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Welcome at our cousins in Birobidzhan

By Gerard XAVIER

Translation by David PRESBURGER-HAUSER


Location of the Jewish Autonomous Republic (Oblast) of Birobidzhan in Russia

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Jews being recognized as a nationality in the USSR, Stalin decided in 1928 to grant them a territory in eastern Siberia, on the northern border with Manchuria. His motives are clear: to get rid of a number of people bothering him by sending them 6000 km away from Moscow to settle in an area claimed by both Japan and China.

The creation of the Jewish Autonomous Republic of Birobidzhan

A Jewish settlement of 36 000 km2 is created, with Yiddish as its official language. The province is very impoverished and lacks provision for housing or food, or to start agricultural activities and crafts. Yet over 43,000 people settled there between 1928 and 1938. Birobidzhan was promoted as "Jewish Autonomous Region" in 1934. In the early years, the cultural difference is encouraged: the artistic life is fruitful, Jewish schools multiply, a theater is open and a Yiddish newspaper (The Star of Birobidzhan) publishes on a regular basis. Agriculture is developing as well: the Waldheim kolkhoz became one of the most exemplary in the Soviet Union.

But with the purges of the late 1930s and the birth of the concept of "Soviet citizenship" the region suffers a major depression. State-level anti-Semitism leads to closings of the schools, the theater in 1948-49 and the synagogue burning shortly after. Emigration to the new State of Israel seems to confirm the end of Birobidzhan. In 1959 the Jewish population represents only 9% of the total population; in 1970 it drops to 6%.

A slow rejuvenation

It was not until perestroika and glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev (from 1985) that the Jewish character was resurrected in the region.

In 1991, when Jewish emigration was authorized, 20% of the intelligentsia packed. Then the pace of departures slowed down. All this has a heavy impact on the economy. In 2002, there are only 2,327 Jews left among a population of nearly 200,000 inhabitants. However, this does not mean much, since many non-Jewish inhabitants of the Autonomous Republic have Jewish ancestors.

Since 2004 the process has been reversed: there are more arrivals than departures. And some signs of a "renaissance" of Birobidzhan are tangible: reopening of schools, establishing a Jewish national university, youth clubs and senior citizens, a ballet company, a theater, a choir and a festival of Jewish culture ... The Star of Birobidzhan still exists, although the newspaper, now in Russian, publishes four pages only in Yiddish. Few people still speak the language, but its learning was revived in local schools. As for the search of the roots, it has very little to do with joining a religious affiliation after seventy years of communism and atheism fights. "We are trying to achieve what had never really succeeded," said Valeri Gurevich, deputy governor of the autonomous region. "We do not want to build an alternative to Israel. We want to be a land where Jews and non-Jews can live together comfortably, and be a Jewish cultural center in the Far East. "

La place centrale de la ville de Birobidjan

Birobidzhan Main Square

A future-oriented region

Getting off the Trans-Siberian at Birobidzhan (the capital of the autonomous region), the station name is written in Russian and Yiddish, a seven-branched candelabrum is planted high on the central square and the main street of the city is still named "Sholem Aleichem," after the great Yiddish writer. There are also two synagogues. If the city seems stuck in the past, the region looks to the future. Though funds from Israel and the USA are invested, all eyes are now directed to neighboring China. And a bridge should span over the Amur River before 2012 ends.

The international media have mentioned Birobidzhan, mainly since 2002. They point out that there is no anti-Semitism in this region.

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