Next Year in Siberia

by J. Hoberman

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/Judah L. Magnes Museum 128 pp $55 (cloth) $24.95 (paper) May

It is not surprising," writes Mikhail Epstein, founder of Moscow's Laboratory of Modern Culture, that the specter Marx and Engels saw haunting Europe "settled down and acquired reality" in Russia: "This country proved to be especially susceptible to mistaking phantasms for real creatures." Or, to use the catchphrase of Stalin's Soviet Union: It was there that the Fairy Tale became Reality.

As the prince of Kiev had liquidated pagan Rus by fiat, as Peter the Great decreed that his subjects become European by shaving their beards, as the 1936 Soviet Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, speech, and the press, so the undeveloped region of Birobidzhan--a sparsely populated wilderness the size of Belgium on the Sino-Soviet border--was transformed through magical incantation into a place where, as Robert Weinberg writes in his vividly illustrated history, Stalin's Forgotten Zion, Soviet Jews might live the exotic fiction that they were inhabiting a land of their own. Two decades before the establishment of Israel, a Jewish homeland was born on the Siberian steppe.

Opened to settlers in 1928, at the dawn of the First Five-Year Plan, Birobidzhan was promoted throughout the Yiddish-speaking world. It was preceded by the Jewish agricultural collectives of the southern Ukraine. But unlike those far more popular projects, Birobidzhan was explicitly nationalist in inspiration--a Soviet alternative to Zionism and, for some activists, a crypto-Zionism. The prospects for peaceful development, the friendliness of the indigenous population, and the existence of government support were favorably contrasted by the project's architects to the difficult lot of the Jewish settlers in Palestine, caught between Arab hostility on the one hand and British imperialism on the other.

The idea of a Soviet Jewish homeland emerged out of the ongoing ideological struggle between communism and Zionism. But, as Weinberg's study reveals, Birobidzhan was also the meeting point of these warring creeds. No less than the desert colonies of the chalutzim, this colony was designed to liquidate the "unproductive" life of the diaspora. The shtetlJew would be no more. In the words of one early pioneer, "We came here to become peasants!" As Weinberg points out, Birobidzhan agitprop contrasting traditional Jews with their secular, agriculturally employed descendants is virtually indistinguishable from its Zionist counterpart. Soviet Jews, however, preferred to reinvent themselves in Russia's cities. By 1933, a year when more settlers left Birobidzhan than arrived, there were only eight thousand Jews in the region; the original timetable had called for six times as many. Indeed, Jews constituted less than 20 percent of the population when, in May 1934, Birobidzhan was declared a Jewish autonomous oblast, with Yiddish as its official language.

Published soon after the creation of the Jewish homeland, Yiddish writer David Bergelson's novel Birobidzhaner is the definitive account of the doughty pioneers who clear the forest, drain the swamps, put up the schools, and construct socialism--transforming the taiga (frozen wilderness) as well as themselves. The 1936 film Seekers of Happiness, in which a family of Polish Jews immigrates to Birobidzhan's Red Field kolkhoz, castigates those who fail to change. Yiddish theater star Benjamin Zuskin plays the Jewish luftmensch who cannot help imagining the region as a shtetl get-rich-quick scheme. He is, in effect, "too Jewish" to appreciate the oblast, whose enemies, according to one Soviet pamphlet, attack it as though "it were some sort of real estate venture concerning which the bargain of the transaction is the point at issue."

Was there life behind the facade? Weinberg spent a month in Birobidzhan in 1992, and many of the aging Jewish inhabitants he found there retained fond childhood memories of Yiddish heard on the street, Yiddish learned at school, and Yiddish performed in a theater named after Stalin's favorite Jewish thug, Lazar Kaganovich. Despite official antipathy--and the absence of even one synagogue until 1984--religious observation persisted underground. Meanwhile, with the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism in the 1930s, the propaganda offensive--promoted in the United States by a number of communist-front organizations and the English-Yiddish monthly Nailebn--gathered momentum.

On the eve of the first Moscow trial, the Soviet Central Committee announced that, "for the first time in the history of the Jewish people, its burning desire for the creation of a homeland of its own, for the achievement of its own destiny, has found fulfillment." From Nazi Germany to post-Pilsudski Poland, European Jews were falling victim to an alarming rise in political anti-Semitism. Weinberg includes a photograph of Jewish partisans from Pensacola, Florida, extending their "fiery greeting" to the builders of Birobidzhan. Still, he seems oddly disengaged from the crisis of the 1930s, failing to link enthusiasm for the Jewish oblast to the worsening international situation.

The period of the Popular Front (1935--1939) marked the high point of immigration to Birobidzhan. True believers predicted that the Jewish population would reach 150,000 by 1940. But well before then, the region was deemed to be infiltrated, if not overrun, by spies, traitors, Japanese agents, ...and Jews. As early as the summer of 1937, not long after Life magazine ran his picture in a two-page article on the Jewish homeland, Iosif Liberberg, chairman of the Birobidzhan Soviet, was arrested by the NKVD (secret police) and executed as a "nationalist Trotskyite and former member of the Labor Zionists." The local Party chief and his wife (accused of attempting to poison Kaganovich with her homemade gefilte fish) were similarly charged.

As the leadership was purged, the NKVD came to regard the entire project as a police problem, to the point of overseeing the transportation of Jewish settlers to their homeland. A second wave of internal migration after World War II would raise Birobidzhan's Jewish population to nearly thirty thousand, but this revival was soon stifled in the anticosmopolitan, anti-Semitic campaign that followed the establishment of Israel. Nevertheless, Birobidzhan persisted in a diminished form as the Jewish autonomous region for the remaining life of the Soviet Union.

Reviewing the sad history of the Birobidzhan project in his introduction to Weinberg's book, political scientist Zvi Gitelman speculates that the fiasco was calculated from the very beginning to demonstrate the futility of Jewish nationalism. Conspiracy or not, Birobidzhan was certainly a product designed for export. Ben-Zion Goldberg, son-in-law of the Rus sian-Jewish writer Shalom Aleichem and one of the many Yiddish-speaking fellow travelers who visited Birobidzhan in the mid-1930s, would acknowledge, years later, that the idea of a Soviet Jewish homeland inspired far greater enthusiasm in New York City and Buenos Aires than it ever did in Gomel or Kiev. With its "virgin" wilderness, spectacular sets, and cast of millions (or so it was hoped), Birobidzhan was among the most elaborate of Soviet fantasies.

Weinberg might have devoted more attention to the scenario's appeal. Birobidzhan revealed the millennial yearnings of many Jews who considered themselves fully rational and secular. But the images speak for themselves. Weinberg includes a six-page spread from the 1935 issue of the lavish coffee-table-gracer USSR in Construction: photograph after photograph of hearty, work-callused Jews hoisting bales, leaning on scythes, strumming guitars, and generally exuding the combination of robust joy and beaming optimism that one only sees nowadays at Promise Keeper--rallies or in go-for-the-gusto beer commercials.

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