BIROBIDZHAN, RUSSIA — Mikhail Kul was a soldier in the Soviet Army that helped defeat Germany in 1945, but he returned home to find that the Holocaust had emptied his Ukrainian village of most of its inhabitants.
The survivors told of the German atrocities — of the Nazi soldiers who drove a crowd of Jewish villagers into a river and machinegunned them. His mother watched from the grass where she was hiding. Among the victims was Kul’s cousin. She died cradling her baby.
So when a group of recruiters showed up in 1947, Kul and his surviving family members were ready for the message. Far away, Jews were building a new state and settlers were needed. They were invited to contribute to the rebirth of their people. Kul and his family left the Ukraine and traveled 10,000 km to their new home on the border with China: the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.
Kul, now 73, is editor of the Yiddish section of die Birobidzhaner Stern in this Russian Far East region. Also known by the same name as its capital city, Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast amounts to one of history’s strangest attempts to resolve the question of a Jewish homeland. Supported by some Jewish socialists, Soviet leader Josef Stalin decided that a stretch of swamps and woodland in the Far East would become the center of a new Soviet Jewish identity, with Yiddish as its national language. Yet despite its artificial origins, Jewish culture thrived here for a time, and even today, when Jews make up less than 5 percent of the population, the region still claims a Jewish identity.
The emphasis on Judaism is striking both in Russia, where the Orthodox Church has reasserted its traditional spiritual ascendancy since the fall of communism, and in the nation’s Far East, where cab drivers rant about Jewish conspiracies and governments harry adherents of non-Orthodox creeds. In Birobidzhan, federal offices post their signs in Yiddish and Russian, and Yiddish and Hebrew are taught in the university. There are Jewish clubs, a small synagogue and a weekly class where 107 children study Jewish culture and history — funded in part by the region’s department of education.
“We do everything we can so that people can feel that they are Jewish here,” said Lev G. Toytman, head of the Birobidzhan Jewish Religious Community.
Stalin founded the oblast in 1934 with two ends. First, he wanted to establish a European settlement along a region bordering Manchuria, then occupied by Japan. Migration was voluntary, but it was in keeping with Stalin’s proclivity for shuffling entire peoples about: The oblast was created at the same time he exiled 172,000 ethnic Koreans from the Russian Far East and dumped them on the steppes of Central Asia. In addition, the Soviet leaders wanted to create a Jewish peasantry tied to a national territory.
“Yiddish was intended to serve as the bedrock of a secular, proletarian Soviet Jewish culture and community,” writes Robert Weinberg, a history professor at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, in his essay, “Jewish Revival in Birobidzhan in the Mirror of Birobidzhanskaia Zvezda.”
In some ways, Birobidzhan, an area the size of Belgium, is a typical provincial Russian region of 219,000 people. The winter streets of the capital are paved in snow and lined with Soviet-era apartment blocks, and a statue of Lenin stands across from the Philharmonic Hall. In the market, money changers swap rubles for dollars and yen, and Chinese and Russian merchants sell frozen fish, sheepskin coats, plastic fire trucks, cheap alarm clocks, batteries and sweaters. On Shalom-Aleikhem Street, a merchant opens a giant box of frozen squid by repeatedly slamming it against a stump. Women in ankle-length leather coats stroll with a gloved hand covering their mouth and nose — protection against the cold. Industry and agriculture are limping, and former mill foremen and military officers now earn spare cash working as cab drivers in their own vehicles.
For a thousand years, the land on the northern bank of the Amur River, which now divides Russia and China, was sparsely inhabited by indigenous peoples and Chinese traders and farmers. But Russia’s expansion to the Pacific in the 1600s gradually moved southward, reaching the northern bank of the Amur. What is now Birobidzhan was remote, swampy, and populated by Cossack pioneers. Winter temperatures fell to minus 40 degrees. Not surprisingly, the land drew few voluntary immigrants, particularly when the Trans-Siberian Railroad bypassed it to take a shortcut through northeastern China (an all-Russian line through Birobidzhan was completed in 1902).
After the Civil War, however, the Soviet government began promoting Jewish migration here in 1928, and in 1934, Birobidzhan received its designation as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. The territory was carved out of the Pacific coast region of Khabarovsk.
The Soviet government hoped to pry Jews from the traditional trades of the shtetl and create a Jewish peasantry in the Far East. But the new land also drew urban idealists eager to build a new home. Inna Dmitrenko, editor of die Birobidzhaner Stern, said her parents were St. Petersburg Jews who joined the first wave of settlers.
“There was such a hopeful mood, because everyone lived in a Soviet country, and they decided to heed the party’s call and come here,” she said.
But the first colonists found their new home did not live up to their dreams. They were settled in rice plantation along the Amur River, under a typically Soviet regime of inept planning, malice, hunger and vodka.
“Conditions at the plantation were harsh, with the 100 or so initial Jewish settlers almost immediately lodging complaints about the lack of proper housing, food and other amenities,” Weinberg writes in his paper, “Birobidzhan and Solving the ‘Jewish Question’: The Making of a Jewish Peasantry.”
“They also decried the poor leadership, drunkenness and high salaries of the apparatchik responsible for taking care of them, accusing the plantation’s manager, L.G. Baskin, of mistreating and exploiting them. Baskin apparently withheld the bread ration of a group of workers who had asked for a rest. When the workers complained about their low pay, he dismissed them as Zionists interested more in ‘earning money’ than in building socialism.”
Despite the rough start, the oblast soon began drawing Jewish immigrants, along with their ethnic Russian and Ukrainian neighbors. Die Birobidzhaner Stern, originally written entirely in Yiddish, was founded in 1930 and drew contributions from well-known Yiddish writers. A Yiddish theater and library opened, and authorities even tolerated the establishment of a synagogue, though perhaps merely for propaganda purposes.
Nevertheless, the oblast attracted only 25,000 to 30,000 of the Soviet Union’s 2 million Jews, and they never comprised more than 25 percent of the population, officials estimate. Authorities remained ambivalent about the oblast’s cultural identity and continued to recruit colonists in Russia and the Ukraine without reference to its Jewish status. And for both the Soviet state and the region’s Jewish inhabitants, there was a very modern problem — especially acute in an atheistic society — of how to promote a Jewish identity without the religious traditions of Judaism.
The Jewish poet Boris Miller, who lived in Birobidzhan, wrote that the Jewish Autonomous Oblast failed to live up to “our hopes, having been turned into a factory for the assimilation of Jews.”
The promotion of Jewish culture did not last long in Birobidzhan. With Stalin’s purges came a backlash against Judaism in the oblast. During the height of the purges, in 1936 to 1938, the state closed the Yiddish schools, dismantled the institutions for Jewish agricultural settlement, and ended efforts to attract Jewish colonists.
Only in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust did Stalin’s policy toward his Jewish oblast lurch back once again toward tolerance.
“The trauma of the Second World War breathed life again into the Birobidzhan project, as it did into Soviet Jewish culture and society in general,” Weinberg wrote, noting that “the end of hostilities in 1945 saw the revival of Jewish migration to the ‘Soviet Zion.’ “
Asya Gurevich, 80, a Jewish former resident of Belarus, said that of her family and relatives, only she and her sister survived the Holocaust. After the war, a friend found the sisters.
She told them, “Wherever you go, I will go with you.”
With Soviet doors closed to Jews who wished to move to Palestine, emigration was not an option. The women decided to move to Birobidzhan. When they arrived, an official gave his welcoming speech in Yiddish.
“Here we felt safe,” Gurevich said recently. “At first it was hard to find bread and all the other things we needed, but we were safe.”
Kul, who moved here after serving in the Soviet Army, found a job on a collective farm in the village of Birofeld. He was the head of a tractor brigade, tilling the fields and recording the hours the drivers worked. He was also an amateur actor and singer, and he soon moved to the city of Birobidzhan and joined a musical troupe that performed in factories, lumber camps, and farms. Eventually he became a village librarian.
He was working there in 1949 when the first whiff of Stalin’s antisemitic purges reached him. Party officials sent Kul lists of Jewish books to destroy. In Birobidzhan’s main library, officials culled 30,000 works from the Judaica collection and burned them. Yiddish schools were closed and Jewish leaders were accused of being Zionist agents and purged. The region’s Yiddish writers were arrested and sent to the gulag.
“There was a generation of people who didn’t know their language, didn’t know their culture,” said Dmitrenko, the editor. “Die Birobidzhaner Stern was the only Jewish institution that even Stalin didn’t manage to close.”
But a Yiddish paper became an anomaly in an increasingly Russified oblast, surviving only in the bubble of central planning. The Communist Party ordered factories, schools and collective farms to subscribe to a given number of papers — never mind that hardly anyone spoke Yiddish anymore. With perestroika, the paper began publishing in Russian, and now it prints Yiddish pages two days a week.
In recent years, the region has grown interested in its Jewish roots. Students study Hebrew and Yiddish at a Jewish school and the regional university. In 1989, the Jewish center founded its Sunday school, where children study Yiddish, learn Jewish folk dances, and memorize dates from the history of Israel. The Israeli government helps fund the program.
“It was the first step in the restoration of Jewish culture in the oblast,” said director Albina Sergeyeva.
Now the oblast administration celebrates Jewish holidays in the House of Culture, and there are Jewish clubs and soup kitchens for the elderly. Somehow this region’s self-image seems to be tied to Judaism: The oblast administration’s Web page (www.eao.ru) uses Yiddish-looking script and menorahs in its design. Although the Jewish population has dwindled with emigration to Israel, Sergeyeva believes Jewish culture will survive in Birobidzhan. In fact, more people are claiming Jewish ancestry.
“Those people who kept silent for so long, it now turns out they have Jews among their relatives,” Sergeyeva said.
On a recent Sunday morning, the school, held in the Jewish community’s building, was crowded with children. In one room, Polina Davydovich scribbled Yiddish words and Russian translations on the chalkboard while the thumping of Jewish folk music came from the room next door. Davydovich was one of the school’s founders, and although her son has moved to Israel, she has no intention of leaving Russia. She wants to help children rediscover their Jewish roots.
“My homeland is here,” she said. “I was born here. Why look for something else?”
Ironically, the oblast’s Jewish revival may bear the seeds of its own demise by encouraging an interest in Israel. The opening up of Russian society coincides with a prolonged economic crisis and a newfound ability to emigrate. Birobidzhan’s newspapers are filled with ads taken by people selling everything they own — apartments, furniture, fur coats, sewing machines and dachas — before heading abroad. Israel is seen by many as a ticket out of a nation in turmoil. Some papers even publish classified ads from ethnic Russian lonely hearts looking for a Jewish spouse.
Even the Sunday school serves for some as a gateway to Israel.
“The language is interesting, and it’s fun to speak it,” said Ira Tseitelovskaya, 14. “And if I come here, it will be easier to go to Israel.”
Emigration casts its shadow on the Birobidzhan synagogue, Beit Tshuva. The synagogue is located in a traditional Russian house with a giant metallic menorah attached to the roof. Assistant Rabbi Boris “Dov” Kofman, 50, says that the establishment of the oblast helped Soviet Jews by creating what was at times a haven from antisemitism. (Recently, he says, some vandals spray-painted the synagogue with swastikas, but authorities were quick to catch and punish the culprits, and Kofman views the acts as isolated.) But the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, he says, is not the source of his people’s aspirations.
“There are some people who have been deceived, and they think that this is their homeland,” Kofman said. “This is not their homeland. The only reason why I stay here is because of this synagogue. I just can’t abandon it. There is this little community here, and once they have left, I can go.”
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