Chapter 8: Life and Work in Harbin

Life and Work in the City of Harbin
The City of Harbin

The city of Harbin, with a population of 760,000, had been founded by the Russian Czar and was largely populated by Russian people. Since then, even more had come there to live. During the Revolution, remnants of the White Russian Army had fled there for safety, where they stayed and raised their families. Other refugees had come over the years. The city had grown into an international center.

While there were many Chinese shops and stores, the larger businesses, department stores, and the city government were all Russian. The exception was the Mayor, who was Chinese. Most of the Russians had become Chinese citizens so they could legally remain there, even though racially they were Caucasian.

The population of the city of Harbin was largely Caucasian, though located right in the heart of Manchuria. There were Americans, English, Germans and many others of European descent. My brother Jake and I liked to go to watch ice-skating and listen to the skaters speaking English. We would stand by the railing and listen to them, then say to each other, "Someday we may be speaking that language."

When we arrived in Harbin, other people we knew were already living there; at least our parents knew them. One such person was Henry Schmidt, who had lived with us for several years in Siberia. I referred to him earlier as one who worked for our family and had lived with us. He was to have been drafted into the Soviet Armed Services, a circumstance he did not relish. Just about the time for him to be inducted, he escaped into China and settled there. I hadn’t known what had happened to him until we came to Harbin, even though most everybody else knew. He had fled first to the Amur region, together with his sister’s family, the Isaac Warkentins, and with some other families. They escaped across the river into China and preceded our group to Harbin.
Old Friends and a Brand New Baby

We arrived in the city at about nine in the morning., and found Henry Schmidt there to meet us. He had already rented a house large enough to accommodate three of our families. We got settled right away in our new "temporary" quarters, but our stay in Harbin was to last eleven months.

Having a house to stay in was a great relief for my sister, Anna, for she was close to delivering her fourth daughter. The baby was born on the very first night we were in Harbin. They named her Mary. (She is now a registered nurse and the wife Dr. Allen Nickel, an ENT specialist in San Jose, California. The Nickels have three adult children, one of them, Bob Nickel, worked with the Josh McDowell Ministry for many years and has now gone to Russia many times to spread the Gospel. He recently became the business manager for "Leadership Ministry World Wide.")

Anna amazed us all by surviving that rigorous journey, and delaying the birth of the baby until then. There were two midwives among our traveling group, and they had stood by her during the rugged bus trip and now assisted with her delivery.

The next day our men hurried out to find jobs. We were surprised at how fast they found employment. Some of our men found jobs on a construction project, and even though I was only fifteen, I was hired along with the rest. It was heavy work, carrying buckets of concrete mix and sometimes pushing wheelbarrows of heavy cement. I worked there for about a week.

Working in China

Meanwhile, Dad had spoken to our landlord about finding suitable jobs for "the boys," meaning my brother Jake and me. He was told there was a confectionery that had advertised for a delivery boy. He gave us the address and directions how to get there.

When we got to the street, it was lined with shop after shop. We thought we had found the right confectionery shop. Dad took me in there and asked if they had advertised for a delivery boy. It turned out they hadn’t advertised, so we must have gone to the wrong address.

However, the manager interviewed us a little and said,"Yes, we can use a delivery boy."

So, after a brief interview, I was hired on the spot. On the same day, Jake was hired as a delivery boy at a restaurant. In the evening of the same day, I stood outside the big gate that was closed for the night. In the big gate was a small walk-through door that we used in the evening; I stood and watched the crowd on the street. To my surprise I saw my brother, Jake, coming toward me. He told me that he was working in a restaurant, but now was going home for the night since he had not prepared to stay there. I, too, would have liked to go home, but I needed to be ready for delivery early in the morning. I just encouraged him to move on before it got too dark. He was twelve years old in a strange city. I had reached the ripe age of fifteen.

I worked at the confectionery for more than nine months (at the lucrative wage of six tayan per month, or $1.50 in American money; I think Jake received four tayan). We got our food at our jobs and lived in a dormitory. I lived with another delivery boy and two men in a small room. We didn’t get paid much, but at least we paid our way and weren’t an expense to our parents.

After some time on this job, one of the boys quit, so I asked the employer whether they might hire my brother, Jake, who was now twelve. He was still working
at the restaurant, delivering meals to people who called in orders. Mr. Azadovsky, the owner of the confectionery, was glad to hear about my brother and hired him. Thus Jake and I got to work at the same place, sleep in the same room, and, for the last three months, we worked together.

Wages were very low, so for a family man it was very difficult to make ends meet. Henry Rogalsky, my brother-in-law, worked in a sausage factory for 15 tayan per month. It was hard for a family with four children. They had to draw on what reserves they had brought along from Russia.

Somewhere along the line I received a raise, from six to nine tayan per month. Our boss and his wife were very well pleased with our work, which wasn’t that easy. We had to rise early, before dawn, package up our merchandise, and get going. We delivered small orders to residences, and larger orders—whole basketsful of things—to stores. In the evenings we delivered "bubliki" (something like bagels). They were strung up, one dozen to a string. We didn’t need a fitness program to keep us in good shape—all of our deliveries were made on foot. It wasn’t easy, but it was interesting. We would walk long distances around the city.

Beside the early morning and evening deliveries to stores, we delivered cakes during the day as orders came in. The Russian people are great at giving gifts on special days. In the Russian Orthodox Church, children are named on the eighth day after birth, at which time they are baptized by immersion. Therefore, they commemorate "name days" instead of birthdays. It is customary to send gifts, often cakes and wines.

Their cakes (torte) were much like our cakes here. They came in a thin cardboard box, under which we placed a plywood board to help us balance the box on our arms, carrying it on one arm and balancing the box with the other hand. Since most of these were gifts, they usually were a surprise. People felt good about the gift, and we felt good about getting a tip for the delivery.

We learned to facilitate the receiving of a tip by asking the receiver for the plywood board. They took the cake at the front door and carried it off to the kitchen or dining room while we waited for the board. When they returned to give the board back to us, they usually brought a tip with them. If we didn’t ask for the board, it would have seemed natural for us to simply hand them the cake and leave without a tip. After all, we had walked a long way to bring them a present. Mr. Azadovsky discouraged us from asking for the little board, because he did not want to appear cheap, but for us it was rewarding. Mrs. Azadovsky was very kind to us. She treated us more like friends instead of mere delivery boys.
Adventures of a Delivery Boy

 One of the senior clerks in the business, Vera, had been a professor of German at the Moscow University before the revolution. She always encouraged us in our work. It was she who usually sent us on our way when we were delivering special orders. She always made sure we knew where to find the address and in many other ways showed her concern for us. In fact, she treated Jake and me like her sons. However, she would not speak German to us. When her husband was killed in the First World War, she took a vow never to speak German again. It would have been much easier for us, because even though we, and our parents, were born in Russia, it was always a second language to us. We had always lived in a German settlement, and most of our schooling was in German. She would have liked to speak German, but was true to her vow. One Sunday afternoon, balancing a large cake on my arm did not work out very well. I held the box on one arm and fumbled for the paper with the address with the other. Suddenly the weight on my arm shifted and the cake landed upside down on a walkway in a park. I scooped up the mess and returned to our store, terrified. I did not know how I would explain this. I thought my boss would charge me for the cake; one whole month’s wages were down the drain. To my good fortune, Vera was at the store and I could report to her. The shop was closed, it was a Sunday afternoon, but a cake had to be delivered. They always had cakes made and on hand so she told me to go find the cake decorator who lived just a few blocks from the shop, and ask him to come and decorate another cake. Mr. Popof was a kind and considerate man. He came, frosted another cake, and I was on my way again. This time I knew where to go before I got out onto the street. My pride was hurt, but there was no other cost to me. Adjoining Harbin is a large Chinese population where foreign languages were not known; thus knowing Chinese was essential. One Sunday afternoon as I was delivering a cake and was trying to find an address close to the all-Chinese city, I had difficulty finding the address and wandered across a small bridge, thinking the address might be there. I suddenly found myself surrounded with people who were curious about what I was carrying in the white box on my arm. To my dismay, I soon found that no one understood what I was saying. In Harbin even most Chinese people understood Russian. I soon concluded the people for whom I was looking did not live there, and I retraced my steps. Back on the other side of the bridge where people understood my questions, I found the right address. It was a different world across that bridge.

During that summer there was a border conflict with Russia and many Chinese troops came through Harbin. They occupied the high school to which I was delivering food. All school personnel moved, except one teacher and his family who stayed living in an upstairs apartment on one end of the two-story building. To get to his apartment, I had to go though the building. At the gate, the guard looked into my basket of fine bakery wares. I was always afraid they would take it away from me, but they just lifted the white linen cover and looked, but did not take anything.

The hallways were usually crowded with military personnel. One morning I had to go through a classroom filled with sleeping soldiers; all had their rifles lying at their feet. I had a few shivers but walked through on the path between them. When I got back to the store and told my boss about my experience, he said it would not be necessary for me to go back there. He picked up the phone to inform the teacher that he would have to come to the store to buy his bakery goods.

Mr. Azadovsky obtained permits for us to walk on the streets in the evening and early morning hours. One evening I had gone to see my parents and stayed a bit too long. It was dark when I returned. I had to cross an open field, perhaps a block wide. All of a sudden I heard someone shout, and next I heard the click of the lock on a rifle. I froze on the spot and lifted my hands in the air, though he could not see me in the darkness. My tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my mouth, but I managed to say the few words of Chinese I knew, "I house go." and hoped he would understand.

He must have, because he said, "Zoo," which I knew meant "go." I went, and soon came to lighted streets and passed other military guards without incidents.
Our Persistent Hope

We had told our boss that we were there only temporarily; we were waiting to go to America. He laughed and said, "You people! You say you are going to America. Let me tell you, I have friends here in the city who have been waiting for five or ten years. They have the money, but they haven’t left yet."

We protested that we were different from the others, to which he replied, "You haven’t got the money, so how will you go? Besides, the American quota is full.
Many people have waited a long time, you’ll never make it."

Our family had enough left to live on, but some of the people, especially the younger families like my sister and brother-in-law, Henry Rogalsky, and the Abraham Klassens, were pretty much dependent on just what they earned. So what he said was true.

But what he did not realize, and could not know was:
First, we had contacts with our church in America. Second, but most important, God was our Source, on Whom we depended. Humanly speaking, not only was the prospect of going to America slim, survival where we were in Harbin was difficult. Yet somehow even the young families got by. During our whole time in China, delegated people like John Friesen, George Klippenstein, John Isaak, and others, were diligently working at finding a way for us to immigrate to America.

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