Mur­der in Manchuria: The True Sto­ry of a Jew­ish Vir­tu­oso, Russ­ian Fas­cists, a French Diplo­mat, and a Japan­ese Spy in Occu­pied China

  • Review
By – December 25, 2023

This book has all the mak­ings of a superb mys­tery. Scott Selig­man has writ­ten a well-researched account of a kid­nap­ping and mur­der that engrossed the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Harbin, Manchuria in the 1930s.

The author begins by describ­ing the his­to­ry of Harbin and its Jew­ish res­i­dents, most of whom came to the town by way of the rail­road that the Rus­sians and Chi­nese had con­tract­ed to build. At its height, the com­mu­ni­ty num­bered twen­ty thou­sand. At first the Jews had a good life, free from Russ­ian pogroms and restric­tions. But all of that changed in 1931, when the Japan­ese arrived and made an alliance with the White Russ­ian com­mu­ni­ty in Harbin, many mem­bers of which were fas­cist and anti­se­mit­ic. The result was years of ter­ror, as Russ­ian gangs — fueled by the pro­pa­gan­dist text The Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion—kid­napped wealthy Jews for ran­som and some­times mur­dered them, often with the involve­ment of the Japan­ese police.

Selig­man focus­es on the case of Semy­on Kaspé, a young Jew­ish vio­lin­ist who was well known on the con­cert cir­cuit. When his father couldn’t pay the ran­som, the kid­nap­pers mur­dered Sey­mon. Most of the book cov­ers his kid­nap­ping, and includes pages of let­ters between him and his father. Seligman’s descrip­tions in this sec­tion are so detailed as to some­times be repet­i­tive. The next third of the book homes in on the tri­al of the kid­nap­pers. Here, Selig­man exam­ines the col­lu­sion of the Japan­ese. Although the kid­nap­pers received severe sen­tences, all were par­doned by the Japan­ese pup­pet emper­or, Puyi, because the Japan­ese were afraid of anger­ing the White Russ­ian community.

The last part of the book explores the decline of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Harbin. Selig­man tells of the Fugu Plan, an attempt by the Japan­ese to lure Euro­pean Jews, who were strug­gling to flee the Nazis, into the cities they con­trolled in Chi­na. The Japan­ese want­ed to use them to build up their cities’ economies and gain polit­i­cal good­will in the Unit­ed States. While the plan was a fail­ure, it did allow thou­sands of Jews to sur­vive the war.

This sto­ry will appeal most to those inter­est­ed in Asian and/​or Jew­ish his­to­ry dur­ing the World War II era.

Jill S. Beer­man grew up in New Jer­sey and attend­ed Mont­clair State Uni­ver­si­ty. She has a doc­tor­ate in Amer­i­can Stud­ies from New York Uni­ver­si­ty. She taught high school and col­lege for twen­ty-five years. 

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