Birobidjan - (or Birobizhan, Birobidzhan) is the colloquial name of the district or region (oblast) in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, for which the official designation was the "Jewish Autonomous Region" (JAO) (Avtonomnaya Oblast). Birobidjan was the capital major city in the autonomous region. It is named for the Bira river that flows through the city, and the Bidjan river.
Birobidjan Oblast was part of the Khabarovsk territory (kray) in the former Soviet Far East, the region is located between 47° 40ʹ–49° 20ʹ N. and 130° 30ʹ–135° E. To the west, south, and southeast, it is bordered by the Amur River, the border between the former U.S.S.R. and Manchuria (China). It has an area of 13,900 sq. mi. (36,000 sq. km.)
The "Autonomous Oblast" was created to provide a channel for nationalist tendencies that persisted among Jews in the western Soviet Union. While some Jews dreamed of an autonomous territory in the hospitable Crimea, that was not to be. Any delusions that the Soviet government had benign intentions in setting up this region should be dispelled by a glance at a map of Russia.
Birobidjan was evidently deliberately located at the nether end of Russia, far from the traditional regions of Jewish settlement in the West, which centered on the Ukraine and Belorussia, and about 5000 miles from Moscow, in an inhospitable and undeveloped frontier area, on a forlorn stop in the Trans-Siberian railroad. The area became particularly inhospitable, though of greater strategic importance, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in the 1930s.
Birobidjan was part of a Soviet project to agriculturalize and secularize the Jewish population and wean them away from Zionism and religion. Soviet policies had impoverished Jews who had formerly worked as artisans and tradesmen, and this, it was thought, would be a way to "productivize" the Jews and better their economic condition.
In 1919 the Yevsektsia had advanced proposals to direct Jews to farm work. By 1923, Abraham Bragin, a former Zionist, was advocating for a Jewish autonomous region, which he hoped would be in the Ukraine, specifically, in the Crimea. Yuri Larin likewise advocated Jewish autonomy in the Crimea. He hoped to settle 400,000 Jews there in agriculture.
In 1924, the Soviet government established Komzet - the Committee for settling toiling Jews on the soil. In 1925, Ozet, an allied body was established, with the hope of garnering support from Jewish charities abroad for this project, bringing precious foreign currency to the USSR. Larin was made head of the Ozet, and it looked as though the project of a Jewish autonomous area or state in the Crimea could become a reality. The Communist [yid and] literary critic Moishe Litvanov enthusiastically referred to the Crimea as "our Palestine."
In a speech delivered at a congress of the society for Jewish agricultural settlement, Ozet, in November of 1926, Soviet President Kalinin had declared: "The Jewish people now faces the great task of preserving its nationality. For this purpose a large segment of the Jewish population must transform itself into a compact farming population, numbering at least several hundred thousand souls." Kalinin noted that Soviet economic policy had impoverished the Jews, but now would give them the chance for economic and social rehabilitation. This speech was greeted with enthusiasm by advocates of the Crimea project and by the rank and file of the Yevsektsia, However, the leaders of the Yevsektsia were cool to the idea, as they were opposed to hints of nationalism. Alexander Chemerisky, First Secretary of the Central Bureau of the Yevsektsia was equivocal. At first he stated:
"The way Comrade Kalinin may talk and needs to talk as the representative of the government...is one thing, and the way we must talk is another...Why do we have to agree with his view about the preservation of the nation? The party has issued no such directive."
It soon became clear that there would be a Jewish "autonomous region" - but not Crimea. Chemerisky, according to his secretary Yasha Rives, told a meeting of the Yevsektzia and the Komsomol that the Central Bureau of the Yevsektiya saw no future in the Crimea and that "other areas must be found." Chemerisky had been secretly called in by Stalin, who told him that he rejected Crimea. "The Jews would have land," but not the Crimea, Stalin decreed. (Levin, Nora, The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917: The Paradox of Survival, part I, NYU press, 1988, p 149).
Ukrainian and Belorussian nationalists and anti-Semites wanted no part of Jewish autonomy within their territories, and perhaps Stalin was not interested in a real Jewish autonomy, especially one so close to Moscow. A "scientific" expedition to Birobidjan in 1927 found it suitable for Jewish settlement, either despite or because of its desolate character, swampiness and lack of roads.
The presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR declared the region a "Jewish National District" open for Jewish settlement on March 28, 1928, and in April of that year, the first settlers arrived. Jewish collective farms were established and Yiddish was recognized as an official language. Theaters, newspapers and libraries were established. Birobidjan Yiddish was totally Russified to eliminate all traces of Hebrew. On March (or May) 7, 1934, the Birobidjan Jewish Autonomous Region was created by the Soviet Presidium. Immigration continued in the 1930s, suffered setbacks due to purges and the war, and was revived briefly between 1946 and 1948, just before Stalin "liquidated" the remains of the Yevsektsia, torturing and murdering the last batches of Birobidjan enthusiasts. At the height of Jewish settlement, there were about 40,000 Jews in Birobidjan. In 1959, there were about 14,000 Jews in the Birobidjan area, while today there are perhaps 4,000.
The area is rich in natural resources and does not have a totally inhospitable climate. However, at the time when Jewish settlement began there, there were almost no roads and land suitable for agriculture, insufficient or poor living accommodations, and unsanitary conditions. It was totally isolated from Russian or Jewish culture and the civilized life that its intellectual Jewish settlers, mostly Communists, had been accustomed to. Not surprisingly, over half the 20,000 settlers who arrived shortly after 1928 had left by 1932, with only 7,000 remaining.
Soviet propaganda tried, with some success, to exploit the Birobidjan project to obtain investments from Jews abroad and influence Western public opinion. Jewish organizations outside the U.S.S.R. that participated in Jewish colonization projects in the Soviet Union, such as Agro-Joint (American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation) and the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA), generally took a neutral stand. Agro-Joint had contributed $25 Million to Jewish agricultural projects, including those in the pale of settlement area, but it is not clear if any of this money ever reached the intended recipients.
The Ort -Farband gave limited assistance to the development of industry and workshops. Those Jewish organizations abroad whose membership consisted mostly of Communists and their sympathizers supported the plan without reservation. Among the most active organizations was Icor (the American Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union), which cooperated closely with Ozet. In 1929 Icor organized a scientific delegation consisting of American specialists in agriculture and settlement to investigate the possibilities for further colonization of Birobidjan. Ambidjan (American Committee for the Settlement of Foreign Jews in Birobidjan) supported Jewish settlement in Birobidjan for a short period in the mid-1930s and after World War II. Jewish organizations supporting Birobidjan existed in Canada, Western Europe, and South America. Representatives of the Argentinian Jewish organization Procor (Society to Assist the Productivization of the Economically Ruined Jewish Masses in the Soviet Union) visited Birobidjan in 1929. These organizations, besides holding meetings, issuing publications, and collecting money, also propagandized the colonization of Birobidjan by Jews from abroad. Thus, about 1,400 Jewish immigrants from countries outside the Soviet Union arrived in Birobidjan in the early 1930s, emigrating from the United States, South America, Europe, Palestine, and other places.
The Birobidjan project aroused some opposiition among those active in Jewish settlement in the U.S.S.R. and among Yevsektsiya leaders. Among its critics were Mikhail (Yuri) Larin and Abraham Bragin, both active in the Jewish settlement movement. Larin argued that other areas of the Soviet Union, especially the Crimea, were far more suitable for Jewish colonization.
In a reception given to representatives of Moscow workers and the Yiddish press in May 1934, President Kalinin suggested that the creation of a Jewish territorial center in Birobidjan would be the only way to normalize the national status of Soviet Jews. He also expressed his hope that "within a decade Birobidjan will be the most important and probably the only bulwark of national Jewish socialist culture." and that "the transformation of the region into a republic is only a question of time." The visit of Lazar Kaganovich , a Jew and member of the Politburo, to Birobidjan in February 1936 greatly encouraged the Jewish leadership of the region. Birobidjan aroused wide interest in world Jewry, especially among those who believed in Jewish territorialism . The fact that Jewish settlement in Birobidjan coincided with the intensification of anti-Jewish repressions in Nazi Germany also contributed to support of the idea by Jews outside the Soviet Union. Almost all sectors of the Zionist movement opposed it.
For a time in the 1930s and to a limited extent in the 60s, the Soviets promoted the Jewish character of Birobidjan according to an artificial formula that included only Yiddish culture with no Hebrew and no religious aspects.
Jews served in key positions of the region. Y. Levin, formerly active in the party apparatus in Belorussia and in the secretariat of Ozet, was appointed as first party secretary of the Birobidjan district in 1930. After the establishment of the J.A.O. in 1934, another Jew, M. Khavkin, was appointed first secretary of the regional party committee. Joseph Liberberg, head of the Jewish section of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, was appointed at the same time chairman of the regional executive committee. He was one of those intellectuals, who, by settling in Birobidjan, inspired others in their pioneering efforts. A number of resolutions were passed regarding the use of Yiddish as the official language of the region, along with Russian. Schools were established with Yiddish as the language of instruction, and experiments were made to teach Yiddish even in non-Jewish schools. Street signs, rail station signs, and postmarks appeared in both Russian and Yiddish. A Yiddish newspaper and periodicals were published. In 1934 a Jewish state theater was established. A regional library, named after Shalom Aleichem, containing a sizable collection of Judaica and Yiddish works, was founded in the city of Birobidjan. The mid-1930s was a period of great expectations for Birobidjan's development as a center of Jewish settlement and culture in the Soviet Union.
However, the purges of 1936–38 delivered a severe blow to the developing and rather weak framework of the nascent Jewish statehood in the JAO.
Leading Jewish personalities of the district, such as Liberberg, were denounced as nationalists and Trotskyites, demoted from their posts, and liquidated. The purges particularly affected the immigrants from abroad. As a result, the late 1930s witnessed a shattering setback in the development of the region. Despite the optimistic plans for continuous settlement of Jews in Birobidjan, their number was only 13,291 in 1939 (18.57% of the total population), with 10,415 (35.13% of the total) in the capital city. The Soviet annexation of the Baltic states and parts of eastern Poland and Bukovina in 1939–40 resulted in a sudden increase in the Jewish population of the U.S.S.R. During that period plans were initiated to transfer Jewish settlers from the annexed territories to Birobidjan. However, the outbreak of the Soviet-German war in 1941 put a fast end to these plans. Although the war years did not witness any sizable increase in the Jewish population of the region, the very idea of Birobidjan as a center for Jewish statehood in the Soviet Union received new meaning.
The Holocaust and growth of antisemitism in the U.S.S.R. during the war resulted in revived interest in the JAO among Soviet Jews. The growth of national feelings and the difficulties faced by Soviet Jews who had fled to the East, upon their return to their prewar homes in the western parts of the U.S.S.R., caused some to turn to Birobidjan. Moreover, since the hopes for a planned settlement of Jews in the Crimea did not materialize, Birobidjan remained the only alternative for a compact Jewish settlement. Numerous requests for immigration to Birobidjan were received by the JAO authorities in the postwar years, and a flow of new Jewish settlers reached the region between 1946 and 1948. Articles in the Eynikayt, organ of the Jewish anti-Fascist Committee, emphasized the idea of Jewish statehood in Birobidjan. The Soviet Jewish writer Der Nister, who accompanied a trainload of new settlers, wrote:
"There are some travelers whose intentions are only materialistic, and there are others whose intentions are different, of a national character … and there are also burning enthusiasts, ready to give up everything in order to live there … and among them a former Palestinian patriot…. Although in his fifties, he hustles about during the day and is sleepless at night, hoping to see his new enterprise come true…."
The brief postwar migration to Birobidjan increased the local Jewish population by one-third, and by the end of 1948 it was estimated at about 30,000, the largest ever in the district.
During this period there was an increase in the number of Jews in the local administration and an intensification of Jewish cultural activities. Among local Jewish writers active in the Soviet Writers' Association of the JAO were Buzi Miler,Israel Emiot, Hayyim Maltinski, Aaron Vergelis , and others. Assistance from Jews abroad was permitted once again.
The revival of Birobidjan was ended toward the end of 1948, as a result of Soviet policy to suppress Jewish activities throughout the U.S.S.R., and purge those involved. Der Nister and his friends were soon disillusioned. He left Birobidjan after a short stay and died in a prison camp in 1950. (Levin, Nora, The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917: The Paradox of Survival, part I, NYU press, 1988, p 213).
Most of the local Jewish writers were imprisoned, the Birobidjan Jewish theater was closed, teaching of Yiddish in local schools was discontinued, and a great number of Yiddish books were removed from the Shalom Aleichem Library. Jewish immigration to Birobidjan ceased, and its Jewish population shrank considerably.
The post-Stalin period did not bring any substantial improvements in Jewish life in Birobidjan. Jewish inhabitants comprised less than one-tenth of the general population of the region in 1959, party and administrative positions were not held by Jews, and Jewish agriculture was almost nonexistent. In 1970 there were about 11,450 Jews.
Birobidjan Postmarks - 1935, 1947 and 1955. Note that by 1955 there is no yiddish in the postmark and the initials E.A.O. - Jewish Autonomous Region - are absent.
The sole expression of Jewish cultural activity in 1970 was a two-page Yiddish newspaper, Der Birobidjaner Shtern, nearly devoid of all Jewish content, which appeared three times a week and had a circulation of 1,000. There were also a few street signs in Yiddish, and Shalom Aleichem Street remained one of the thoroughfares of the capital. There was one synagogue. All official and public business was conducted exclusively in Russian. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, Soviet Prime Minister and First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, stated in an interview for the French newspaper, Le Figaro, on April 9, 1958, that "it must be admitted that if we strike a balance we would have to state that the Jewish settlement in Birobidjan was a failure." He blamed this on the Soviet Jews, who, according to Khrushchev, never liked collective work and group discipline. Some attempts at reviving Birobidjan, at least for international propaganda purposes, were made in the 60s.
There was no reason for Birobidjan to succeed. It was far from centers of Jewish settlement. It was undeveloped, and no funds were forthcoming for development. The difficult physical conditions are attested to by the fact that many settlers, though initially enthusiastic, soon left.
The idea of a Jewish autonomous region made sense as long as it seemed that the regime would be friendly to Jews and the revolution was in part run by Jews. By the end of the 1930s, and if not then, then by 1950, it must've been apparent even to the most enthusiastic Jewish communists, that having a Jewish identity was a liability. Those wishing to be communists and assimilate had no need to single themselves out as Jews and no desire to do so. The examples of Itzik Pfeffer and other unfortunates murdered by Stalin demonstrated that this identity was a distinct liability. Those interested in maintaining a real Jewish identity could not find any satisfaction in the artificial Yiddish culture that had been sanitized of Hebrew and of historic references to Judaism and Jewish content. Yiddish culture, born in the ghettos and urbanized areas of Central and Eastern Europe, was out of place on the Amur river.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian government pursued a generally benign policy toward the Jewish inhabitants of Birobidjan, and attempts were made to promote the Jewish identity of the area.
In the 1990s most remaining Jews immigrated to Israel and the West, leaving a population of about 4,000 in Birobidjan. While the Russian government is supportive of Jewish cultural development, the revival seems to be confined to Yiddish culture and religious observances. A Chabad rabbi imported from Israel ministers to religious needs.
"Birobidjan," Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 4. Keter Publishing, 1973.
Levin, Nora, The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917: The Paradox of Survival, part I, NYU press, 1988.
Mendes-Flohr Paul R. and Jehuda Reinharz, The Jew in the modern world: a documentary history, Oxford Univ Press 1995,
Olidort, S, Jewish Revival in Birobidjan Chabad Newsletter, December 6, 2002.
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