The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan,

Russian's Jewish Autonomous Region

By Masha Gessen



170pp/$25.00/August 2016

Where the Jews Aren't
Cover by Kelly Blair

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

A decade before Israel was founded, the Soviet Union began to experiment with the concept of a Jewish state within their borders. Birobidzhan, later called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, was created in the far east. Although the Jewish Autonomous Oblast still exists, there is very little about it that remains Jewish. Masha Gessen, a two-time immigrant from Russia to the United States, uses the foundation and fate of Birobidzhan to explore what it means to be Jewish in Where the Jews Aren't: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region.

Gessen focuses on the place of Jews in Russian and Soviet society, beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through the middle of the twentieth century. It is a story of what it means to live under an authoritarian regime in which the approved behavior can change in an eye blink and people who were working to support governmental approved endeavors can suddenly be seen as enemies of the state.

One of Gessen’s main focus points is the Yiddish author David Bergelson. Born in a small shtetl near Kiev, he experienced pogroms following the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Bergelson became an author following the failed Russian Revolution in 1905 and eventually settled on Yiddish as his language of choice, writing fiction and non-fiction and working to build up the Yiddish Culture League and living in Berlin for several years before returning to the Soviet Union.

Bergelson was impressed by the concept of Birobidzhan, visiting the region and occasionally living there. He became an advocate for the idea of the Jewish region and the repatriation of Russian Jews to Birobidzhan. Unfortunately to Bergelson and others, when Stalin decided that Birobidzhan represented a nationalist movement that placed Jewish identity over Soviet identity, many of those who had worked to promote the former government project were arrested and tried for nationalist ideas in what became known as the Night of the Murdered Poets.

Even while Birobidzhan existed, alternatives for a Jewish homeland were advanced, whether it was the Israel that was eventually established in the Mandate of Palestine or a conception place in the Crimea. Birobidzhan was never a Jewish utopian state that could have a golden age. Gessen describes the early Jewish settlers who found themselves in a ramshackle frontier town living in communal apartment blocks, one room per family, nd sharing kitchens and bathrooms. The promised livestock was never delivered and the land was inappropriate for farming, but the people were also not trained for farming in any event.

Between the 1930s and 1950s, when Birobidzhan and teh Jewish Autonomous Region saw the publication of a Yiddish newspaper and various books, in the years when Bergelson could visit and see the potential for a Jewish homeland, when a Jewish National Theatre could be established, the region had a Jewish population ranging from 14,000 to 18,000, perhaps a maximum of 20% of the total population of the area. While settlers could live there without experiencing the casual and not-so-casual antisemitism that existed in the rest of the Soviet Union, that state of affairs would not last.

While the Jewish Autonomous Oblast still exists, it is Jewish in name only. Yiddish is seen as an archaic construct, more often seen in books that are behind glass than spoken on the streets. A menorah may stand in front of the Birobidhzan train station, but the synagogue is a small wooden building, dwarfed by the city's churches. Gessen's book posits that part of the Russian Jewish character is to always have a second home to which they can flee in cases of adversity. While Birobidzhan may have represented this safe have to Bergelson in the 1930s, it failed him in his time of need and is no longer useful for that purpose, having fewer than 2,000 Jews living in the region that claims to be their homeland in Russia.

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