From Bialystok to Brooklyn: Part Two

Simova, Poland ➡️ Bialystok, Poland  ➡️ Minsk, Russia  ➡️ Moscow  ➡️ Viana, Russia ➡️ Erkutcsk ➡️ Chita, Siberia ➡️ Harbin, China ➡️ Chanzhou, China ➡️ Darien, China  ➡️ Sent back to Harbin ➡️Yokohama

Unlike the majority of Eastern Europeans fleeing pogroms and poverty to America through ships sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Harry “Chonie” Oshinsky took a journey over three continents. His family fearing for his imminent conscription into the Polish army, encouraged him leave for Russia by train in the early part of 1914. What follows is Part Two of Oshinsky’s incredible story.

On their train ride from Bialystok, Poland, into Russia, Harry Oshinsky and his friend Yankel Goldberg saw the horrors of war first hand. “Wounded people, those with missing arms or legs, bandaged heads,” he wrote later in his autobiography. “All in all it was a frightening sight to behold.” Combined with the painful scenes at each railroad stop—tear-filled farewells to sons and husbands; wail-filled greetings of the families to those that returned—instilled a pacifism in Harry that he carried throughout his life.

When they arrived in Minsk, Harry and Yankel’s first stop was a bakery run fortuitously by a Jewish widow and her daughter Sonya. The shopkeepers took the two refuges under their wing, helping them obtain a place to live and employment. After registering as required with the police, they initially both found work making gas masks, but Harry soon found a tailoring job. After several weeks, Sonya, through a local doctor, connected them with a Jewish welfare organization, who provided the two boys free tickets to Harbin, China, where Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) would handle the remainder of their trip to San Francisco.

Armed with a huge salami to eat, a kettle to make tea and students’ clothes to disguise them from potential arrest as traveling Jews—a final gift from  their angel Sonya— Harry and Yankel hired a draska, a horse and carriage to take them to the railroad station, which was in utter chaos. The train was hours late, necessitating their waiting all night to finally board. A conductor took pity on the two “homeless” boys and encouraged them to sleep. They travelled first to Moscow, then to Viasna, where they would begin their journey deep into Siberia.

Near the end of their six day journey, a fellow traveler overheard the two speaking in Yiddish. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “I am also a Jew.” He warned the two teenagers that they would be arrested and placed in the Russian army if they proceeded to their planned stop in Erkutcsk. Instead, he advised them to deboard the train in Chita, Siberia. He gave them the name of Jewish man who ran a boarding house, who was known to help fellow fleeing refuges.

Harry and Yankel followed the kind stranger’s advice. After debarking the train and taking a horse and buggy to the address provided, the two poor, exhausted travelers were welcomed with a hot meal, a good night’s sleep, and the inn-keepers’ referral to a man who owned a tailor shop in Chita.

Mr. Goldberg was delighted to hire two fellow Jews and, through his connections with local police, arranged for a six-month work permit. The Goldberg family embraced them like their own sons, providing room and board along with a good salary. Every day, they encountered those political prisoners who were bound in chains and working in horrible conditions. It made them recognize their own good fortune—and their own possible fate if caught.

By July 1915, the work permits they had obtained when they had arrived in Chita, Siberia, were about to expire. It was time for them to continue their dangerous journey. Disguised as merchants, they boarded the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER) for Harbin, China.

Harry and Yankel’s destination was in fact one chosen by many other Jewish refugees fleeing World War I, the Russian Revolution, and its ensuing famine. Despite White [Czarist] Russias attempt to spread anti-Semitism to Harbin to stations along the CER, the Chinese authorities prohibited any anti-Jewish persecutions in the areas it controlled. Harbin became one of the largest host cities for Eastern European Jews. Stepping in to fill the need, any American Jewish relief organization operated in Harbin, the most efficient being the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society of America (HIAS).Some Jews settled in the Chinese city, but for many others, it was a safe haven on their way to the United States. 

Arriving in Harbin in late summer, 1917, Harry and Yankel registered with HIAS and took residence in one of the buildings established by the organization. They shared the one large residential room with Jews of all ages, all awaiting the paperwork necessary to continue on to the western seaports in Japan. In the meantime, Harry earned money as a tailor, at one point making a suit for the then famous Russian-born Yiddish actor Aaron Lebidoff.

Although their journey had been very difficult, what lay ahead was even more challenging. Through HIAS, Harry, Yankel, and six other Jewish refugees hired an “agent” who, for 25 rubles per person, arranged for their being smuggled to their next stop, Changzhou, China. A journey that normally took eight hours took eight grueling days by foot, boat, and horse and wagon. They were hidden under blankets on boats, in wagon booths meant only for women, and once across the border to Japan, in rickshaws. 

The travelers made their way to Dalian, China, which was under Japanese control since their victory in the Russo-Japanese War. In Dalian the group was introduced to Nikolai Pavlov, a Russian socialist who had escaped from a Siberian labor camp. Famous for his 1917 essay,”Why I Am an Anarchist,” he and his wife now lived in Darien, where they taught classes in socialism and promoted the teachings of Leo Tolstoy. Nikolai told the travelers not to worry, as he would make all the future arrangements to get them to Yokohama, where they would board a ship for the United States.

Due to space constraints, only five of the eight travelers would be able to leave immediately for Yokohama, necessitating Harry, and two others to remain behind. Harry and Yankel had a tearful farewell, with hopes of reuniting in New York City in the near future. Harry and his companions returned to a hotel in Darien for what they expected to be a short wait. This was not to be.

A few days later, Harry and his two friends heard a commotion outside their hotel windows. The building was surrounded by police and soldiers. After showing them their papers, the three were put in handcuffs. At that moment, Nikolai Pavlov rushed into the hotel. In an attempt to rescue them, he stated  that the three Jews were political refuges who, according to a 1905 law, could not be arrested. The officials did not listen.

As they were herded to the Russian Consulate of the Czar for further questioning, Pavlov tried to comfort them. “Hold yourselves brave! Do not fear!” he shouted. “Just say you are followers of Tolstoy and against war!” Pavlov’s words only further angered the Czar’s consul. “Parchatey Yivray! (Repulsive Jews!)” he shouted, jumping out of his chair and grabbing a revolver, “A bullet in your head is what you’ll get!”

The terrified boys then were told of their “crime.” According to a telegram the consulate had received from Harbin, their group were identified as a gang of murderers. They were to be shipped back to Harbin, China, where now considered as fugitives of the law, they  were to face imprisonment, conscription, or, at worst, death. Their journey was about to take a dangerous detour. 

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