Birobidzhan: Steps in the Steppes
A Recap of the Attempt to Start an Independent Jewish Oblast in Birobidzhan, in the Far East Edge of the USSR
In his “Atlas of Jewish History,” Sir Martin Gilbert enumerated no less than 20 attempts to set up an independent Jewish state across the world.
Uganda is certainly the best-known, but there were others in Angola, Mesopotamia, Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles, Cyrenaica in Libya, Grand Island near the Niagara Falls, Saskatchewan in Canada and the Kimberly Region, deep in the Australian Outback. At the USSR, the most celebrated of all the alternative hopes for redemption was in the Autonomous Jewish Oblast of Birobidzhan in the Russian Far East, near the border with China. There is a fundamental difference with this and other regions described by Martin Gilbert. If Theodor Herzl, or Israel Zangwill, the founder in 1905 of the Territorialist Movement, saw Uganda or Saskatchewan as a temporary alternative to Zion, Stalin intended Birobidzhan as a way of extinguishing Zion. The remote region at the far extremity of the Soviet Empire would not be a temporary solution but a permanent one aimed at preventing any Zionist influence.
The Soviets liked the idea of a Jewish Kibbutz in the USSR, they believed that, in supporting it, the superiority of Communism over Socialist Zionism would be proved. The Red Jewish Pioneers were allotted an area of abandoned farm land in Yevpatoria, west of Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. The language spoken in the Crimean Kibbutz Voyo Novo (Esperanto for the “New Way,”) was Hebrew, but the pioneers had to resort to the language invented by Ludvik Zamenhoff, as Stalin had forbidden the use of Hebrew and the pioneers refused to speak Russian or Yiddish.
However, inevitably, a few years later, the Communist regime lost interest in the anti-Zionist propaganda value of the commune. Most of the members left. With the invasion of Hitler, the remaining men of Voyo Nova joined the Soviet forces, a Russian neighbor betrayed the women and children who were left behind to the occupying German forces and they were rounded up and drowned in the communal well. Soviet propaganda was so successful that even several hundred dreamers in Palestine were swept up in the vision of the New Utopia, but the decline was in sight when in the mid-1930’s, Stalin began persecuting the Jews. Prominent leaders disappeared and Yiddish schools were shut down across the USSR. Birobidzhan today is still called the Jewish Autonomous Region, but it is almost devoid of Jews - Limmud FSU has visited those who are left and heard what they had to say."
The Center of the Russian Jewish Oblast
Birobidzhan is a town and the administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Russia, located on the Trans-Siberian Railway, near the China-Russia border. As of the 2010 Census, its population is 75,413, and its official language is Yiddish. Birobidzhan is named after the two largest rivers in the autonomous oblast: the Bira and the Bidzhan. The Bira, which lies to the east of the Bidzhan Valley, flows through the town. Both rivers are tributaries of the Amur.