An Experiment to Create a Soviet Jewish Homeland
Birobidzhan Collection at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
The Yivo library and Archives possess a unique collection of printed and archival materials about the Jewish Autonomous region in the former Soviet Union commonly known as Birobidzhan, the region's capital city.
The Birobidzhan experiment was an exotic and controversial attempt to establish a socialist Jewish homeland in the Russian Far East. Birobidzhan still exists today as a remnant of the Communist Party's effort to create a territorial enclave where a secular Jewish community rooted in Yiddish and socialist principles would serve as an alternative to Palestine. The experiment in Jewish territorialization appealed to many Soviet and foreign Jews who desired to build a national Jewish territory dedicated to the building of socialism in the Soviet Union.
In December 1927, after lengthy and often heated debates, and after several years of "lobbying" by Jewish political activists, the Soviet government decided to create a national territory for Soviet Jews along the Sino-Soviet border, which comprised 36.000 square kilometers with 11.000 inhabitants, mostly Russians. In March 1928 the first Jewish settlers arrived in the area and began constructing the new Soviet Jewish homeland, officially known as the Jewish Autonomous Region (J.A.R.) since 1934. The main goal of the Birobidzhan project was the "productivization" of Soviet Jewry by encouraging Jews to become farmers and workers. In addition, the Kremlin intended for Birobidzhan to reflect the socialist aspirations of the Jewish people whose national language was Yiddish. During Birobidzhan's first decade of existence, Yiddish did play a significant role in the life of the region, though it cannot be denied that the Jewish content of Yiddish materials was diluted. Gradually, the role of Yiddish diminished, and the expression of Jewish national consciousness among Jewish inhabitants of the J.A.R. was limited to the designation of Evrei (Jew) in their internal passport.
Leftwing Jews throughout the world hailed the decision to establish the J.A.R. This support led to the formation of various organizations whose purpose was to promote the Birobidzhan project by collecting money and publicizing its existence in various forms. During the 1930s and 1940s, such important cultural figures as Albert Einstein and Marc Chagall were among the scores of prominent Jews who welcomed the creation of the J.A.R.
The collection at YIVO represents both pro and anti-Birobidzhan sympathies. It main be divided into following categories:
• Periodicals, books and pamphlets from the Soviet Union.
• Periodicals, books and pamphlets from abroad.
• Archival materials of the pro-Soviet organizations "ICOR" and "Ambijan"* (USA)
• Archival materials from Birobidzhan and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
• Art albums, posters, slides, videos.
The collection includes more than 30 periodicals published from the late 1920s through late 1940s in the Soviet Union, Poland, Belgium, The Netherlands, England, the United States, Argentina, Uruguay and South Africa.
Among the most interesting publications of the 1930s-1940s is the monthly magazine
Naylebn (New Life), the official organ of the pro-Soviet Jewish organization ICOR (
Idishe kolonizatsya organizatsye, Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union). This monthly publication was issued on an excellent quality paper in Yiddish and English from 1928 to 1935 under the title
Icor, and from 1935 to 1950 as
Naylebn. The magazine features articles, photos, literary works, including poetry, fiction, humor, satire and other materials covering virtually all aspects of life in the Jewish Autonomous region. Browsing the pages of "
Naylebn" we can trace the lives of American families who immigrated to Birobidzhan before 1937 and remained there. We can also vividly see how the propaganda apparatus of Icor worked praising even the tiniest achievements of the J.A.R. on the one hand (for instance, the day of establishment of the J.A.R. was pronounced on the pages of
Naylebn as the greatest event in the Jewish history), and, on the other hand, neglecting crucial happenings, such as repressions and dismantling of Yiddish culture. The magazine aggressively defended any attempt of the "
Forverts" to write negative information about Birobidzhan. On the pages of the "
Forverts", on the contrary, one can find numerous articles about Birobidzhan as well, with emphasis on its problems and impossibility to become a genuine center for Jewish life. There we can encounter many personal revelations of miserable existence of Jews who decided to connect their destiny with the Soviet Zion. Any article of this sort was immediately counterattacked by "
Naylebn" and occasionally by the Communist daily "
Morgn Frayhayt", which in it’s turn wrote numerous materials about Birobidzhan "achievements". In unison with aforementioned pro-Soviet periodicals from the Unite States the Birobidzhan myth was propagandized and advertised by the following publications:
Unzer veg", [1935-1936 the years reflect YIVO holdings]; "
Gezerd"  (Antwerp);
Iberboy  (Brussels);
Der Idisher poyer [1928, 1930],
Nay- erd [1933-1934],
Heymland (Buenos Aires);
Gezerd vort [1932-1934] (Johannesburg);
Naylebn  (London);
Birobidzshan [1948-1950] (Montevideo);
Ikor yor-bukh [1932, 1933, 1936],
Ambijan Bulletin [1946-1949; in English] (New York);
Gezerd-tribune  (Paris);
Nayerd [1930-1934] (Riga);
Iberboy [1933-1935] (Warsaw).
Books and booklets
The Birobidzhan collection also contains more than 150 books and booklets published from 1927 to nowadays in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Most are in Yiddish, Russian and English. Besides clearly propagandistic works published in the 1930s there are some serious works that objectively analyze the experiment. Among them the closest attention require the following works:
• Sadan, Dov.
Der emes vegn der Yevsektsye un Birobidzshan. Buenos Aires, 1935.
• Fink, Viktor.
Evrei v taige. Moscow, 1930.
"M’antloyft" fun Erets-Yisroel, men "loyft keyn" Birobidzshan. Tel Aviv, 1932
• Jewish National Fund.
Der emes vegn der Yevsektsye un Birobidzshan. Jerusalem, 1933.
• Ronkin, Jizchak
. Birobidjan-Palaestina. Prague, 1937
A unique possession of the YIVO archives is a set of almost 100 wall newspapers from Birobidzhan. Handwritten or typed, this 1933 set was a supplement to the local newspaper
Birobidzhaner Shtern. It is the only one of its kind in the world. These newspapers will enable researchers to learn more about the lives of Jewish pioneers of Birobidzhan. On the pages of the wall newspapers there may be found more critical materials than in the official
Birobidzhaner Shtern, which was, in a way, as any official newspaper, a translated version of
Works of Art
YIVO also owns two art albums,
A matoneh tsu Biro-Bidjan = A gift to Biro-Bidjan (Chicago, 1937) and
Ikor (New York, 1929), which are devoted to Jewish Colonization in Birobidzhan and are represented by well-known artists, such as B. Aronson, W. Gropper, L. Lozowick, Z. Maud, Y. Ryback.
Biro-Bidjan – catalog of the 1936 exhibition of works of art presented by American artists to the state museum of Birobidzhan innumerates some 210 works of American artists to support Birobidzhan project. YIVO archives have also materials related to this exhibition. Interestingly enough, this exhibition traveled over several cities of the United States, reached Moscow, had a large review in Soviet and American press and … disappeared, never reaching Birobidzhan. In the best scenario it ended somewhere in the reserves of one of Moscow galleries.
The archives of YIVO possess the materials related to Birobidzhan both from Russia and from the United States. There one can encounter materials on the National Committee ICOR, manuscripts, articles, essays on Birobidzhan, as well as correspondence, personal documents, reports, photographs and clippings of leaders and activists of pro-Soviet Jewish organizations, which supported the Birobidzhan project. YIVO photo and film archives own a silent film "A Scientific Expedition to Birobidzhan" (1929), produced by the faculty of Brigham Young University and ICOR activists.
The latest acquisition of YIVO on Birobidzhan is the archive of the Jewish actress Julia Flaum (1914-1995), who played in Birobidzhan State Jewish Theater in the 1940s. It has playbills of Birobidzhan State Jewish Theater, photos of it’s actors and actresses, personal correspondence of the years spent in Birobidzhan, clippings from Russian and Yiddish press about Birobidzhan State Jewish Theater.
YIVO library and archives holdings of contemporary works published both in the former Soviet Union and abroad up to year 2000 are also impressive. The publications of 1960s-1990s include scholarly works on the subject in various languages from the former Soviet Union, Israel, United States, France, Germany; literary compositions of Birobidzhan local writers, poets and journalists; the complete run of the local newspaper "
Birobidzhaner Shtern" (1973 – to present); personal memoirs of the persecuted Jews from Birobidzhan; methodological materials and textbooks to teach Yiddish published by the Birobidzhan branch of the Russia’s Ministry of Education, art albums and posters, sound recordings of the local Yiddish radio, a documentary "Jews under the Red Star", on contemporary Jewish life in the city of Birobidzhan (1989), slides and newspaper clippings on revival of Jewish culture in the late 1980s early 1990s, correspondence of professor Bernard Chossed (United States) on Jewish revival in Birobidzhan.
*Ambijan – American Birobijan Committee, a pro-Soviet organization, which supported the colonization of J.A. R. and was especially active in the 1940s.