<h3>Birobidjan: 50th Anniversary of a Tragedy
Jews, Marxism and the Worker's Movement

Paul Novick

Birobidjan: 50th Anniversary of a Tragedy

First Published: Morning Freiheit, March 3, 1985.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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On November 27 of last year the post delivered an envelope to our office from Birobidjan in the USSR. This was unexpected. We examined the postmark on the envelope that indicated it was stamped on November 9, 1984.

Actually we were looking for the three Yiddish initials on the post mark that stood for the words Yiddisheh Oytonomeh Gegnt (Jewish Autonomous Region) and also the name in Yiddish of the city or town from which the letter was mailed. But why expect this now? That was the way it was done 50 years ago.

The envelope, of course, gave the address of the Morning Freiheit and the return address in Birobidjan with the name of L. Shkolnik, the editor of the four-page Yiddish newspaper, Birobidjaner Shtern (Birobidjan Star), which is published five times each week.

We opened the envelope–it was a holiday issue of that newspaper of Nov. 8, 1984. The issue marked a double celebration: the 67th anniversary of the October Revolution and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidjan.

We were grateful for the gift. We do not usually receive that paper and to tell the truth, we don’t miss it. When we were still receiving it regularly some years ago we found it offered little besides party communications, translations from the Soviet press or of TASS reports. It became a waste of time to open these packages which contained several issues each.

This time we leafed through the paper and paused on page three which was devoted to the 50th anniversary of the “Jewish Autonomous Region” and featured articles and greetings from abroad. Evidently, it was for this reason that the paper was bestowed upon us.


Our eye caught sight of a lengthy article by a “landsman”, Mike Davidow of the Daily World in New York. More than half of this page was filled with the Yiddish translation of an article he wrote on the Birobidjan anniversary for the Daily World of Oct. 4, 1984.

When we first saw the article in the Daily World we noted several, assertions that revealed the writer’s sorry expertise in the history of Birobidjan and Jewish affairs generally. The article stated things that had little relation to the truth. Davidow did a job that was required of him for the trip that was arranged; for him and others in Moscow to attend the anniversary celebrations in Birobidjan. Now that we had the Yiddish translation of Davidow’s Daily World article it occurred to us to compare the original English text with the Yiddish translation in the Birobidjaner Shtern.

Lo and behold, it appeared that the “translation” contained things that were not said in the Daily World article and contrariwise, the original article in the Daily World contained statements that the translator of the Birobidjaner Shtern thought it wiser to ignore.

To save time, space and, perhaps, aggravation, we will now deal with those passages which the translator of Birobidjaner Shtern omitted from Davidow’s article in the Daily World. For example, Davidow wrote in English:

“Jews make up only 15% of the 200,000 people of the Jewish Autonomous Region...”

This statement does not tally with the official Soviet population census of 1979 which showed there were only 10,166 Jews in Birobidjan who constituted only five (5) percent of the Region’s population. Why did Davidow turn ten thousand Jews into thirty thousand Jews which would be his 15% of the Region’s population of 200,000 people?

Davidow wrote as he did for American consumption, but the passage cited above and the rest of the sentence disappeared entirely from the translation in the Birobidjan paper. Obviously, there on the spot one can’t get away with such tales!

Here is another passage from Davidow’s Daily World article:

“The city of Birobidjan, with a population of 75,000, only 11,000 of whom are Jews, has the kind of Jewish cultural institutions and organizations that even New York City with its incomparably larger Jewish population, cannot match...”

Surely you remember Sholem Aleichem’s hero, Berl-Isaac, the man who always told wild exaggerations. One can only say of Mike Davidow: Berl-Isaac met his match! In this instance the translator presented Davidow’s exaggeration less crudely but again “forgot” to repeat his figure of eleven thousand Jews in a city of’ 75,000 people.

Here is another paragraph from Davidow’s Daily World article which disappeared entirely from the “translation” in Birobidjaner Shtern. Davidow wrote:

“Jews are a distinct minority, yet the state form of organization bears the name Jewish Autonomous Region and this is far, from in name only. The Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Tartars, Chuvash, Nanei, Chukchi and many other nationalities consider it quite natural and are not in the slightest resentful.”

If one is inclined to do so or if it is worth doing, one may ask Davidow how does he know how all the non-Jewish people, the 95% of the inhabitants of Birobidjan, feel about this? One may further ask: Is this a normal or reasonable policy or a just (solution of a nationality’s problem, or I is this some sort of trickery with a fraudulent “Jewish Autonomous Region” 95% of whose population is not even Jewish! Is such a policy really a favor to the Jews?

In this case Birobidjaner Shtern decided to exercise discretion and the above cited paragraph was omitted entirely in its “translation” of Davidow’s Daily World article. One easily appreciates why it was not deemed prudent there to present the same opinion which Davidow so confidently offered in the Daily World.

Here is still another paragraph of Davidow’s Daily World article that disappeared in the translation in Birobidjaner Shtern:

“The Jews and other citizens of the Jewish Autonomous Region take pride in the multinational character of the area. Among the other nationalities are Russians, Ukrainians, Tartars, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Azerbaijanians, Chuvash and Koreans. Intermarriage is widespread in the Jewish Autonomous Region, as it is throughout the Soviet Union among people of different nationalities.”

Again, Birobidjaner Shtern thought it right to be wiser than pious and decided this story was not, necessary.

Perhaps this will be sufficient on Mike Davidow’s article of which one version appeared in the New York; Daily World of Oct. 4, 1984 and a quite different version in the “translation” in Birobidjaner Shtern of Nov. 8, 1984.


We are bothered by something else: The fiction of a “Jewish Autonomous Region” in the Soviet, Union today. Forty-eight years ago when I was there as a correspondent for this newspaper, there were then, in 1936, thirty thousand Jews in Birobidjan. These Jews fled from the Region after one pogrom which the Stalin-Yezhov henchmen carried out in 1937-38 and after another pogrom by the Stalin-Beria henchmen in 1949-51. The exodus of the Jews from Birobidjan was confirmed in the official Soviet census figures: In 1959 there were only 14,269 Jews in Birobidjan; in 1949 there were 111,452 and in 1979 10,166 Jews remained who, as noted above, constitute only five percent of the Region’s population.

It is also distressing to recall the deaths of so many Jewish activists in Birobidjan, including the first chairman of the Region, Prof. Yosif Liberberg. There were so many cultural workers, teachers, writers, poets, who were killed or who perished in the Gulag. (For additional information read the Memoirs of Esther Rosenthal-Schneiderman published in Tel Aviv in Yiddish. Before she came to Birobidjan she had lived in Kiev where she was associated with Prof. Liberberg who was then the director of the Yiddish Scientific Institute of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences; see also Chaim Maltinsky’s book, The Moscow Trial of the Birobidjanians, published in Tel Aviv in 1981; also, Dreams and Reality by Shifre Lifshitz, published in Tel Aviv in 1982. She was a (Yiddish school teacher in Birobidjan.)

And what about the thousands of foreign Jews who emigrated in the 1930’s to Birobidjan from Lithuania, Latvia, Palestine, Argentina and even from the United States? Their fate was bitter indeed. Whatever happened to the collective farm, ICOR, and the socialist town in Birobidjan also named ICOR after the American Jewish organization that raised funds and equipment for the Jews in Birobidjan? Whatever happened to the Yiddish children’s school in the town ICOR which I visited in 1936? There is no trace of ICOR today in Birobidjan!


There are many memories about Birobidjan that bother and depress us. As for the holiday issue of Birobidjaner Shtern I was especially pained to see a poem by Lyuba Vasserman entitled, On Sholem Aleichem Street. (This is the name of one of the main streets in Birobidjan city.)

I was a guest in the home of this warm hearted poet during my visit in Birobidjan in 1936. She was later among the victims of the first pogrom in 1937-38. She was “investigated” for many nights and then was tormented for eight years in the Gulag. After that she went to live with her son in Kharkov who apparently had fled earlier from Birobidjan. She died in 1975.

But they reprinted her poem in the holiday issue of Birobidjaner Shtern her poem about Sholem Aleichen Street. This poem was written almost 50 years ago when the street with its two-story log houses looked so primitive, as I recall. But there were great hopes then throughout the Jewish world, including in our own organizations here, ICOR and later, Ambidjan, hopes for a Jewish republic in the Soviet Union that were to be smashed and profaned.

To reprint now a poem by Lyuba Vasserman without any mention of when it was written is a desecration of her memory. It’s as if she was neve dragged from her home at night and “investigated” because she had come to Birobidjan from Palestine and was thus suspected of being a “spy” and then sent off to a penal camp.

Had Lyuba Vasserman’s poem been published in Birobidjaner Shtern as a way of honoring the memory of one of the victims of the 1937 purges it would have been appropriate, but to reprint it now as if nothing had happened to her is intolerable.

(Translated by S.R.)