First Published: Morning Freiheit, September 26, 1984.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Fifty years ago, on June 13,1934, there appeared in the then existing Yiddish daily newspaper in Moscow, “Emes” (“Truth”), and the next day in the Moscow “Pravda”, the following telegram from New York which was addressed to Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, who was the chairman of the Soviet government:
“We, writers of the Yiddish Pen Club, cordially greet you, esteemed Mikhail Ivanovich, chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union, for the historic act of transforming Birobidjan into a Jewish Autonomous Region. We are profoundly grateful that at the very time when in many countries there is a growth of reaction and fascism that is accompanied with a barbaric anti-Semitism, the Soviet Union designated a Jewish Autonomous Region within the family of Soviet Socialist Republics. This is for the Jewish people of the entire world a joyous and encouraging action. We especially welcome your words which stress the desire of the Soviet government to consolidate the Jewish nationality and to safeguard the Yiddish culture.”
This telegram was signed by almost all the prominent figures in the American Yiddish literature at the time. The signers who were writers, poets, playwrights, journalists or critics included: Efroyim Auerbach, Menachem Boraysho, B.I. Bialastozki, B.Z. Goldberg, Boruch Glazman, Yankev Glatshtein, Ruven Eizland, M.I. Chaimovich, I.L. Kahn, Pessyeh Kahaneh, Dovid Ignatov, B. Lapin, H. Leivick, L. Lehrer, A. Leyeles, A. Lutsky, Sh. Niger, V. Natanzon, Dovid Pinsky, L. Feinberg, Leon Kobrin, Avrom Reisen, Sarah Reisen, A. Mukdoni, Yoneh Rosenfeld, Yosef Rolnick, Dr. Yankev Shatsky, A. Tolush, Lazar Weiner.
This telegram created a sensation in the Soviet Union. The Yiddish writer, Esther Rosenthal-Shneiderman, who in 1934 was a staff member of the (former) Yiddish Proletarian Institute in Kiev, related in her book, Birobidjan at Close Range (Yiddish, Tel Aviv, 1983), the joy she and others experienced upon seeing the telegram of the New York Yiddish Pen Club in the Moscow Pravda. Ten days later there was a report in Pravda from New York of a meeting in the Madison Square Garden of twelve thousand people who celebrated Birobidjan’s new status. Esther Rosenthal-Shneiderman could no longer wait. She wanted to leave for Birobidjan as quickly as possible. Others, too, shared her desire to help create “the Jewish statehood,” to help build “the national Yiddish socialist culture,” and “a Jewish state after two thousand years.”
The banners of Birobidjan fluttered high–abroad, that is, outside the Soviet Union–according to the apt formulation of Chaim Slovess of Paris in his extremely important book, Soviet Jewish Statehood (Yiddish, Paris, 1979, 365 pages.)
In the Soviet Union at the time it was well known that many would-be settlers had travelled to and fro, to Birobidjan and back. The reasons for the departures of many Jewish settlers from Birobidjan were varied: poor preparations for the new arrivals, the harsh climate, lack of living quarters, lack of experienced cadres and the bureaucratic attitude of the local party officials who had little concern for the concept of “Jewish statehood,” despite the important pronouncments by Mikhail I. Kalinin, the friend of the Jews, on this form of statehood.
Abroad, however, there was a great enthusiasm among the Jews for Birobidjan. Many Jews were influenced by the example of the Yiddish writers and poets listed above or by the favorable views of the Hebrew writer and essayist, Ruven Brainin, a longtime Zionist. In countries outside the Soviet Union a great movement in behalf of Birobidjan came into being. In the United States there was the ICOR (Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union) which was later renamed AMBIDJAN and which had a broad following. In Jewish communities in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, France, Lithuania, Latvia and elsewhere there was an upsurge of support for Birobidjan. This enthusiasm abroad had an impact on many Yiddish cultural workers in the Soviet Union, according to Esther Rosenthal-Shneiderman, especially after Yiddish cultural activities began to encounter obstacles from the Stalinist bureaucracy in Kiev and other centers. The notion became widespread: let’s go to Birobidjan and there build the national Yiddish socialist culture.
We shall describe further on what happened to these activists who went to live in Birobidjan.
I visited Birobidjan in July and August, 1936. In these two months I saw many places in the Region and I spent much time in the city, Birobidjan, where I met with people in the government institutions and also with Yiddish writers and cultural workers.
After 1934 when Birobidjan was officially proclaimed as the Jewish Autonomous Region the work of settling Jews there and the construction generally had begun to stabilize itself. There had been many breakdowns since 1928 when this territory was first assigned by the Soviet government as an area for Jewish settlement. By 1934 more funds and materials were made available to Birobidjan by the government. From the support movement abroad more aid arrived in the form of tractors and other technical equipment.
When I was visiting there in 1936 Birobidjan had reached its highpoint of development as a Jewish Autonomous Region. To be more precise, it was then that things began to get done properly. In great measure this was due to the efforts of the Region’s chairman, Prof. Yosef Liberman, the former director of the Yiddish Proletarian Institute in Kiev, and of his associates. Liberman was an exceptionally sympathetic personality. He was talented and energetic and was self-sacrificingly dedicated to the objective of really creating a Jewish autonomous region that would, in accord with Kalinin’s plan, be proclaimed a Jewish Autonomous Republic after 100,000 Jews would have settled in Birobidjan.
The photostats of official papers of various institutions in Birobidjan that I collected during my visit and that are reproduced with this article show that the “Yiddishization” of the Region had seriously begun.
In my farewell account (Yidn in Birobidjan, ICOR, New York, 1937, page 88) I wrote: “Here (in gaining control of the land) not everything is going according to plan. This should be known. Much is being built but not always is this done well, They have not by a long shot moved away from the pioneer conditions. The lack of good, qualified workers and the most necessary equipment is often heartbreaking.” There is much more of this and, of course, there was emphasis on the successes.
I would like to dwell on the first issue of the monthly Yiddish publication in Birobidjan, Forpost (Outpost). Actually the publication was printed in Moscow with the active assistance in the editorial staff of the author Dovid Bergelson who, incidentally, commissioned an article from me for the second issue. The first issue began with an article by the party secretary of the Region, M.P. Chavkin. This man, not at all a sympathetic person, as I learned after having some dealings with him, sang about the achievements and about the strengthening of the cultural work in Yiddish. All this was done, I realized, in accord with the well known formula of the period: to think one way, to speak differently, to write still differently and to do things altogether differently.
In his article Chavkin devoted much space to the visit in early 1936 of the “Iron Commissar”, Lazar M. Kaganovich, to Birobidjan and his statements on building the Region, including Yiddish cultural institutions and even of convening a conference on the Yiddish language!
As for Yiddishization there already then three technical institutes (pedagogical, metallurgical, medicine), a network of Yiddish children’s schools including ten year’s children’s school with about 800 pupils in the city of Birobidjan, a Yiddish theatre and much else.
For the following year Chavkin predicted in his article there would be “150 schools with about thirty thousand pupils and about one thousand teachers,” and much more. He wasn’t at all sparing. (If there were to be 30 thousand pupils the Jewish population would really have to reach the 100,000 mark which Kalinin had hoped to see.)
Perhaps there was then a justification for these fantastic figures. In August, 1936 I witnessed in Birobidjan the celebrations that were prompted by the arrival of the news that the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union had issued a statement signed by the chairman, M.I. Kalinin and secretary, A. Akulev, which declared in part:
“In the course of many centuries the oppressed Jewish people fought against the czarist autocracy for the creation of its own national culture, for the right to education and for the right to live freely,
“For the first time in the history of the Jewish people its ardent wish to create its own homeland, a national statehood of its own has been realized. Under the leadership of the party of Lenin-Stalin, and with the active participation of all of Soviet society, the Jewish toiling masses are developing and fortifying Soviet statehood among themselves in forms that reflect the specific national conditions their people.”
Was it any wonder that there was such joy then in Birobidjan? Finally, they reached the high road. On the horizon one could see the Jewish Republic “for the first time in the history of the Jewish people.”
At this point one might, perhaps, have said: Kalinin proposes and Stalin disposes. However, this would not be entirely correct. All the government declarations about Birobidjan, whether in 1928, 1934 or 1936, were made, of course, with Stalin’s approval. How could it have been otherwise? These government statements were made in accord with his plans and as it suited him.
On one occasion, in 1931 it suited him to issue a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency denouncing anti-Semitism as a remnant of the Middle Ages, of barbarism.
Undoubtedly, Mephistopheles had his laugh from the very beginning. At any rate, in 1937 there began first the Stalin-Yezhov and then the Stalin-Beria massacres throughout the entire Soviet Union and these included the Yiddish writers and cultural workers in Minsk, Moscow and other centers. It was then that the first pogrom was made on the leadership in Birobidjan and Prof. Joseph Liberberg was among the victims. For engaging in activities of building Yiddish cultural institutions, activities that were expressly approved by such authoritative government leaders as Kalinin, Prof. Liberberg and some of his colleagues were charged with being “bourgeois nationalists” and “Japanese spies” and were shot. Other Yiddish cultural workers were sent off to the Gulag. It was then that an exodus from Birobidjan began. People fled from it as from a house on fire. (A former Yiddish school teacher in Birobidjan, Shifra Lifshitz, described this period and her ten year sentence in the Gulag in her book, Dreams and Reality (Yiddish, Tel Aviv, 1980). Much space would be required to review this tragedy. In 1937-38 Birobidjan experienced the fall from the mountain top into the abyss.
At the same time another tragedy occurred that involved the fate of the Jewish settlers who came from abroad (Argentina, Latvia, Lithuania) and also farm workers of the collective farm ICOR and the new town named ICOR.
After the Second World War, in 1945-48, a new chapter in the immigration to Birobidjan began. Soviet Jews from the Ukraine, Byelorussia and other areas who had returned from their wartime evacuation centers in Central Asia to their old hometowns encountered complete ruin and a venomous anti-Semitism. Thousands of these Jews then decided to leave for Birobidjan and became permanent settlers there. The then Communist Party secretary of the Birobidjan Region, A. Bachmutsky, wrote as follows in the Moscow Yiddish weekly, Einikeit (April 10, 1948):
“There is a strong desire among Soviet Jews to settle in Birobidjan. Many settlers arrive from the Crimea, from the Zhitomir, Kharkov and Dniepropetrovsk regions and from the Baltic republics. Besides settlers that arrive in mass transports many people came here on their own. In the past two and one half years more than 20 thousand Jews arrived (in Birobidjan).”
One year later, after Einikeit was closed down in Moscow, after the Official Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was closed down, after the Yiddish writers and cultural workers all over the Soviet Union were arrested and deported by the hundreds, the same fate did not avert the leadership of Birobidjan that was headed by the above-cited Bachmutsky. These leaders were arrested and put on trial in Moscow where they were charged with “bourgeois nationalism” and service to the CIA. (For details of this second pogrom see Chaim Maltinsky’s recent book in Yiddish, The Trial in Moscow of the Birobidjanians.) Once again Jewish inhabitants of Birobidjan fled from the region as if from a fire.
A minority of the Jews remained; a pinch of Yiddish culture remained, but the Yiddish children’s schools were abolished. The magazine, Soviet Life, which is published by the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC and which in its issue of May, 1984 carried the misleading headline on its front cover, Life in the Jewish Autonomous Republic–Birobidjan is a Region (Oblast in Russian), not a Republic!–once attempted to explain why there were no Yiddish schools there. In the issue of July 1971 Riva Vichinikina of the Valdheim Soviet in Birobidjan simply declared there was no need for any education in the Yiddish language.
The minority of Jews who remained in Birobidjan has continually decreased. According to figures of the official Soviet census there were 14,269 Jews in Birobidjan in 1959; 11,452 in 1969; 10,166 in 1979. Whether there will be as many Jews in 1989 as there are now really doesn’t matter. Chaim Slovess, the foremost Yiddish authority on Birobidjan, defined the Region as follows: “A Jewish national statehood without any Jewish I national rights, without a Yiddish language, without a Yiddish culture, without a Yiddish alphabet and almost without Jews” (Yiddish, Jewish National Statehood, Paris, 1979, page 338).
Now, finally, after thirty years, Birobidjan was provided with a booklet on the Yiddish alphabet. Now they see the “need” for a Yiddish alphabet and classes for children in Yiddish–when there are so few Jewish children left to attend these classes! But this Yiddish alphabet booklet was judged by one noted scholar of Soviet Jewish life, Dr. L. Hirszowicz of London, to be “as Jewish as Birobidjan.”
One must ask: How can they, after all the previous swindles, still maintain the swindle of the Jewish Autonomous Region, Birobidjan, which has so few Jews, only five percent of the Region’s total population according to the 1979 census? How can they now in Moscow make such a hullaballoo about fifty years of Birobidjan without mentioning a word of the government imposed tragedies of the past?
There is a reason to this madness. Birobidjan has become a means to promote the forced assimilation of the almost two million Jews in the USSR! Jews are told: You want a Jewish people and a Yiddish culture, then go to Birobidjan–(to the zero.)
The tragedy of Birobidjan now occupies a “prominent” part in the tragedy of the almost two million Jews in the Soviet Union. Birobidjan which was once regarded as the place of salvation, of the renaissance of the Yiddish culture has become an instrument in the forced assimilation of the Jews in the Soviet Union.
(Transl. by SR.)