«Interview with Leo Hanin June 28, 1989 RG-50.030*0090 PREFACE The following oral history testimony is the result of a videotaped interview with Leo ...»
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Interview with Leo Hanin
June 28, 1989
The following oral history testimony is the result of a videotaped interview with Leo Hanin,
conducted by Linda Kuzmack on June 28, 1989 on behalf of the United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum. The interview took place in Washington, DC and is part of the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum's collection of oral testimonies. Rights to the interview are held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The reader should bear in mind that this is a verbatim transcript of spoken, rather than written prose. This transcript has been neither checked for spelling nor verified for accuracy, and therefore, it is possible that there are errors. As a result, nothing should be quoted or used from this transcript without first checking it against the taped interview.
LEO HANINJune 28, 1989
PHRASES MISSINGA:...1913. My name is Leo Hanin. And when I was born they called me Leib Hanin. You know, the Jewish way birth certificates are written. Then uh it was...I changed it, because Leib didn't sound too...uh modern, so-to-speak, when I went to Russian school in Harbin, China. So I became Lev, and Lev becomes Leo.
A: When I lived a short time in Israel, I called myself Arye.
A: That all means the same thing, you know.
Q: Alright. Tell me, you were, you were born in Vilnius [Pol: Wi_no], in Vilna. Uh, how did you get uh from Vilna to China?
A: In 19...I was born in 1913, as I said. In 1916, my parents uh decided to run away from Russia--uh, or those areas that were involved in in the uprisings and wars and revolution, at that time. And they decided to go to China, because that was the only way they could go.
Also, I think, the reason of their going to China was that uh one of our relatives was there.
He was there in the Russian army, which at that time was stationed in some of the cities in...in...in Manchuria, which was part of China. And that's how we went. And I...I...I asked my father sometimes, "Why did you go to Harbin, of all the places? You know, Jews were running away. They were running to America, to New York, everywhere. Why did you go to China?" He says, "Well, there was no other way. We had to go; and we ran. We ran for our lives.” And...and that way, I think about three thousand or four thousand Jews from Russia, in those areas--Poland-Lithuania, in that time--wound up in...in...in Harbin. We had a nice little Jewish community in Harbin. China.
Q: Would you describe it? Tell, talk about yourself and your family.
A: Well, I was several...two years old when we came there. Uh I don't recollect
A: And then when I was uh ten years old, I went to a Russian school. And stayed there for six years; and that was in 1929. Uh my parents, right when I graduated Russian school, uh decided to send me and my brother to Shanghai. At that time, situation in Harbin started to deteriorate because the Japanese were moving in. And the Japanese eventually occupied Manchuria, and set up an independent country of Manchukuo in 1934 or '33.1 I don't remember exactly when it was. Anyway, so my parents decided to be safe, send us to Shanghai. They eventually also came and lived in Shanghai. We lived together in Shanghai.
That's where I went to a British school. And I studied the English language that I know now.
And then, sixteen or seventeen that I was, I went to work. And that's...and that's... I went to work for an office which was importing uh textiles from England, Japan. And uh in 1936, I got married. In 1937, my...I think it was '36. Uh, the...my firm decided to send me to Japan.
Kobe, Japan. That is how I found myself--I...my wife and me. And we still had no children at that time. I found myself in Kobe, Japan.
Q: OK. Before we get to Kobe, can we back up a little bit?
Q: Before we get to Kobe, can we back up a little bit? Tell me what it was like for a young Jewish boy growing up in Harbin, China. What were you relations with the Chinese like?
A: Uh, we didn't have any close relations with the Chinese. Uh we...our parents were doing business with the Chinese. Uh, we were growing up in a nice Jewish atmosphere. We had uh...and of course, Zionism was very prevalent at that time. We had people coming from Palestine in those days; and giving us lectures, and sending...uh, selling--at that time it wasn't one. What was it at that time? They were selling land, actually. A lot of our people bought land in Palestine in those days. Keren Kayemeth and Keren Hayesod, the Jewish funds.2 And we had uh we had very - I belonged to a Jewish organization, Ritrum Pilog (ph), and uh we were very active. I mean, in sense like studying English and studying Jewish history, the history of Zionism; and, of course, being young fellows, we were all in sports. And uh it was a good, good fine Jewish life. We had good teachers, good instructors. And uh it's amazing how how this small community of Jews in Harbin - I always think of it as a lot of of fine Also, Manchoukuo or Manchutikuo. Set up as an independent republic in February 1932 following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931. The nearby province of Jehol was added in 1933. Became a puppet empire under the nominal leadership of Manchu emperor K'ang Tê in
1934. Dissolved in 1945.
Funds established by the Zionist Organization for the purchase and development of land in Palestine.
USHMM Archives RG-50.030*0090 3 good warm feelings because they were so dedicated, all these rabbis and the teachers and the Zionist leaders. So eventually when uh... I am getting a little jump, we'll come back again later, if you don't mind. Eventually in 1948, after the war, when the State of Israel was established, where...where else would I go? Only to Israel.
Q: Of course.
A: And we went to Israel. In 1948. We stayed there two years. Then back to Japan. But that's another story.
Q: That's another story. OK. Now we'll go back. You have just arrived then in Kobe. Will you describe your impressions on first arriving? You are now a young man...
A: Always, uh we had a little house. I was busy, of course, doing the job that I was assigned to do. I used to travel a lot all over Japan, buying merchandise and uh shipping it to China, to my firm that I was working for. Always we were looking for Jewish friends. We established some contacts. A little synagogue there, and uh then that's where we established a little Jewish community. I mean, this Jewish community uh...uh mainly, the main activities-besides, of course, having a little synagogue where we gathered uh on high holidays and Passover--not very religiously inclined people. The Sephardic Jews that lived there were much much stronger in that. They had minyan every Friday night and every Shabbos, you know; but we were not that uh religiously involved. Mostly our people played cards over there. And the ladies played Mah Jong, and the men played poker or whatever they played.
And there was a restaurant; just that, meeting. It was like a club more or less. Jewish community was like a club where people got together. But...
Q: You said earlier that there was a difference between Sephardic Jews and the Askhenazi Jews...
A: We felt that we were being looked uh looked down upon. You see, we were stateless people.
We had no passports. Having...our parents really ran away from Russia to China. We had no nationality. Uh, some of our people who wanted to become Soviet did become; but we didn't want to become Soviets. We stayed as Russian immigrants. And we were...the Jewish community that was organized there was uh was involved in in keeping in touch with the Chinese authorities who were in charge of the... I mean, if you had to have a passport to travel somewhere, they would issue you a Chinese passport. But nationality was White Russian Immigrant.
looking at, all the time watching you. As a matter of fact...
Q: How did you know?
A: Uh, plainclothes police--Japanese. Every foreigner was considered to be a spy in those days.
It was uh an unusual situation, but it didn't bother us. As long as you didn't engage yourself into any politics, or...or...or uh doing things that are against the law, nobody bothered you.
You just went on with your business, and that was it. That was the life over there. Very easy.
I mean, we were young-- friends, uh social uh uh parties, playing cards and travelling. And uh that was the life. In those days, travelling was not as simple as it is today - jump on a plane and you fly. Shanghai was about 48 hours by boat. You know, it was... But...but we did we did our share of travelling. But you couldn't travel...say if I wanted to go to Hong Kong, I couldn't. Being a white Russian immigrant, they wouldn't let me in. It's...it's hard to explain how it was, but uh we managed. We managed. We lived. And I suppose uh...uh, again, coming back to our conversations before, that there was some reason why we were there. Maybe we were there because we had to...to be in the right place at the right time as you said. I...I...older I became, more I think that's what it's all about. We had to be there to help our people. Three thousand. And...and...and it's amazing. The Japanese, who were very strict in allowing non-uh foreigners so to speak to come to Japan, all of a sudden they opened their doors. This man, this Sugihara--the Japanese Consul that was stamping across the visas...the passport for the Japanese transient visas--it's amazing.
Q: Let's back up so we can get some context. We're in Kobe, and you've been there for a little while now.
A: Yes, uh I just I have to back up a little bit. In 1938, I went back to Shanghai. My son was born at that time; and my wife and myself and my son, we went back to Shanghai because the firm that I was working for transferred me back to Shanghai where I stayed for a year and a half. And in 1930... 1940...1940--yes, beginning of 1940, I received a proposition from another firm which was doing business with uh... with--again...again, curiosity, with Curaçao. Of all the...Curaçao and Panama. The name of the firm was Curaçao-Panama Boeki Kaisya, which means in Japanese "[Curaçao-Panama] Trading Company.” Uh, a man I met in Japan, a Jewish man from Panama--Max Pecker--he met me in Japan, and he needed somebody to run his business over there. So he came to Shanghai and he took me to Japan;
and he told me, "I know you are involved in Jewish social work. I don't want you to be busy with any social work. We have a lot of work to do here, buying all kinds of goods, a lot merchandise.” I said, "Max, I'll be there.” And uh I...and that's what it was. And...and...and if it would be of interest, can I digress a little bit?
Q: Please. As much as you like.
English, I became Secretary of the Jewish community at that time. Not paid, of course; just social, you know. And also my job was Yiddish. Yiddish - use to receive a lot of magazines, Zionist magazines. And the others. And I used to translate and...and speak about the various happenings, and that were happening in the Jewish world, in Poland, at that time. And uh when we were there in Japan in 1941 with Max, in 1940...'40, uh his parents were in uh Bessarabia.3 He left Bessarabia when he was a young man, and went to South America. And he developed a very good, large business in Panama, in Curaçao, in...in...uh in Peru. There was a number of group, Jews from Romania. I don't know if you are aware of it. A group of them went to...and they went to South American countries--Argentina, Venezuela--and they...'til today, they are there. So at that time, the refugees started to come in. This...the whole situation, the whole historical situation...people started to come in. And I started getting more and more active. And uh I said, "Max, where are your parents?" He says, "They are in a small city in Noua Sulita, in...in Bessarabia.” I said, "Max, look what's going on in Europe. Hitler is advancing, and Poland is already destroyed. I mean, occupied halfway.” It was occupied by the Russians, half-way occupied by the Germans. "And Romania could be next. Get them out of there!" He says, "Look, I am writing letters to them.” And...and he used to correspond to them in Yiddish. And...and he show it [to] me; and he says, "Look, I want you to come here, and then we will...” And about three weeks later, he got the reply from them. And...and his old man, his father, writes... He says, "Who's_______________? Where shall I go? My shtube [Yidd: "home" or "house"?] is done, my shul is done, my life is done, my gesheft [Yidd: "essence of being" or "soul"] is...” I don't know what gesheft he was doing in a small place called Noua Sulita. I said, "Max, get them out of there!" He says, "Look, he doesn't want to come.” And then he left. But before he left, he said, "Look, I'm going to write my father a letter. If he ever wants to leave Romania, you bring. Now you are bringing Jews from Poland- Lithuania...” You know, this whole...the Jews started to come in. And he says, "I wrote to my father if he ever thinks there is need for him to leave uh Romania, to let you know and you'll see what you can do.” I said, "Max, we're bringing people from Poland from under Russian occupation. Who knows? Uh, Romania, Bessarabia. It's another border.” He says to me, "I wrote him a letter.” And I said, "Look, do you have photographs of your father, your mother and your two sisters?" He says, "Yes.” I said, "Leave them to me in case the communication, something.” Something told me I must have those photographs. He gave them to me. And uh about uh three or four weeks later, you know, Romania became a uh a uh ally of Germany; but Bessarabia was occupied by the Russians, and it became the Moldavian Republic.4 So they were under the Russians. And I get a telegram one day in Yiddish. I mean, the writing was in English, of Rom: Basarabia. Asserted independence from Russia in 1917 as Moldavian Republic; joined Romania 09 Apr 1918. Recognized as part of Romania by Treaty of Versailles (1919), but still claimed by the USSR. Seized by the USSR 27 Jun 1940 and incorporated with Bukovina in Aug 1940 as Moldavian SSR. Recaptured by Germans and Romanians June 1941; recovered by USSR in 1944.
This would have been about August 1940.