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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Elevated in May 1934 to the status of Jewish Autonomous Region (oblast), Birobidzhan, situated in Siberia on the border with China, was the Soviet answer to the question of a Jewish homeland. Earlier attempts to settle the Soviet Jews on dedicated land in the Ukraine, and later in Crimea, had yielded partial success, most of all in turning “unproductive” Jews into productive tillers of land. The new understanding of nationality that arose in the 1930s sought more distinct tokens of identity. A 1932 law mandated the notorious “entry no. 5” in all internal passports, identifying the single nationality of all citizens. In many ways progressive, the new policy encouraged territorial expression for national identities. Minorities had the right to their own culture, their own music, their own dances, and their own governing autonomy, all within the framework of Soviet citizenship. The “Jewish question” was complicated only slightly by the choice of a region where Jews had never lived, and a language that few wished to speak any more.

Founded in 1928, twenty years before the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel, Soviet Birobidzhan faced many of the issues that Israel would later confront. Not all of them yielded wise choices. The secular language of Yiddish, rather than the religious language Hebrew became official, satisfying neither religious folk, nor the non-religious, most of whom chose the path of assimilation through Russian. A Jewish homeland on land with no Jewish history, no identity, and none of the historical draw that Israel would soon exert, practically guaranteed a minimal migration; the Jewish population of Birobidzhan in fact never reached more than 14,000 people, nor surpassed more than one-fifth of the regional population. Still there were glimmers of a national culture, including a Yiddish-language newspaper Birobidzhaner shtern (the Birobidzhan Star), and a Yiddish theater. David Bergelson’s novel Birobidzhaner, published 1939, depicts the hardy pioneers who drain the swamps and transform the harsh taiga wilderness into socialist territory. A 1936 film, Seekers of Happiness, chronicled the migration of a family of Polish Jews to Birobidzhan’s Red Field kolkhoz, implicitly scolding Jewish who refused to change with history.

The decision to incorporate Birobidzhan had emanated from the Kremlin, yet it should not be dismissed as a Stalinist fantasy or conspiracy, without noting its appeal to some Jews. Yiddish was still a living language in 1928, as opposed to the dead language Hebrew; and secular life was the stronger draw for most Jews. Life in a place that welcomed Jews, contrasted to an increasingly anti-semitic Europe, or a Palestine populated by hostile Arabs and run by British imperialists, seemed attractive. Finally, life as farmers held a tremendous, if ironic appeal to many Jews, who had been confined to city life for centuries, and who felt that the right to plow the land would give Jews as a full a national existence as the peoples around them. Israeli kibbutzes would one day give them that, but the bleak and barren land of Birobidzhan did not. Still, the romance of a new homeland was compelling, and in the suffering needed to make the land arable, Soviet Jewish citizens found a heroic myth analogous to those of Magnitogorsk and nearby Komsomolsk-na-Amur. The myth, however, did not survive the late 1930s, when the same purges that swept much of Soviet society struck at the heart of Birobidzhan as well.

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