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A Gift to Biro-Bidjan
A Gift to Biro-Bidjan
Published by L.M. Stein
In 1934, a Jewish autonomous region was established in Biro-Bidjan (sometimes spelled Birobidzhan), Siberia. This Jewish region emerged from a Soviet policy that encouraged each ethnic group to contribute to the building of socialism by settling its own territory (or oblast) and developing its own language and culture. Yiddish was declared the official language of the Jewish Oblast and a proletariat secular culture was bolstered. From 1934 to 1937, the area boasted Yiddish newspapers, schools, a library, and a theater.
An American Biro-Bidjan Committee, whose officers included Albert Einstein, raised funds to relocate families to the region, particularly as a haven from Nazism. Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears and founder of the Museum of Science and Industry, contributed more than $2 million to the cause. Zionist leaders, however, opposed the plan, claiming that it detracted from efforts to settle Jews in Palestine. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver argued that there can be no ersatz (replacement) for Palestine because it is not “an emergency place or refuge…It is home!”
In 1937, a group of progressive Jewish artists from Chicago created a portfolio of prints in support of Biro-Bidjan. The 14 participating artists were also active in the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal government program that carried out public works projects during the Great Depression. In the introduction to the portfolio, written in Yiddish and English, the artists expressed that their work emerged from a past rooted in age-old suffering but is energized by a new cultural force that aspires for a better life and a more understanding world. As such, some of the woodcuts convey hardship, both in Depression-era America and in Europe, while others express optimism and hope for the future.
Despite initial promise, the region proved inhospitable owing to its harsh, cold climate and remote location in the Soviet Far East. Communist purges further disrupted settlement and caused many of the early settlers to depart. Today, an estimated 4,000 Jews live in Biro-Bidjan, according to Rabbi Mordechai Scheiner of Chabad Lubavitch. Rabbi Scheiner serves as the area’s chief rabbi and is working to revive Jewish life in the region.