Once upon a time, Birobidzhan was a name to conjure with. Today, few know what the word stands for.
In brief summary: a 1928 decision taken by the Communist-party leadership of the Soviet Union provided for the establishment of a “Jewish autonomous region” along the banks of the Amur River in the far east, close to the Chinese border. The underlying purpose was to solve the Soviet version of the “Jewish question,” or at least to contribute toward such a solution, by treating Jews like other ethnic or national minorities in Russia that had been similarly assigned their own autonomous regions in the patchwork of Soviet “republics.”
Following the government decision, several thousand settlers arrived from the poorer provinces of the USSR, supplemented by a few hundred idealists from abroad, including the U.S. They were mainly Yiddish speakers, and indeed Yiddish (along with Russian) was the language in which all of the local affairs were to be conducted. As for the envisioned economic base, it was partly industrial, especially the manufacture of farming equipment, but mainly agricultural.
Already by the mid-1930s, however, Birobidzhan’s prospects were faltering, and a great silence descended on this brave Bolshevik experiment in wholesale relocation. The silence was lifted temporarily after World War II with an influx of new settlers, only to descend again by the early 1950s. At present, only between 3,000 and 5,000 Jewish residents are estimated to remain in the region, out of a total population of perhaps 100,000. As for the capital city, also known as Birobidzhan, it is a sleepy, medium-sized town surrounded by Chinese-owned land. The lone synagogue, maintained by Chabad, is headed by a young rabbi who speaks Hebrew but not Yiddish.
In recent years, several journalists from abroad have visited the region. To a reporter in the New York Times, Birobidzhan, despite its current bedraggled state, still retains a certain appeal, though the source of that appeal is unclear. The region also crops up from time to time as the locale where most drug-related crimes in Russia occur—hardly surprising in view of the fact that it sits on the main route by which drugs are smuggled from the far east to Europe; fortunately, Jews do not appear to be prominently involved in the enterprise. At a recent international business conference in St. Petersburg, Alexander Livental, who serves as Birobidzhan’s governor, made it known that a number of entrepreneurs had expressed interest in investing in the region, but 80 percent of the arable land had already been bought by the Chinese and the rest had been rendered useless from over-cultivation and -harvesting.
Many of these facts and others are ably rehearsed in a just-published book, Where the Jews Aren’t, by the gifted writer Masha Gessen, who, born in Moscow, arrived in the United States as a teenager with her family in 1981. The book’s jacket promises nothing less than “the first complete account of the rise and fall of Birobidzhan.” In fact, it is nothing of the sort. Gessen deals with Birobidzhan only in passing, being much more preoccupied—and profitably so—with recounting the salient facts of Stalin’s murderous anti-Jewish campaign in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In doing so, she focuses mainly on the life and fate of the prominent Soviet-Yiddish novelist David Bergelson, who in the 1930s had visited and written about Birobidzhan—and who, along with a group of other well-known Soviet Jewish writers including the poets Peretz Markish and Itzik Feffer, was murdered on Stalin’s orders in August 1952.
More on this later, but now a personal and historical digression.
My own first encounter with Birobidzhan goes back a very long time, almost to boyhood. The year was 1937, the place my hometown of Breslau in what was then Nazi Germany. We in the younger Jewish generation, without belonging to any specific party, had been politicized early on, if only because it was clear to us that our future was not to be in the country of our birth. But where were to turn?
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As it happens, one of our local gurus mentioned Stalin’s plan to solve the “Jewish question” by resettling Soviet Jews in Birobidzhan. For further information, he referred us to a book by one Otto Heller, an Austrian Communist, that had been published just before the Nazi takeover. But to obtain a copy of this work, even through underground channels, was impossible. Nazi censorship had been at work in a sweeping way, eliminating from circulation all works by Jewish authors or suspicious on other grounds.
I had an idea, however. Heller’s book was titled Der Untergang des Judentums. The German word Untergang connotes much more than decline; it is a synonym for downfall or collapse. It occurred to me that a book with such an attractive title, “The Downfall of Judaism,” might possibly have escaped Nazi censorship. My friends were skeptical, and so was the guru, but I resolved to try my luck at the nearby municipal library where I had received much of my early political education.
My intuition proved correct; the book was handed to me, and I began to read it the very same day. In his potted survey of Jewish history, Heller argued that the Jews had always been traders, even when they were nomads. But now in the USSR, thanks to the blessings of socialism, trade had been rendered redundant—and with it, Judaism itself. Released from the shackles of their odious religion, the Jews as a people would realize their true calling in the Jewish autonomous region that had been established for them in Birobidzhan. The very last sentence of the book quoted the final line of the Passover seder: l’shanah haba’ah biyrushalayim, “next year in Jerusalem.” Heller corrected it: “Next year in Birobidzhan.”
It was a terrific slogan—and indeed Heller’s book, more than any other, had served to make Birobidzhan popular outside Russia. But by the time I read it in the late 1930s, reality, as I noted earlier, had already intervened and Heller’s dream had flopped.
One reason may have had to do with language, at least indirectly. Although Heller didn’t say so, the emphasis on the Jews as a people or ethnicity had obviously informed the choice of Yiddish as the unifying language of Birobidzhan Jews—a tongue ostensibly divorced both from Jewish religion on the one hand and from political Zionism on the other, for both of which the linguistic key to Jewish identity was Hebrew.
The choice of Yiddish—or really the substitute ideology of “Yiddishism”—as the glue, the hoped-for common denominator, that would rationalize and justify Birobidzhan’s experiment in social engineering was encapsulated in the image of the venerated author whose name graced everything from the capital’s main street, Sholem Aleichem Gass, to the local branch of Amur University, to countless other institutions, organizations, and other localities in the region. But Yiddishism was much too vague a concept to serve its assigned purpose and, besides, almost laughably false to the man, since the real Sholem Aleichem was emotionally not only deeply bound to the Jewish religious tradition but, no less problematically, a Zionist.
As for non-Soviet Jews who might be drawn to the new promised land, in addition to the handful of volunteers from the U.S. and elsewhere, a hundred or so German Jewish physicians whose services were needed had been given entry visas to the otherwise closed Soviet Union, and some German Communists had found shelter in Moscow. But for us? At a time when leaving Germany was becoming a matter of life and death, Birobidzhan offered no solution to our dilemma.
Later on—just to complete my digression—I became interested in learning more about Heller. He had written for the same Berlin newspapers as did Arthur Koestler, a fellow Jewish Communist whose talents Heller conspicuously lacked (and who would soon become a disabused and fierce opponent of Communism). A long visit to the Soviet far east in the mid-1930s had made Heller something of an expert on the region, about which he wrote several books, including Untergang des Judentums and another risibly titled Siberia: A New America. In 1936, he had the good fortune to be sent from Moscow to Western Europe to work for publications of the Communist International, thus escaping the Stalinist purges of the time.
In World War II, the party entrusted Heller with a dangerous undercover mission posing as an interpreter for the German occupation army in France, but he was exposed and arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz. There his luck held again—or so we are informed by a fabricated postwar Communist history. According to that work, the “head man” (Ältester), a prisoner appointed by the SS to manage the camp’s organization, happened to be a (non-Jewish) Communist who could be counted on to help protect other party members. Thus shielded, Heller not only survived but joined a group of inmates who through the use of a clandestine shortwave transmitter succeeded in passing information to the outside world about the mass murder taking place in the camp—as a result of which, we read, Heinrich Himmler ordered the gassing discontinued.
Of course, nothing of the sort ever happened. With the advance of the Red Army, Auschwitz was evacuated and Heller and some other surviving inmates were transferred to Mauthausen in Austria. There, having found no Communist headman to protect the comrades, he died, presumably of starvation, less than two months before the war ended.
Masha Gessen visited Birobidzhan in 2009, at which time she also delved into the region’s state archives in search of original material about her real passion: the anti-Jewish campaign in Russia toward the end of Stalin’s life in which David Bergelson figured as one of the main defendants and victims. The campaign has been well-described and analyzed before, including by Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov in Stalin’s Secret Pogrom (2001), but Gessen adduces some new or in any case little-known material and treats the history in vivid and pungent style.
Among those especially singled out in the campaign were leading members of the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee (JAC), a front group established in 1942 with the purpose of mobilizing Western support for the Soviet regime after the June 1941 Nazi invasion. The group, among whose members were Bergelson, Markish, Feffer, and others, was especially successful in the U.S., where it raised substantial sums for the Soviet war effort. After the war, however, the JAC fell under suspicion for its initiatives to help Soviet Jewish survivors and its ongoing solicitation of humanitarian funds from the U.S., which had now become the regime’s official enemy.
In September 1948, the JAC was accused of having instigated the rapturous (and putatively disloyal) Jewish reception of Golda Meir when she arrived in Moscow as the first ambassador of the new state of Israel. In fact, it has been argued that this demonstration of “nationalist” feeling was the spark that ignited the anti-Jewish campaign itself. But the chronology does not quite fit. The campaign had begun in January, months before the establishment of Israel, with the murder near Minsk of Shloyme Mikhoels, a famous actor and theater director and one of the founding members of the JAC. Although Mikhoels’ death was certainly ordered by Stalin, the way he was “liquidated” was strange even by Soviet standards. The normal procedure was to arrest and torture the victim, bring him to trial, accuse him of all kinds of outlandish crimes, and if possible extract a “confession” in the (futile) hope of being spared. Mikhoels was never arrested, or accused of any crime. Instead, he was shot gangster-style, his body left on a highway to make it appear he had been killed in a traffic accident. The burial in Moscow was like any other.
Mikhoels was also not charged with being an agent for Israel, with which in any case the Soviet Union then had diplomatic relations. Nor, for that matter, would Israel or Zionism appear explicitly among the charges against the other main accused, who were rounded up beginning in 1949, tortured, and finally put on trial in May 1952, where most “confessed” to the crimes of espionage, treason, and “bourgeois nationalism.” Of the fifteen defendants who were connected with the JAC, one was sent into exile and one died during the trial. The remaining thirteen, including David Bergelson, were executed on August 12, commemorated since then as “The Night of the Murdered Poets.”
In 1928, when it was decided to establish Birobidzhan to help solve the Jewish question, the number of Jews living in the Soviet Union was thought to be about 5,000,000. Their number today is believed to be closer to 500,000. These estimates are based largely on the nationality indicated on Soviet or Russian identity cards and on declarations made by individuals in a census. Naturally, definitions and estimates vary.
But if estimates vary, nationality problems persist. In 1928, no one would have anticipated that, one day, close to 2,000,000 Muslims, along with others from the Caucasus (mainly migrant workers, many of them also Muslim) would be living in the Russian capital. This problem will certainly not be solved by establishing an autonomous region.