A Haven for Russian Jews Withers Hard Times Hit a Remote but Once-Vibrant Center of Yiddish Culture

By Brian Humphreys, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Haven for Russian Jews Withers Hard Times Hit a Remote but Once-Vibrant Center of Yiddish Culture


Brian Humphreys, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Before there was a State of Israel, there was Birobidzhan, Russia. In the late 1920s, the international Jewish community, eager to create a national homeland under the still-unsullied Soviet banner of social justice, sent money and volunteers to Birobidzhan. The people and the dreams that they brought with them are hardly remembered now.

Birobidzhan has come full circle since the days when it attracted thousands of Jewish settlers from the Ukraine and Belarus. Seven huge factories built during the Stalin era transformed Birobidzhan from a vibrant center of Yiddish culture to a cog in the Soviet industrial machine. Now, they're bankrupt. And market capitalism's promises, made by Moscow reformers, have gone unfulfilled in this backwater. In increasing numbers, the Jews that have remained in this city see their future in Israel.

Birobidzhan, population 75,000, is one of the last stops eastward along the trans-Siberian railroad. If not for the fact that its name is written in oversize Hebrew characters on top of the station house, there would be little to show that this provincial factory town existed for 60 years as the official homeland of Soviet Jews. Jews still here today say that the sign above the railway station is practically the only Jewish thing left in Birobidzhan. Thousands of Jews have left this small Russian city for Israel in the past six years. Last year, nearly one-tenth of all Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union were from Birobidzhan. Ironically, Birobidzhan Jews had come to feel at home in this remote corner of Russia in a way that many of their counterparts in European Russia never did. "In the Far East, it is easier," says Mark Miller, a former factory boss who now lives in the neighboring city of Khabarovsk. "It is not Ukraine or Belarus ... where people have blood ties to the land. Everybody here is from someplace else, so the Jews are not imposing on anybody." When the first waves of Soviet emigres left for Israel in the 1970s, most here decided to stay put. 'People are running away' "I'm skeptical that everybody is leaving now because they dream of being united with their historical motherland," says Ina Dmitrienko, the editor of Birobidzhan's Yiddish-language daily. "People are running away from their problems. Confidence in the future is almost completely absent here ... although things in Israel are hardly any better at the moment. They have everything we do - the army, the draft, and terrorists to boot." Even so, the line for Israeli immigration visas is not getting any shorter at the city's Palace of Culture. A makeshift Israeli consulate set up there once a month handles a flood of applications. By official figures, there were only 9,000 Jews in Birobidzhan in 1989. Since 7,500 have left since then, 1,500 Jews should be in the city today. But with hard times, many people have begun to take a closer look at their family background. …

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