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Birobidzhan, Russia

Birobidzhan is the colloquial name of the district (oblast) in Russia, for which the official designation was the "Jewish Autonomous District" (Avtonomnaya Oblast). Part of the Khabarovsk territory (kray) in the former Soviet Far East, the region is located between 47° 40ʹ–49° 20ʹ N. and 130° 30ʹ–135° E. To the west, south, and southeast, it is bordered by the Amur River, the boundary between the former U.S.S.R. and Manchuria (China). Its area is 13,900 sq. mi. (36,000 sq. km.). On January 1, 1961, the estimated population of the district numbered 179,000 and that of the capital, the city of Birobidzhan, 49,000. The Jewish population of the region numbered 14,269 (8.8% of the total) in 1959; of these 83.9% lived in cities and urban settlements, while 16.1% lived in villages. The capital is located on the Bolshaya Bira River and on the Trans-Siberian Railroad which cuts through the northern sector of the territory from west to east. Its industries include farm machinery, transformers, textiles, clothing, and furniture. The climate is influenced by the prevailing monsoons and the surrounding mountains to the west and north. It improves progressively southward, the most favorable conditions prevailing in the Amur River strip in the southern part of the region. The winter is cold and dry with little snow, spring is mild, summer is hot and humid, and fall is dry and pleasant. Birobidzhan has numerous rivers and lakes abounding with fish. Most of its area is composed of heavy soils with an excess of moisture. A considerable part consists of swamps and about one-third is covered with forest. Birobidzhan has abundant mineral wealth, for the most part not commercially exploited, except for tin ores which are the basis of a large national metallurgical works, the "Khinganolovo." Grains, pulses, potatoes, vegetables, and other crops are grown. However, at the time when Jewish settlement began here, the region suffered from an almost

Map of the Birobidzhan region. Map of the Birobidzhan region.

complete absence of roads and land suitable for agriculture, insufficient and poor living accommodations, harsh climatic conditions, "gnus" (local name for bloodsucking insects), and unsanitary conditions. The Soviet decision to select Birobidzhan for Jewish settlement was influenced by several factors, the decisive one being the desire to strengthen the security of the Soviet Far East, in view of its proximity to Japan and the danger of penetration by the Chinese. The settlement of Birobidzhan became of particular importance to the U.S.S.R. after the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931–32. Since the Soviet government attempted in the late 1920s and early 1930s to improve its relations with the West, the Birobidzhan project could have also played a role in influencing Jewish and pro-Jewish public opinion there. The association of Jews with the settlement of Birobidzhan was also meant to obtain financial support from their conationals abroad, and thus alleviate the allocation of Soviet resources for this purpose. Moreover, such settlement seemed to provide a partial solution to the economic difficulties facing Soviet nationalities. To some of those active in the *Yevsektsiya (the Jewish Section of the Communist Party), Birobidzhan seemed to constitute an ideological alternative to the Zionist idea. The first official step toward implementation of the project was the dispatch of a scientific delegation to Birobidzhan in the summer of 1927, to investigate the feasibility of an agricultural settlement there. Its recommendations led to a resolution by the presidium of the central executive committee of the Soviet Union on March 28, 1928, to entrust Komzet (committee for settling Jews on the land) with the supervision of Jewish settlement in the region. On May 7, 1934, the "Birobidzhan county" (rayon), which had been established in 1930, was granted the status of the "Jewish Autonomous District" (JAD), by a decree of the central executive committee.

Jewish immigration to Birobidzhan began in April 1928 and continued at a varying rate. Colonization proceeded under most difficult conditions, especially at the beginning. The first year proved particularly difficult, with heavy rains, floods, and an outbreak of anthrax (horse disease). In the following years a comparatively large number of Jewish settlers arrived in Birobidzhan. However, the inadequate facilities and difficult climatic conditions seriously affected the rate of those who stayed there permanently. Out of prospective settlers who arrived between 1928 and 1933, more than half left. (See the table "Birobidzhan, Jewish Population.") The Birobidzhan project aroused a controversy among those active in Jewish settlement in the U.S.S.R. and among Yevsektsiya leaders. Among its critics were Mikhail (Yuri) *Larin and Abraham Bragin, both active in the Jewish settlement movement. Larin argued that other areas of the Soviet Union, especially the Crimea, were far more suitable for Jewish colonization. The Birobidzhan project found an ardent supporter in Mikhail Kalinin, the titular head of state. In a speech delivered at a congress of the society for Jewish agricultural settlement, Ozet, in 1926, before the Birobidzhan project was born, he had declared: "The Jewish people now faces the great task of preserving its nationality. For this purpose a large segment of the Jewish population must transform itself into a compact farming population, numbering at least several hundred thousand souls." In a reception given to representatives of Moscow workers and the Yiddish press in May 1934, he suggested that the creation of a Jewish territorial center in Birobidzhan would be the only way to normalize the national status of Soviet Jews. He also expressed his hope that "within a decade Birobidzhan will be the most important and probably the only bulwark of national Jewish socialist culture." and that "the transformation of the region into a republic is only a question of time." The visit of Lazar *Kaganovich , a Jew and member of the Politburo, to Birobidzhan in February 1936 greatly encouraged the Jewish leadership of the region. Birobidzhan aroused wide interest in world Jewry, especially among those who believed in Jewish *territorialism . The fact that Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan coincided with the intensification of anti-Jewish repressions in Nazi Germany also contributed to support of the idea by Jews outside the Soviet Union. Almost all sectors of the Zionist movement opposed it. Jewish organizations outside the U.S.S.R. which participated in Jewish colonization projects in the Soviet Union, such as Agro-Joint (American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation) and the *Jewish Colonization Association (ICA), generally took a neutral stand. The *Ort -Farband gave limited assistance to the development of industry and workshops. Those Jewish organizations abroad whose membership consisted mostly of Communists and their sympathizers supported the plan without reservation. Among the most active organizations was Icor (the American Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union), which cooperated closely with Ozet. In 1929 Icor organized a scientific delegation consisting of American specialists in agriculture and settlement to investigate the possibilities for further colonization of Birobidzhan. Ambidjan (American Committee for the Settlement of Foreign Jews in Birobidzhan) supported Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan for a short period in the mid-1930s and after World War II. Jewish organizations supporting Birobidzhan existed in Canada, Western Europe, and South America. Representatives of the Argentinian Jewish organization Procor (Society to Assist the Productivization of the Economically Ruined Jewish Masses in the Soviet Union) visited Birobidzhan in 1929. These organizations, besides holding meetings, issuing publications, and collecting money, also propagandized the colonization of Birobidzhan by Jews from abroad. Thus, about 1,400 Jewish immigrants from countries outside the Soviet Union arrived in Birobidzhan in the early 1930s, emigrating from the United States, South America, Europe, Palestine, and other places.

From the beginning of Jewish colonization in Birobidzhan, and particularly in the mid-1930s, much was done to promote the Jewish character of Birobidzhan. Jewish collective farms were established and Jewish village councils organized. Jews served in key positions of the region. Y. Levin, formerly active in the party apparatus in Belorussia and in the secretariat of Ozet, was appointed as first party secretary of the Birobidzhan district in 1930. After the establishment of the J.A.D. in 1934, another Jew, M. Khavkin, was appointed first secretary of the regional party committee. Joseph Liberberg, head of the Jewish section of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, was appointed at the same time chairman of the regional executive committee. He was one of those intellectuals, who, by settling in Birobidzhan, inspired others in their pioneering efforts. A number of resolutions were passed regarding the use of Yiddish as the official language of the region, along with Russian. Schools were established with Yiddish as the language of instruction, and experiments were made to teach Yiddish even in non-Jewish schools. Street signs, rail station signs, and postmarks appeared in both Russian and Yiddish. A Yiddish newspaper and periodicals were published. In 1934 a Jewish state theater was established. A regional library, named after Shalom Aleichem, containing a sizable collection of Judaica and Yiddish works, was founded in the city of Birobidzhan. The mid-1930s was a period of great expectations for Birobidzhan's development as a center of Jewish settlement and culture in the Soviet Union. However, the purges of 1936–38 delivered a severe blow to the developing and rather weak framework of the nascent Jewish statehood in the JAD Leading Jewish personalities of the district, such as Liberberg, were denounced as nationalists and Trotskyites, demoted from their posts, and liquidated. The purges particularly affected the immigrants from abroad. As a result, the late 1930s witnessed a shattering setback in the development of the region. Despite the optimistic plans for continuous settlement of Jews in Birobidzhan, their number was only 13,291 in 1939 (18.57% of the total population), with 10,415 (35.13% of the total) in the capital city. The Soviet annexation of the Baltic states and parts of eastern Poland and Bukovina in 1939–40 resulted in a sudden increase in the Jewish population of the U.S.S.R. During that period plans were initiated to transfer Jewish settlers from the annexed territories to Birobidzhan. However, the outbreak of the Soviet-German war in 1941 put a fast end to these plans. Although the war years did not witness any sizable increase in the Jewish population of the region, the very idea of Birobidzhan as a center for Jewish statehood in the Soviet Union received new meaning.

Jewish population of Birobidzhan 192859. The lower graph shows the total Jewish population, the upper one the immigration into the region. Jewish population of Birobidzhan 1928–59. The lower graph shows the total Jewish population, the upper one the immigration into the region.

The Holocaust and growth of antisemitism in the U.S.S.R. during the war resulted in revived interest in the JAD among Soviet Jews. The growth of national feelings and the difficulties faced by Soviet Jews who had fled to the East, upon their return to their prewar homes in the western parts of the U.S.S.R., caused some to turn to Birobidzhan. Moreover, since the hopes for a planned settlement of Jews in the Crimea did not materialize, Birobidzhan remained the only alternative for a compact Jewish settlement. Numerous requests for immigration to Birobidzhan were received by the JAD authorities in the postwar years, and a flow of new Jewish settlers reached the region between 1946 and 1948. Articles in the Eynikayt, organ of the Jewish anti-Fascist Committee, emphasized the idea of Jewish statehood in Birobidzhan. The Soviet Jewish writer *Der Nister , who accompanied a trainload of new settlers, wrote: "There are some travelers whose intentions are only materialistic, and there are others whose intentions are different, of a national character … and there are also burning enthusiasts, ready to give up everything in order to live there … and among them a former Palestinian patriot…. Although in his fifties, he hustles about during the day and is sleepless at night, hoping to see his new enterprise come true…." The short postwar migration to Birobidzhan increased the local Jewish population by one-third, and by the end of 1948 it was estimated at about 20,000, the largest ever in the district. The postwar period witnessed an increase in the number of Jews in the local administration and an intensification of Jewish cultural activities. Among local Jewish writers active in the "Soviet Writers' Association of the JAD" were Buzi Miler, Israel *Emiot , Ḥayyim Maltinski, Aaron *Vergelis , and others. Assistance from Jews abroad was permitted once again. The revival of Birobidzhan as a Jewish center came to a halt toward the end of 1948, as a result of Soviet policy to suppress Jewish activities throughout the U.S.S.R., and purge those involved. While the purges of the late 1930s mainly affected individual Jews holding official positions, those of 1948 and thereafter aimed to destroy any sort of Jewish activity in the region. Thus, most of the local Jewish writers were imprisoned, the Birobidzhan Jewish theater was closed, teaching of Yiddish in local schools was discontinued, and a great number of Yiddish books were removed from the Shalom Aleichem Library. Jewish immigration to Birobidzhan ceased, and its Jewish population shrank considerably. The post-Stalin period did not bring any substantial changes to Jewish life in Birobidzhan. Jewish inhabitants comprised less than one-tenth of the general population of the region in 1959, party and administrative positions were not generally held by Jews, and Jewish agriculture was almost nonexistent. In 1970 the Jews numbered 11,452. The sole kolkhoz with a comparatively large Jewish membership is that of Valdheim in the vicinity of the capital, but it is now only a branch of the large kolkhoz "Ilich's Wills" and its Jewish population is diminishing. Such key positions as secretary or chairman of the local party regional and district committees (the district is divided into five administrative counties) were generally not held by Jews, although in 1970 Lev Shapiro was appointed first secretary of the regional Communist Party organization. Of the five deputies to the Council of Nationalities of the U.S.S.R., only a minority was Jewish. The sole expression of Jewish cultural activity in 1970 was a two-page Yiddish newspaper, Der Birobidzhaner Shtern, nearly devoid of all Jewish content, which appeared three times weekly and had a circulation of 1,000. There were also a few street signs in Yiddish, and Shalom Aleichem Street remained one of the thoroughfares of the capital. There was one synagogue. All official and public business was conducted exclusively in Russian. N.S. Khrushchev, Soviet premier and first party secretary, stated in an interview for Le Figaro, which appeared on April 9, 1958, that "it must be admitted that if we strike a balance we would have to state that the Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan was a failure." He further put the blame for it upon the Soviet Jews, who, according to Khrushchev, never liked collective work and group discipline. It is difficult to ascribe the failure of the Birobidzhan experiment to one single cause. In the history of the Jewish people it belongs to the series of other futile attempts at planned Jewish mass settlement, based on agriculture, whose failure is often attributed to its implicit or explicit negation of the ultimate return to Zion. However, viewed in the context of Soviet Jewish reality, the immediate cause of its failure was undoubtedly the fact that twice, in 1936–37 and in 1948–49, the Stalinist purges put a brutal end to the short periods of developing autonomous Jewish life and culture in Birobidzhan. In the 1990s most remaining Jews immigrated to Israel and the West.


S. Schwarz, The Jews in the Soviet Union (1951), index; idem, in: J. Frumkin (ed.) Russian Jewry 19171967 (1969), 342–95; A.L. Eliav (Benami), Between Hammer and Sickle (1969), 176–88; S.W. Baron, The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets (1964), index; J. Lvavi, Ha-Hityashevut ha-Yehudit be-Birobidzhan (1965); A.G. Duker, Jewish Survival in the World Today (1939), 47–59; idem, in: Contemporary Jewish Record (March–April 1939), 24–26; J. Emiot, Der Birobidzhaner Inyen (1960); Jews in Eastern Europe (1966ff.), index; Z. Katz, in: Bulletin on Soviet Jewish Affairs, 2 (July, 1968); C. Abramsky, in: L. Kochan (ed.), Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917 (1970), 62–75 (incl. bibl.).

[Jacob Lvavi (Babitzky) / Shimon Redlich]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.