|A Gift to Biro-Bidjan:
From Despair to New Hope
The Biro-Bidjan Project
|The idea of a
Jewish autonomous region in the heart of Siberia emerged from Lenin’s nationalities
policy that encouraged each ethnic group in the Soviet Union to settle
its own territory, develop its language and culture, and contribute to
the building of socialism.
Soviet Jews, who were suffering
through a wave of pogroms and anti-Semitism, were given the land around
Biro-Bidjan in 1927, more than 20 years before the establishment of the
To convince Jews to move to this area, the Soviet government offered each settler 600 rubles and free railroad passage and food for the journey. In the early 1930s, the government released The Seekers of Happiness, a film about a poor American family’s decision to emigrate to Biro-Bidjan. Posters of smiling workers hauling grain and driving tractors were printed to promote a Soviet version of the Promised Land.
Jews did come from all over the world — Argentina, the United States, even Palestine — to settle in communes in the new homeland. In the 1930s, there was an even more compelling reason for Soviet Jews, especially those from the Ukraine, to come to Biro-Bidjan. Tens of thousands of Soviets were suffering and dying of starvation in the first half of that decade under Stalin's brutal collectivization policies.
The Soviets promoted the use of Yiddish in Biro-Bidjan because they considered it the language of the secular, proletarian culture that replaced the “religious” Hebrew. At the height of the Biro-Bidjan project (1934-37), the settlers established Yiddish cultural institutions including schools, newspapers, a library and a theater, the Kaganovich Jewish Theatre, founded in 1934 in a modern Bauhaus style building. Members of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre attended the theater opening, and the first play produced there was by the notable Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem.
The first exodus from Biro-Bidjan began almost as soon as the settlers arrived. Between 1928 and 1938, 41,000 Jews arrived; by the end of 1938, 28,000 of those had left voluntarily. As the political climate worsened in the late 1930s, the entire political leadership and membership of the writer’s club of Biro-Bidjan disappeared into labor camps.
|Women pioneers in Biro-Bidjan, ca. 1936.||A farmer on a tractor in Biro-Bidjan, ca. 1936.|