.

It’s not possible for a short review to fully explain the many complex forces acting on the Harbin Jewish community and the political realities of the time. “Murder in Manchuria” opens with three pages of “Dramatis Personae,” which many readers may need in order to keep straight the numerous people involved, including members of the Jewish, Japanese, Chinese, White Russian and European communities who played a role in the story. Seligman’s writing is dry, but that is befitting the story; it also makes what happened to Semyon that much more heartbreaking. This book is not just for those interested in the history of Asia in the years before World War II, since it also serves as a case study of the way the Jewish population has been treated in country after country over the centuries.