The sign reads "Birobidzhan" in Russian and Yiddish. (Photo/Wikimedia-Rusik_z CC BY-SA 3.0)
The sign reads "Birobidzhan" in Russian and Yiddish. (Photo/Wikimedia-Rusik_z CC BY-SA 3.0)

History of Jewish homelands harbors a strange chapter: Birobidzhan

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A homeland for Jews: a place where Jews could flourish on their own terms, not as a minority but as the architects of their own destiny.

Ninety years ago this week, in the March 3, 1933 issue, we talked about that place, but it wasn’t Israel. It was Birobidzhan, the capital of an autonomous Jewish region created in the Soviet Union that seemed full of promise for a brief minute but now serves as a strange chapter in the history of Jewish homelands.

The Autonomous Jewish Oblast was established by the Soviet government at the end of the 1920s and made permanent in the 1930s. The Soviets meant Birobidzhan to be a solution for what to do with the Jewish population and also a geopolitical move, as the region lay along the Chinese border.

Yiddish was the official language, and the region included a Sholom Aleichem Street.

“With the encouragement that the U.S.S.R. is giving in this pioneer land, it appears that there may rise there a definite success of Jewish cultural endeavor,” wrote Jewish journalist Raymond Dannenbaum in one of two articles on the oblast that appeared in the March 3 issue.

“There are 50,000 Jews today in Biro-Bidjan, which promises not only to be a new industrial settlement for them, but a national center — the first of its kind in the history of Russia. They have already built there the largest preserve factory in the world.”

That stirring note began a rapturous account of the area by non-Jewish journalist Pierre van Paassen, penned the same week as Dannenbaum’s slightly less ecstatic column. Van Paassen wrote about the attempt to create a Jewish utopia, with settlers “who came bearing the gifts of knowledge and progress and who came to found a new collectivity, a real brotherhood where no man is lord over another man or exploits him.”

He continued: “I know perfectly well that it offers considerable difficulties. It is a long way off. It is virgin country. Jews are not equipped psychologically and technically for life in a pioneer’s region, consisting of primeval forests, vast steppes, mountains stuffed with natural resources and rivers teeming with fish.”

But it was the future, he said.

“Were I a Jew, out to Biro-Bidjan I would go tomorrow,” he wrote.

Evidently the Soviets intended Birobidzhan to be a secular Jewish counterweight to Jewish settlement in Palestine.

“It is interesting to contrast this promised land in the wilds of the Soviet Union with the Promised Land in Palestine: The culture of Biro-Bidjan, apparently, is Jewish; that of Palestine is Hebraic,” Dannenbaum wrote. “The Palestine experiment is an attempt to recapture and revivify an ancient mood; in Biro-Bidjan, Jews are attempting to crystallize the culture of the East European Diaspora. The civilization growing in Biro-Bidjan is industrial; Palestine is attempting to establish an agrarian civilization.”

It was a kind of old versus new, with the Soviet experiment being modern and forward-looking.

Regarding Van Paassen’s account, Dannenbaum said: “Most interesting, however, is the fact that Biro-Bidjan (he says) rapidly is becoming industrialized. Van Paassen speaks of its containing the largest preserving plant in the world, ‘manned, operated and built by Jews.’ He mentions a new furniture factory at Tichonkaya, the capital, and other projects.’

Dannenbaum thought there might eventually be a conflict between Palestine and this China-adjacent city of Jews.

“Should the two experiments succeed, it would not be improbable that eventually they should clash,” he wrote.

But Birobidzhan was a failure. As journalist Masha Gessen, who wrote a book on Birobidzhan’s history, said in 2016 on NPR, the Jews who took the government’s offer of a one-way ticket weren’t very happy with their destination. Many were small business owners whose livelihood disappeared under Communism. Others, after the war, were Holocaust survivors.

“And then they alighted in Birobidzhan, discovered that they had basically no place to live, or they could live in these very shoddily built barracks with giant holes in the walls because the logs had been shoddily put together in bitter winter,” she said. “They also realized that they couldn’t practice what they knew how to do and they couldn’t cultivate the land.”

Hardships followed by targeted purges under Stalin caused the Jewish population to plummet. At around 1990, about 9,000 Jews lived in the oblast, just over 4% of the population. By 2017 that number had dropped to 3,000. The dream was dead, although the region continues to exist officially, and Sholom Aleichem Street is still on the map.

But in 1933, we had no idea of the fate of Birobidzhan:

“Thus it is not improbable that some day we may have two flourishing modern Jewish cultures, widely different and each concerned with its own set of widely separated values.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.