September 25, 2018

The story of a Jewish enclave in the Soviet Union

Who can tell the things that befell us in Birobidzhan?

Now only a footnote in history, Birobidzhan was a godforsaken stretch of Russian swampland between the Bira and Bidzhan rivers, not far from the Manchurian frontier, where Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin decreed the establishment of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish homeland in 1928. The story is told with wit, discernment and not a little heartbreak by Masha Gessen in “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russian’s Jewish Autonomous Region,” the latest title in the distinguished Jewish Encounters series from Nextbook and Schocken.

Gessen, author of the best-selling “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” is a Jewish émigré from Russia. When her family considered its options in 1978, it considered Israel, the United States, Australia and Canada, all places where Soviet Jews were granted asylum. “Just two generations earlier — indeed, even a generation earlier, just after the second World War — this conversation would have included one more option, one that had now receded to something between fantasy and a joke,” she recalls. “Time was, it was spoken of with the same breathless hope with which my friends and I now spoke about Israel or Paris. … The place was called Birobidzhan.”

Indeed, we cannot really understand the history of Zionism without understanding Birobidzhan.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the dream of a Jewish state was not necessarily grounded in the Holy Land. Uganda was seriously proposed as a place of refuge, and so was Madagascar. So it was not farfetched when Joseph Stalin created “facts on the land” in the Soviet Far East by making a place in the wilderness for the Jews to settle. Nor was Zionism necessarily linked with Jewish religious observance, as Gessen points out. Martyred historian Simon Dubnow’s notion of “a secular Judaism as the basis for national identity” provided the ideological rationale for a place like Birobidzhan and, as Gessen confides, “the foundation of my own Jewishness.”

Then, too, Birobidzhan was conceived as a refuge not only for the Jews but also their mama loshen, the Yiddish language. The Bolshevik regime was hostile to Hebrew, the ritual language of the Jewish faith, and the commissars were actively “pulling the Yiddishists into the fold,” as Gessen explains. Indeed, Gessen focuses on the life’s work of the celebrated Yiddish author and playwright David Bergelson, a man who felt at home in the literary coffee houses of Berlin, who arrived on a visit to Birobidzhan in 1932, where he was welcomed by the Jewish settlers “as if he were a long-lost descendant of a royal Yiddish tribe.” 

By 1936, Birobidzhan was elevated to the status of a “Jewish Autonomous Region,” the first step toward becoming a “national republic.” The Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow issued its own fact-challenged version of the Balfour Declaration: “For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, its burning desire for a homeland, for the achieving of its own national statehood, has been fulfilled.” When Lazar Kaganovich, one of the few Jews among Stalin’s inner circle of commissars, visited the place, he attended a performance of Sholem Aleichem’s “Di Goldgreber” (The Gold Diggers) and praised the “traditional Jewish cooking” he was served.

The hard-pressed Jewish pioneers barely scratched out a living in Birobidzhan, but they had plenty to read. Six Yiddish-language schools were in operation, a Yiddish newspaper and a Yiddish publishing house, whose first publication was a 62-page book by an 18-year-old author “who, to Bergelson, may have been the single most important argument in favor of Birobidzhan.” The courts, police and municipal government conducted their business in Yiddish. Bergelson penned a manifesto titled “Why I Am in Favor of Birobidzhan,” in which he declares: “I want to work in and on behalf of Birobidzhan, because I wish to partake of those fascinating, delectable juices of life that our Soviet regime bestows upon me.” 

Alas, those “juices of life,” if Bergelson was earnest when he used the phrase, dried up quickly.  The thousands of Jews who were expected never arrived, and the Jewish population stagnated at 18 percent of the Soviet total. Although it was nearly 4,000 miles from Moscow, Birobidzhan was well within the grasp of Soviet terror. By 1939, when Stalin acquired half of Poland under his nonaggression pact with Hitler, he exiled many of his newly acquired Jewish citizens to Siberia, rather than sheltering them in Birobidzhan. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union two years later, and the mass murder of Jews was escalated to an industrial scale, the Jewish Autonomous Region was far beyond reach. 

Once Germany was defeated, Stalin was faced with the challenge of finding a place for the Jewish survivors to live. Sending them back to Belarus and Ukraine, where most of them lived before the war, was regarded as “a disaster” by all concerned. Crimea was considered briefly as a place for Jewish resettlement, but Birobidzhan no longer exerted any appeal: “You are trying to create a new ghetto!” wrote Soviet-Jewish journalist Ilya Ehrenburg. Only a few Jewish survivors managed to find their way to Birobidzhan, “alone or in pairs, shards of families killed by the Nazis, lone remnants of communities that had been destroyed.” Even so, the local officials protested: “These were the poor, the maimed, weakened and hungry Jews who no longer had any home anywhere, and they were not welcome here.”

The once-noble idea of a Jewish homeland within the Soviet Union was dead by the time Stalin turned on the Jews of the Soviet Union in the last few years of his life. “The Jews were becoming the main enemy within,” Gessen explains. Bergelson and other famous Yiddish writers were denounced, arrested, tortured and condemned to death by firing squad for their supposed efforts to “inflame nationalist sentiment among the Jewish population.” Back in Birobidzhan, “[a] policy of Russification was applied … much as it had been to places like Chechnya, from which the indigenous Muslim population had been deported by Stalin.” When Gessen visited Birobidzhan in 2009, only a couple of thousand Jews remained there — and only one of them spoke Yiddish.

The tale of Birobidzhan ends up like a Jewish joke: “[A] place with a Yiddish language newspaper and no Yiddish-speaking residents,” as Gessen puts it, “one of the world’s two Jewish states — the one where the Jews did not live.” But, like any good Jewish joke, it is dense with meaning and memory, tinged with sadness and fatalism, and yet redeemed by its insistent truth-telling. All of these qualities apply equally to Gessen’s beautiful and important book. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.