|A Gift to Biro-Bidjan:
From Despair to New Hope
In 1937, a group of Chicago-area artists created a portfolio of woodcuts as a fund-raising project for Biro-Bidjan, the Jewish autonomous region in the Soviet Union. These 14 artists were also active in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression, and their woodcuts, which revealed scenes of oppression and despair against images of “new hope” and optimism, reflected the present as well as the past. Some of the woodcuts expressed the hardship of the Depression in the United States or the persecution of Jews in Europe. Others conveyed the expectations of the New Deal program at home or Stalin’s solution for a Jewish homeland far away in the taiga of Siberia.
In the introduction to the portfolio, written in English and Yiddish, the artists revealed their objective:
We, a group of Chicago Jewish artists, in presenting our works to the Builders of Biro-Bidjan, are symbolizing with this action the flowering of a new social concept wherein the artist becomes moulded into the clay of the whole people and becomes the clarion of their hopes and desires.
It seems that deep, deep in our minds we are able to look down the age-old infinite road, away back into antiquity, that our people traveled and envision the trail of monuments of glory and suffering marking that tortuous path.
In solemn thought we contemplate that wanderer – our father the Jew – meeting one encounter after another – wounded and bleeding – healing and always coming up with a stronger will to struggle with the forces of intolerance, oppression and exploitation.
Today, the sons of the Jews are animated by the spirit of a new cultural force, the components of which are science and artistic inspiration.
We feel, welling up in our hearts, the need for our coming forth and mingling with our brothers in order better to understand what dreams are stirring in their breasts.
Thus we will better translate, in our media, these aspirations for a new and better life and pour forth, to a more understanding world, from our fountain of creation the first sparkling glimpses that are the new Jew in the making.
Another section in the introduction to the portfolio, written in Yiddish, acknowledges the artists and the sponsors of the project:
Chicago ICOR [The Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union] is delighted to introduce the Jewish artists’ album “A Gift to Biro-Bidjan” and to thank the artists and the publisher L.M. Stein, for their contributions. Not all the images in this album reflect the ideology of ICOR, but we are glad to present fourteen of the most prominent Chicago artists, who support ICOR and our efforts of building the Jewish autonomy in Biro-Bidjan. We are confident that all cultural progressive forces in the Jewish community will join us soon.
The artists who participated in this project had the freedom to select their themes for the portfolio; therefore, the 14 images reveal direct Jewish themes associated with the Biro-Bidjan project, as well as universal motifs of social justice or Depression-era events. In some instances, there are dual meanings.