On March 28, 1928, the presidium of the General Executive Committee of the Soviet Union approved the establishment of a Jewish national region in the country’s Far East. Informally referred to as Birobidzhan, after the name of the district’s capital city, the region, which borders Manchuria, was meant as a homeland for the Jews of the USSR, with Yiddish serving with Russian as one of two official languages.
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At the time, the government of Joseph Stalin encouraged the development of national identities for the different ethnic groups that made up the country’s population. Although religious practice was strongly discouraged by the communist regime, the Jews were perceived as a cultural group united principally by a common language and Birobidzhan was to be a national home.
A land of their own would also afford the Jews with an opportunity to become “productive,” considering their tendency to persist in their traditional livelihoods as merchants and craftsmen, and their difficulty integrating into the communist economy. In the period following the Russian Civil War, a Jewish agricultural movement had already led to the creation of 79 distinct Jewish farming colonies in the country. In allocating Birobidzhan to the Jews, the intention was that it would become the largest of these colonies.
A Jewish homeland in the Russian Far East would also serve as an alternative to Zionism for the more than 2.5 million Jews of the Soviet Union, and its strategic location would help to secure the border region against the expanding Japanese empire. In fact, an effort was made to raise moral and financial support internationally for the project from Jewish socialists and Yiddishists.
And indeed, as Nazism began its rise in Germany, the Jewish national project in Birobidzhan attracted increasing interest and support globally, although the Zionist organizations understandably did not join in the support.
By 1934, the homeland was upgraded to the status of a “Jewish Autonomous Region,” and Jewish culture was thriving in its capital, which is situated some 6,000 kilometers from Moscow. There was a Sholom Aleichem Theater, a Yiddish newspaper and schools whose language of instruction was Yiddish.
Although Birobidzhan never possessed the romantic or historical allure of Palestine for Soviet Jews, who were more likely to want to move to Moscow or Leningrad than to a rural area near the Chinese border, nonetheless during the 1930s, and again in the period following the Holocaust, there were thousands who migrated to the region. Migration began as early as April 1928; in the decade that followed, 43,000 Soviet Jews moved to Birobidzhan – although only 19,000 of them actually remained. Additionally, another 1,200 Jews immigrated there from outside the country including from the United States, South America and even Palestine.
It was the changing political winds at the national level that doomed Birobidzhan. The political purges of 1936-39 were accompanied by an official disappearance of support for the project, and the destruction of the political leadership of the region and many of its cultural institutions.
Following World War II, despite an initial wave of renewed immigration to the region, the now more blatantly anti-Semitic policies of the Stalin regime devastated the already weakened Jewish national project in Birobidzhan. Now, the state began to actively suppress the Jewish cultural institutions there that 15 years earlier it had helped to nurture. The use of Yiddish was now prohibited in public institutions, the Jewish theater shut down, and many Jewish writers imprisoned.
Officially, the region is still called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (“oblast” is a political subdivision in Russian), but Jews constitute only about 1 percent of its population today; most of those who remained left for Israel by the 1990s. And yet, there has been a renewed interest in Jewish culture in recent decades. The Birobidzhan National Jewish University teaches Hebrew and other Jewish subjects, Bar-Ilan University has been offering a summer Yiddish program in the capital city since 2007, and there are again grade schools offering instruction in Yiddish.