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A Gift to Birobidzhan

A Gift to Birobidzhan

Chicago Artists in Support of a Soviet Jewish Homeland

Online Exhibit

These works were last on display from September 13, 2015 to January 3, 2016.

Published by L.M. Stein, Chicago, 1937
Spertus Institute Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Iker.

In 1934, a Jewish autonomous region was established in Birobidzhan (sometimes spelled Biro-Bidjan), 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. The area boasted Yiddish newspapers, schools, a library, and a theater.

In 1937, a group of progressive Jewish artists from Chicago created a portfolio of prints in support of the project. The participating artists were 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 was energized by a cultural force that aspired for a better life and 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.

Among the fourteen participating artists were notable Chicago modernists Todros Geller, Mitchell Siporin, A. Raymond Katz, David Bekker, and Morris Topchevsky.

Spertus Institute is fortunate to have a rare, complete copy of the folio in our collection. It will be on display in conjunction with our Fall/Winter 2015 exploration of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.

Exhibits at Spertus Institute are supported, in part, by the Harry and Sadie Lasky Foundation.


About Birobidzhan

An American committee, whose officers included Albert Einstein, raised funds to relocate families to the region, particularly as a haven from Nazism. Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears and founder of the Museum of Science and Industry, contributed $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!”

Despite initial promise, the region proved inhospitable with a harsh climate and remote location. Communist purges disrupted settlement and caused many settlers to depart. Today, 4,000 Jews live in Birobidzhan, according to Rabbi Mordechai Scheiner, the area’s chief rabbi until 2010, when he was succeeded by Rabbi Eliyahu Reiss, who continues the work of reviving Jewish life in the region.