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Professor Highlights Jewish Struggle to Be Visible in Harbin, China

February 27, 2015
By: WSU News

What was once a Jewish area in Northern China has been reconstructed into a Russian-themed musical district, although the fight for remembering the Jewish culture there is an ongoing battle.

In a program co-sponsored by Worcester State University’s Theme Semester, WPI, and the College of the Holy Cross, WSU graciously welcomed Dr. Dan Ben-Canaan, a professor of research and writing methodology in the School of Western Studies at Heilongjiang University in Harbin, China, to speak at the Student Center’s Blue Lounge on Feb. 26. The goal was to explore this year’s academic theme of “Borders, Boundaries and Edges.”

What Ben-Canaan’s lecture, “The Reconstruction of the Jewish Block in Harbin,” sought out to showcase was the fact that history can have hidden facts and agendas that shape it into what we see today, and that at one point there was a very diverse cultural experience in Northern China, now lost in history.

It was an informative presentation of the reconstruction efforts of a formerly Jewish section in China known as Harbin. Harbin was an epicenter for Russian, Indian, and many other European cultures in the early 1900s. At this time, there was a construction of a railroad that required cheap labor that was offered by these groups. Over the years, the area was taken over by the Japanese and later the Soviets, eliminating the Jewish culture in the area, and the main synagogue was burned down in 1931.

While there is no dominant Jewish culture in Harbin today, Ben-Canaan discussed the 2013 re-development of the old synagogue and the surrounding area. This, however, emphasized the ultimate point of his lecture: “governments can mold history like clay” to disguise hidden agendas.

He went on to explain that the Chinese government only reconstructed the block to make it appear more like Moscow and to improve their relationship with Russia—a far cry from honoring the Jewish culture that had cultivated the area for decades. The government also shut down the archives of the old Jewish buildings, meaning no blueprints could be used. The synagogue building is now a concert hall and it holds four shows every week.

This article was written by Worcester State University Communication major Robert White.

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