Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet Judaism's Forgotten Homeland

From Londoko, the Trans-Siberian Railway follows the course of the Great Biro River, a tributary of the Amur, to Birobidzhan. This small city near the Manchurian border, 8,000 kilometers east of Moscow and 650 kilometers north of Vladivostock is the center of one of the most unusual social experiments of the former Soviet Union.

Even foreign travellers who cannot read the Cyrillic alphabet have little difficulty in recognizing their arrival there, for the train station is identified not only by the normal Russian sign, but by one printed in Yiddish as well. The newsstand will provide a copy of the Birobidzhaner shtern, one of the few Yiddish newspapers still published anywhere in the world. And the radio may be carrying a Yiddish-language program.

Birobidzhan is the capital of Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region, or JAR, the whole of which is popularly known by the name of its capital. Something of an international cause c?l?bre in its day, the rest of the world had almost entirely forgotten Birobidzhan until Robert Weinberg, an historian from Swarthmore College, published his thin, well illustrated volume Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland.

In 1928, Soviet authorities designated the area, annexed by the tsar only 70 years earlier, for Jewish resettlement. Roughly the size of Belgium, it was then home to about 27,000 Great Russians, Cossacks, Koreans, Ukrainians and indigenous Siberian peoples. Six years later it would be officially designated as the Jewish Autonomous Region.

The Russian Empire had once been home to more than 5 million Jews, the largest population in the world. Approximately 90 percent of them, however, were legally restricted to an area called the "Pale of Settlement" in Belarus and Ukraine. By the outbreak of World War I nearly 2 million had emigrated in search of a better life elsewhere.

The Revolution, of course, changed everything for everybody. For the remaining Jews it brought an age of unprecedented freedom, despite the Communist Party's militant atheism. The early Soviet government forthrightly opposed anti-Semitism and attempted to address the high levels of Jewish poverty and unemployment. Since Jews were essentially a landless people in an agricultural society, the Soviet government at first pursued a policy, intermittently adopted in the tsarist era, of encouraging them to take up farming in Ukraine, Belarus and the Crimea.

But the resistance of the native population of these areas, combined with the government's desire to find territories for minorities that lacked them, as well as its interest in populating the Far East to protect its resources from potential Chinese or Japanese expansionist designs eventually led to the decision to create Birobidzhan.

In the first decade 35,000 to 40,000 settled there. As one early migrant put it, "We came here to be peasants!" But no one ever said a peasant's life was easy, particularly in the cold dry winters and hot rainy summers of the Siberian taiga. Early conditions were so crude that some settlers had to live in zemlyanki, huts of sod and thatch built over a hole in the ground.

But soon remarkable things did indeed happen in this far-off land.

Yiddish, rather than Hebrew - considered a tongue for "bourgeois Zionists" - was chosen as the regional language. Once settlement was under way police and other legal matters were conducted in Yiddish as well as Russian. Lists of candidates for the local soviet were published in both languages. A library with a Judaica collection was opened along with a Jewish theater, literary magazine and publishing house.

By 1937 the region had 2,000 students attending 16 schools with all-Yiddish instruction. At one point, Yiddish language instruction was mandatory in all the region's schools, including those in which Russian was the primary language. Of course, none of this meant that the practice of the religion of Judaism was promoted. Weinberg describes events organized by a group - whose name is translated as the "League of the Militant Godless" - discouraging the practice of religion, particularly around Passover. And there was no synagogue, at least not officially.

Nor did the region escape the general cultural practices of the era. A competition for a "Soviet-Jewish song to mark the 30th anniversary" of the Bolshevik Revolution sought music reflecting "the boundless loyalty of Jewish toilers to the Bolshevik Party and the Great Stalin."

A 1946 Yiddish short story bore the title "How We Achieve Large Vegetable Crops." And Birobidzhan did not escape Stalin's murderous neuroses. In addition to liquidating the requisite number of Birobidzhan's newly discovered "enemies of the Revolution," the purges of the late 1930s put a halt to settlement efforts for almost a decade.

Yet the venture did not lack for outside support. Lotteries were held in its support throughout the Soviet Union. The Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union claimed 10,000 members in 100 chapters in the United States, and another 1,000 members in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. It raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for farm, industrial, printing and medical equipment.

The title of the lead article in a 1934 issue of the organization's magazine proclaimed the first elections in the newly declared autonomous region the "Greatest Event in the History of the Jewish People." Albert Einstein served as honorary president of the American Birobidzhan Committee. A group of 32 families who sold their Los Angeles-area homes were among the over 1,000 foreign Jews who came to settle.

The fact that the Californians stayed but one year was typical. The harsh conditions, combined with the settlers' lack of connection to their new land and a general reluctance to take up farming, created a 50 percent dropout rate in the early years. The actual number of Jews in Birobidzhan peaked at 18,000 (of an overall population of 109,000) in 1939.

In 1958 Nikita Khrushchev told an Italian journalist that he considered the venture a failure. By 1970 the region's Jewish population had fallen to under 7 percent. The end of Communist Party rule has ironically freed the Jews of the region both to practice their religion and to leave. So now Jewish religious ceremonies are carried on television in Birobidzhan, but there are almost no Jews (perhaps 5,000 of a population of 214,000) in what is still officially Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region.

"Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland; An Illustrated History, 1928-1996," by Robert Weinberg. University of California Press, 105 pages, $55 cloth; $24.95 paper.