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Birobidzhan - the worst good idea ever?

“When should the Jews stay put and when should the Jews run?” A new history tells the strange story of a homeland for Soviet Jews.

lead 1971: a view of Sholem Aleichem street, Birobidzhan. (c) V. Voloshenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.In the days after Donald Trump’s election victory, Masha Gessen wrote two urgent articles in the New York Review of Books about the dangers of accommodating and collaborating with demagogues. In the first, Gessen refers to the Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, one of the protagonists in Where the Jews Aren’t, her extraordinary account of Birobidzhan, Stalin’s Siberian “homeland” for the Jews. As lethal forces engulfed Europe, Dubnow sought sanctuary in neutral Latvia, a country sandwiched between two tyrannies. But he was murdered by the Nazis in Riga: “Dubnow was well aware that he was living through a catastrophic period in history—it’s just that he thought he had managed to find a pocket of normality within it”. Gessen’s book, which draws on the personal insights of her own double-exile, is about being attuned to the danger, and the possibility of carving out a place of safety that one can call home.

“Birobidzhan would be, nominally, one of the world’s two Jewish states — the one where the Jews did not live”, she writes. The inside front cover is illustrated with comparative tables showing why, in climate and terrain, Birobidzhan is a less appealing prospect than Israel. A map in the prologue underscores that this settlement, on the border with China, is firmly part of Asia: less than 1,000 miles from Tokyo but 3,750 from Moscow, as far from Tel Aviv as it is from Los Angeles (~5,000 miles). Gessen describes Birobidzhan, later formalised as the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR, a name it retains today), as “perhaps the worst good idea ever” — born of a rational premise, but resembling an exile more than a homecoming.

A very Soviet Zion

During the civil war after the Bolshevik revolution, nearly 200,000 Jews had been killed and half a million displaced, mostly by the anti-communist White Army and by Ukrainian nationalists.

The Bolsheviks tried to harness nationalism to preserve the empire rather than pull it apart, so pursued the policy of autonomism, in which ethnic groups were granted a degree of self-rule. Jews had been banned from working in agriculture during the Tsarist period, and with private enterprise now abolished, the Bolsheviks organised them in new collective farms in Crimea and southern Ukraine. This stoked latent antisemitism among a resentful local peasantry – enough to concern the Society for the Settlement of Jewish Agriculturalists (OZET).

A lottery ticket for OZET 1932 All-Union Lottery. Source: newauction.ru.Another solution was needed. In 1927, agronomists spent the summer in Birobidzhan, researching prospects for a new settlement. They produced an 80-page report warning of the many hardships: valleys of swamps, untraversable mountains, bitter winters, scorching summers, scarce firewood, Siberian tigers and bears, and the lack of running water, electricity, paved roads and schools.

There was a small local population anxious about immigration, among them Cossacks (notorious persecutors of the Jews), Korean-Russians, and “marauding gangs” of ethnic Chinese that took advantage of the porous border. In addition:

“We should especially like to underscore the significance of the bloodsucking insectsthe exceeding quantities of gadflies, mosquitoes, and midges, which, over the course of the two summer months, cause extreme suffering to cattle and man. The bloodsucking insects affect farming by lowering the animals’ productivity over the summer and by creating insurmountable obstacles to conducting work involving horses in the light of day. To fight the bloodsucking insects, the locals use smoke and strong-smelling ointments applied to cattle. People wear netting and headgear but, generally speaking, grow accustomed to the evil that are the insects.”

Characteristically, none of this put off the Soviet authorities, who planned to transfer a million citizens over the next decade. (Even prior to the Great Terror in 1936, Birobidzhan was home to no more than 18,000 Jews). The first settlers arrived in April 1928, along with torrential rains, which washed away the plants, and an anthrax epidemic, which killed all the cows.

Accounts of the first winter, largely spent in isolation, are harrowing. The Jews were now to be an agrarian people, but few had farming experience, and none had worked on such barren land. And yet, for a small group of influential intellectuals, this infertile territory was described with the same romance as the kibbutz – agrarian and egalitarian. 

A toilers’ tongue 

The pioneers of Birobidzhan envisioned turning Yiddish, the “jargon” of their households, into the universal language of a post-oppression Jewish culture. “What had been the language of Jewish poverty was to become the language of their poetry, and half a dozen young poets toiled to make it so”, writes Gessen. In the 1930s, Yiddish was, briefly, the unofficial state language of Birobidzhan.

Simon Dubnow, 1936. Wikipedia. Public Domain. The Yiddish revival reached its height during the interwar years: in Kyiv, Dubnow led the Kultur Lige, which proclaimed Yiddish as “forward-looking”, of the masses and secular. (The study of Hebrew was illegal in the Soviet Union. Gessen’s parents forbade her from attending private lessons, for fear that her teacher was an agent provocateur).

Dubnow’s autonomist theory focused on “cultural-historical” identity, free of the trappings of a nation – he argued that all states have a monopoly on and tendency towards violence.

Consequently, Birobidzhan enticed him less than it did the most significant figure in Gessen’s book: the brilliant Yiddish writer David Bergelson, known as “the Jewish Maxim Gorky”.

At times, Where the Jews Aren’t reads more like a biography of Bergelson than a history of Birobidzhan, but the approach is illuminating, as their fates were inextricably bound together.

State theatre in Birobidzhan. Date unknown. From JAO regional museum archive, courtesy of Efim Veprinsky. Like Dubnow, Bergelson sought not only autonomy but an audience, as they had in Odessa and in Weimar Berlin, where Bergelson was fêted, and held court with Einstein. Unlike Dubnow, Bergelson had honed his “instinct for knowing when it’s time to run”, and for a combination of intellectual and pragmatic reasons, he gravitated back to the Soviet Union.

David Bergelson with his son Lev. CC 3.0 Elisheva Kitrossky / Wikipedia. In 1932, wretched conditions led almost half the population to abandon the largest collective farm in Birobidzhan, but when Bergelson visited months later, he wrote a paean to its beauty – proving himself adept at adapting to the ideological reality. Birobidzhan had six Yiddish-language schools, a newspaper, a small printing press, and in 1934, it was renamed the Jewish Autonomous Region, nearing the status of national republic.

The following year, the population doubled, and Bergelson wrote a manifesto in praise of “those fascinating, delectable juices of life that our Soviet regime bestows upon us”.

Like his characters, Bergelson had inhabited a world of desolation, displacement and silence, but now he committed himself to promoting the JAR: “In Birobidzhan I will help build a glorious Jewish culture, socialist in form and national in content.”

The commissar vanishes

In February 1936, one of Stalin’s closest allies, Lazar Kaganovich, secretary of the central committee and the most powerful Jew in the USSR, attended a gala production of a Sholem Aleichem comedy at the theatre in Birobidzhan, with a troupe trained by the famous actor Solomon Mikhoels.

Kaganovich declared that “the time has come to bring to the stage the heroic moments in the history of the Jewish people”. He proposed a large scholarly conference on Yiddish, and in August, the central committee stated: “For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, its burning desire for a homeland, for the achievement of its own national statehood, has been fulfilled”. Then came the Great Terror.

1954: a Gulag camp in Birobidzhan. (c) AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Stemming from Stalin’s paranoia and driven in no small part by Kaganovich himself, the Terror brought an end to the autonomist project. OZET was shut down, and the entire resettlement programme was terminated. Many Yiddish-language schools were closed, and the police, courts and civic administration reverted to Russian.

In Birobidzhan, Kaganovich had publicly praised the hospitality of party secretary Matvei Khavkin and the home cooking of his wife, Sofia; now he accused them of trying to poison him with gefilte fish – both were sent to labour camps. One of Bergelson’s colleagues and rivals, Joseph Liberberg, was executed after being “unmasked as untrustworthy, counterrevolutionary, and a bourgeois-nationalist” – the accusation of any who propagated ‘separatist’ Yiddish culture. So 1937 was a strange time to release the propaganda film In Search of Happiness, exhorting Jews to settle in the JAR.

Only the crisis of war softened Stalin’s stance, as the Nazis closed in on Moscow. Attempting to raise funds and awareness from overseas, in August 1941 Bergelson and Mikhoels were permitted to organise a mass rally at Gorky Park, broadcast by Sovinformburo, which also disseminated a document titled “An Appeal to World Jewry” (“The spilled blood demands not fasting and prayers, but revenge! It is not by memorial candles but by fire that the murderers of humanity must be destroyed!”).

The ban on religious speech was relaxed, and Bergelson addressed the crowd in Yiddish; then – daringly – in Hebrew, to quote Psalm 118: “I shall not die, but live”. In the spring of 1942, the Communist Party gave permission for the creation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), with Mikhoels as chair. 

After the war, Birobidzhan experienced a small renaissance, with an influx of refugees from the former Pale of Settlement. Most of the new arrivals had lost family during the Holocaust, and some returned to find their houses occupied by former neighbours. Conditions in the JAR remained dire: there was little grain and no mill for making bread (half the loaf would contain sand), while a shortage of livestock resulted in the issuing of “certificates of cowlessness”, which in theory entitled the owner to recompense. Incredibly, these refugees were joined by Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, who were sent into exile in – of all places – the Jewish Autonomous Region.

The 1952 Doctors’ Plot unleashed a wave of antisemitism so severe that all Soviet Jews were scheduled for deportation to Birobidzhan for their own protection – they were spared only when Stalin died

In January 1948, months before the creation of the state of Israel, Mikhoels was murdered in Minsk, marking the beginning of Stalin’s “anti-cosmopolitan campaign”. On the first anniversary of the murder, the JAC was disbanded and the leadership arrested; Yiddish journals were shut down, along with writers’ associations in Moscow, Minsk and Kyiv. Bergelson was tortured and interrogated nightly – he described the charges as “more insidious than pure fiction” – and was placed in frozen solitary confinement.

At the trial, he attempted to negotiate with his pre-ordained fate and reason with its irrationality, as if it were a Talmudic conundrum. The judge claimed that the Soviet system was “the salvation of the Jews”, before sentencing thirteen of them to death, on what became known as ‘The Night of the Murdered Poets’ – 12th August 1952, Bergelson’s 68th birthday. Gessen writes that he “had gone to his death doing what he had always done: trying to square the circle of Jewishness in a world that does not want Jews, protecting the seeds of a religion he did not practice, and insisting on his right to try to keep alive a dying language”.

Few now dared to speak Yiddish in Birobidzhan, where fear and silence prevailed. In July 1949, Stalin pledged to “cleanse thoroughly” the JAR, after a two-day conference to discuss the Yiddish nationalist “conspiracy”. At the Sholom Aleichem Library in Birobidzhan, Jews were forced to burn thousands of Yiddish books, while attendees of the synagogue’s new year services were arrested; the rabbi was sentenced to death. At the orphanage, children were separated from their siblings and sent off to other parts of Siberia with new, non-Jewish identities.

The 1952 Doctors’ Plot unleashed a wave of antisemitism so severe that all Soviet Jews were scheduled for deportation to Birobidzhan for their own protection – they were spared only when Stalin died, and charges against the doctors were dropped. In 1956, the Israeli ambassador and his wife made an unofficial visit, but were so distressed by the state of the region that they returned home early.

1978: a middle-school pupil takes Yiddish lessons in Birobidzhan. (c) Eshtokin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.In response to Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay propaganda legislation in 2013, the JAR came under investigation for its Soviet-era seven-striped rainbow flag – the same design as the gay flag. (A report cleared it of the charge of promoting homosexuality). Over the past 25 years, emigrating Jews have been replaced by a kitsch spectacle of Jewish cultural life: a golden menorah in the central square, a statue of Fiddler on the Roof outside the restored theatre.

Gessen has a wry eye about the current state of the JAR: the schnitzel a la Birobidzhan is made out of pork, and the museum is an exercise in erasure (“All local Russian museums begin with rocks. They are the ideal museum exhibit: rocks do not need to be rearranged in case of a regime shift”). A little over a thousand Jews remain, and the deputy governor is only one of a handful (less than a minyan of ten) to be engaged in the community on a regular basis. Yiddish books, once the lifeblood of the region, now lie encased in glass.

One of the last Yiddish-speaking Jews, Iosif Bekerman, bemoans the religious focus of the young Lubavitcher rabbi: “He wanted us to cover our heads. What does he think? He thinks I believe in God?”. Dubnow had argued for secular Judaism as basis of national identity: “We aim only to negate the supremacy of religion, but not to eliminate it from the storehouse of national cultural treasures”.

In an era acutely aware of the shortcomings of the Soviet project, it is important to remember that for generations of Jews, communism offered a vision of emancipation

Gessen writes that “Birobidzhan would hold a cracked and crooked mirror up to the story of the Jews in Russia”, and it is difficult not to read her history of the JAR in light of her own traumatic experiences: she was beaten almost daily in primary school for being Jewish, and her parents faced significant discrimination. Perhaps this is why there is a tendency to downplay the early ideological appeal of the JAR, heralded as the Soviet Zion (“Next Year in Birobidzhan!”, they toasted).

In an era acutely aware of the shortcomings of the Soviet project, it is important to remember that for generations of Jews, communism offered a vision of emancipation, both from poverty and from the antisemitic populism of fledgling democracies — the reason why, at one point, Jews made up half of the central committee of the Communist Party. This does not negate what Gessen calls the “concentrated tragic absurdity” of Birobidzhan. If anything, it magnifies it, because we understand the story not merely as one of survival but of ideological betrayal.

Beyond Birobidzhan, this book is about losing one’s voice and getting it back, and the price that is paid in both cases. As an elected representative of the JAR, Leonid Shkolnik became the “face of Birobidzhan” in the late 1980s, but he was also the last Yiddish-speaking poet in the region:

I have betrayed my era
because I lived, like a mouse, in the cellar of silence…
I’ve betrayed everyone who did not come home in the 1930s,
everyone who turned to dust, to grass, to trees.
I would have liked to pass the baton to my sons,
but I have nothing to pass on,
save for the grief, the pain, and the happiness I lack,
and the belief that I can still find it.

Shkolnik did find it — he smuggled himself into Israel just before the fall of the Soviet Union. Even the man who took up the mantle of Birobidzhan, the final keeper of the flame, was desperate to leave.

Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region is published by Schocken.

 

About the author

Benjamin Ramm is editor-at-large of openDemocracy. He writes features for BBC Culture and presents documentaries on BBC Radio 4. He tweets at @BenjaminRamm


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