Harbin was a new city around the end of both the Qing dynasty and the Russian Empire. It was built to support the Chinese Eastern Railway and also became home to a sizable Jewish community numbering around twenty thousand. That community has long vanished and all that remains are the old synagogues and other buildings constructed by Jewish merchants and entrepreneurs. Why the Jews left Harbin is the most lasting consequence of the events recounted in Scott Seligman’s new book, Murder in Manchuria, a true crime narrative along the lines of Paul French’s Midnight in Peking and James M Zimmerman’s The Peking Express.
The murder in the title is that of a young pianist named Semyon Kaspé, born and raised in Harbin; his father Josef built and ran the Hotel Moderne, an Art Nouveau masterpiece that is still standing.
When Semyon Kaspé and Lydia Shapiro parted on a street in the city of Harbin near midnight on August 24, 1933, after a night of music and merriment, neither could anticipate the dark sequence of events the coming months held in store. The macabre aftermath would set the Manchurian Jewish community on edge, arouse worldwide opprobrium, and leave behind a mystery that was never fully solved.
Thousands of Jews had chosen the “Wild East” in the early 1900s because the Tsar had promised this area would be safe from pogroms, or murder, rape and kidnapping sprees common in Russia proper. This promise was made in hopes that Jews could help develop these bustling areas around the new railroad in Manchuria.
Manchuria was very far and very remote—less so for Siberian Jews—but it offered deliverance from persecution and the opportunity for a better life. It was Russia without pogroms. Many Jewish entrepreneurs and professionals thus decided to make the long trek and settle there. They were permitted to live anywhere in the Russian right-of-way, which included Mukden, Dalian, and several smaller settlements like Hailar, Qiqihar and Maoershan. But most picked Harbin.
Josef Kaspé arrived in Harbin when he fought in the Russo-Japanese War. When he was demobilized with an award for his service in 1906, he decided to stay. Life, he felt, would be easier in a new city like Harbin with a nascent Jewish community. In 1914, he opened the Hotel Moderne, one of the grandest in Harbin. The Tsar’s promises of safety would become a moot point after the Bolshevik Revolution. Some in Harbin’s Russian Fascist Party—started in Manchuria in the 1930s to overthrow the Bolsheviks—weren’t too happy to live amongst Jews who were also often viewed with suspicion as communist sympathizers. Kaspé also dealt in precious items like Fabergé eggs that emigres sold to Kaspé to make ends meet after they had lost most of their belongings in the Revolution. The Russian Fascist Party in Harbin published articles claiming Kaspé had in fact stolen these jewels and artifacts and were selling them in order to fund the Bolsheviks. No matter the evidence to the contrary—being a jeweler and a hotelier—Josef could not escape these stereotypes published in the right-wing press.
Manchuria had been ruled by the warlord Zhang Zuolin and, after his death, his son Zhang Xueliang. The younger Zhang was weak and in 1932 the Japanese military invaded and established the puppet state of Manchukuo, installing the “last emperor” Pu Yi as its leader. The Chinese government complained about this Japanese occupation and the League of Nations sent a commission up to Harbin to investigate. The delegation met at Josef’s Hotel Moderne. It didn’t go well for the Japanese and the report did not end up recognizing Manchukuo as a legitimate state.
The Japanese in Harbin and the Russian Fascist party worked together and blamed the Jews for the League of Nations report.
The ostensible link between Jews and Freemasonry was right out of the Protocols, and there had been two Jews assigned to the Expert and Scientific Delegation attached to the Lytton Commission. Lord Lytton, though not Jewish himself, was said to have ties to Chaim Weizmann through the marriage of one of the latter’s relatives.
The best way for the Russian Fascist Party to get back at the Harbin Jews was to target Josef, one of the most prominent members of the community. Since Josef rarely left his hotel, the Russian Fascists and Japanese decided to kidnap his son, Semyon. But this kidnapping was a little different than others of that time in Harbin, which were usually inflicted upon stateless people who didn’t have the protection of a consulate or embassy. Semyon, however, had acquired French citizenship and because of that the French government got involved.
The rest of the book tells of the kidnapping, three long months of Semyon’s captivity, and Josef’s struggle to scrounge up the ransom. As the title implies, Semyon doesn’t make it out of the captors’ hands alive. The Jewish community was blamed for the kidnapping and murder of Semyon and that of other Jews that preceded and followed. The message was this: the Japanese and Russian Fascists were anti-communist and if only Jews had felt the same, the kidnappers and murderers wouldn’t have acted so rashly. Of course there is no proof that the Jews of Harbin sympathized with the Bolsheviks and even if they had, there is never any justification for what the Russian Fascists did to Semyon.
Because of this hostile and dangerous atmosphere, the Jewish community did not feel safe in Harbin anymore.
For many—and, over the next few years, for most—it was a signal to do what Jews have done since time immemorial when others made their lives intolerable: emigrate.
Seligman’s book is chilling for what happened to Semyon, but it’s also a lesson in history about a lesser known part of northeast Asia, colonial puppet state and all.