Jewish Mother Russia

Studies in Forgetting
Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 24 2009 9:35 AM

Jewish Mother Russia

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People waiting for the morning bus in the freezing Birobidzhad winter. Photo by Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos. Click image to expand.
People waiting for the morning bus in the freezing Birobidzhad winter. Photo by Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

BIROBIDZHAN, Russia—The original planners of the Jewish Autonomous Region hoped to attract hundreds of thousands of Jews to Birobidzhan; to build a modern, Bauhaus-style city (for if ever there was an idea Jews the world over agreed on, it is exposed concrete and low ceilings); and surround it with rolling fields of wheat cultivated by Yiddish-speaking collective farmers.

Cold, rain, and disease killed most of the crops year after year. The Bauhaus plans were scrapped, and the city grew haphazardly, with settlers living in identical two-story wooden barracks, one room per family, one outhouse per building. Settlers trickled in—never more than 10,000 per year—and many turned back within months of arriving. Two waves of purges—in 1937 and again in 1949—decimated the Jewish population. The party elite was targeted the first time around, and the cultural elite was rounded up in the second sweep.

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Nominally, the Jewish Autonomous Region retains its ethnic identity today (it never had much of a religious character), but, bizarrely, a search for Jewish history in Birobidzhan is much like an attempt to locate Jewish history in a European city: a tour of the invisible. The Birobidzhan Jewish Theater, formed in the 1930s and housed in one of the few Bauhaus structures that were actually constructed, was shut down in the purges of 1949, much of its staff was arrested, and the building itself was disgraced by two pseudo-classical statues of Young Pioneers placed in front to signify that it now belonged to the children of the proletariat. A few years later, the building was razed. As, more recently, was the school in which the language of instruction was Yiddish—until 1949, when that practice was "exposed" as part of a nationalist conspiracy and banned.

Razing buildings is one of the most effective ways of obscuring memory. The mechanism is described in an old Soviet Jewish joke. "A man sees an acquaintance walking down the street and calls out to him, 'Hey, Cohen!' The second man doesn't answer, so the first man catches up with him and says, 'Hey, Cohen, why aren't you answering?' 'Because I am no longer Cohen. I changed my last name to Ivanov.' OK, taking a Russian-sounding surname to avoid anti-Semitism is reasonable enough. A year or so later, the same two men cross paths again. 'Hi, Ivanov,' says the first man. 'I am not Ivanov,' says the second man testily. 'I changed my name to Petrov.' Now our guy is puzzled: 'Why would you do a thing like that if you already had a perfectly good Russian name?'—'Because everyone kept asking what my surname used to be.' " So that's how it works: By the time you get a preschool that used to be the Palace of Young Pioneers that used to be the Yiddish theater, who will remember the theater?

I've been spending my days in various Birobidzhan archives. Each one is a study in methods of forgetting. Take the Oblast Museum, which is the best place of its kind here—that is to say it's the least offensive. Like all Russian local history museums, this one has an exhibition that starts with rocks. Local rocks, crystal formations, whatever. Rocks are profoundly ahistoric, which makes them ideal Russian museum exhibits: They don't talk, and they don't need to be rearranged in case of regime change. If you make it past the rocks and up to the second floor, you will find three rooms devoted to the human history of the Jewish Autonomous Region. Like all Russian history museums, this one reveals a split personality with two distinct voices: a heroic one reserved for the Great Patriotic War—aka World War II—and the other, a more narrative one, for the rest of the story.

Map of Russia. Click image to expand.

The exhibition begins, poignantly, with a perestroika-era visit by some Birobidzhan researchers to a Ukrainian shtetl. Predictably enough, they found a cannery inside the old synagogue and a single elderly Jew who still knew how to put on tefillin and a prayer shawl. Birobidzhan, where a Yiddish-language paper was still being published back in 1989, looked like a fountain of Jewish life in comparison. The room contains photographs of the early settlers and some information on the first round of purges.

The next room, draped in red flags, drips with wartime patriotism. There are guns and German trophies and information on Birobidzhan's war heroes. There is, strangely, no mention of the Japanese front, which was practically next door—only the Soviet effort against the Germans.

The third and final room takes the visitor through Birobidzhan's brief postwar renaissance—in 1949, the region's Jewish population reached its all-time peak of 15 percent of the total, just in time for Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign—through the purges, on to the happy years of late-socialist stagnation, through perestroika, and ends with present-day Birobidzhan, which holds biannual Jewish culture festivals and even receives visitors from Israel. (There is no mention of the fact that most Birobidzhan Jews emigrated to Israel in the early 1990s.)

I had a very odd sense that something was missing. Something big. Something important. Something catastrophic. The Holocaust!

I had just taken a tour of a museum of 20th-century Jewish history that did not mention the Holocaust. There was no explanation for the decimation of Ukrainian shtetls. There was no indication that the reason for the postwar wave of immigration was the destruction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. It's as if it all just happened.

Actually, that's exactly the message. Thinking about history too hard raises too many questions—that is, of course, why the Holocaust never made it into Soviet history books, or even into this Jewish museum. The State Archive of Birobidzhan manages to walk this fine, mind-numbing line in its own little museum. Here is what it says about the 1949-53 campaign, which Western historians have called "Stalin's war against the Jews" and which saw the arrests and executions of every member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, among other atrocities: "An anti-nationalist campaign swept the country. It could not pass by the Jewish Autonomous Region." In other words, it just happened.

When I asked for documents on the 1949 purges, the librarian at the archives told me that particular file was currently unavailable. These kinds of files tend to be unavailable all over Russia these days: For years now, getting answers to questions about Stalinist purges has been progressively more difficult. I thought I had found a way to get around this barrier in Birobidzhan, though: I placed the minutes of a party personnel meeting on the long list of documents I was requesting.

"I'm afraid we cannot give you this file," the librarian told me.

"Why not?"

"It's a personnel file," she said. "It's confidential. People may be bothered."

Right. Wouldn't want the executioners—or their victims—turning over in their graves.

On my lunch break today, I slipped over to the slums of Birobidzhan, where inebriated creatures of indeterminate age and gender wander among the barracks, which are still standing. My destination was the film archive, where I could pick up some historical footage. The archive's director, a 60-ish heavyset woman with dyed blond hair, said she had something to tell me. Seriously, she wanted to talk? That would be refreshing.

"Things are fine here," she said. "I like my city, I like my country, I like my family. In other countries, people talk about being Jewish. But here," she said very, very loudly, "we don't talk about it!"

Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century. She is writing a book about Birobidzhan for Nextbook/Schocken.

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