Growing up I had a fondness for old atlases, almanacs, stamps, encyclopedias and the like. Probably because I had nothing else better to do I’d pour over these artifacts for hours on end, losing myself in a forgotten world of vanished countries, colonies, semi-idependent realms and puppet states like the Free City of Danzig, Tannu Tuva and Manchuku. One day while looking over an old map I came across an odd sounding place deep in Soviet Asia called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. From what I could tell, it looked like at one time anyway the Jews of the USSR had their own designated homeland. Intrigued, I wondered how I could learn more about this strange place. Alas unfortunately, this was in age before the Internet. So, unless I wanted to hop a bus downtown to my city’s central library and enlist the services of a talented and helpful reference librarian I had few resources at my disposal. To me anyway, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast would remain a mystery.
But few things are able to remain a mystery forever. After hearing great things about the writing of Russian-American journalist and LGTBQ activist Masha Gessen I went searching for her books on Overdrive where I stumbled across an available Kindle edition of her 2016 book Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region. Here after all these years was entire book devoted to this place I’d heard of so long ago. Naturally, I borrowed a copy of Gessen’s book and quickly went to work reading it. I mean come on, what else am I supposed to do?
According to Gessen, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, (to makes things somewhat easier in her book she refers to it as Birobidzhan, after its capital) was born in an era when the newly proclaimed USSR, despite its many authoritarian excesses, instead of persecuting the Jews like its Tsarist predecessors had done, saw them as yet another nationality to be incorporated into the Soviet Union realm. For the greater socialist good Yiddish writers were encouraged to produce pro-Soviet literature while Yiddish theatre flourished thanks to Soviet patronage. Before long Communist leaders set aside a slice of territory in East Asia on the border with China to be the Jews’ new Soviet homeland. Despite its remote location, swampy terrain, and complete lack of infrastructure the Jews of the young USSR were strongly encouraged to make Birobidzhan their new home, with the government supplying one-way tickets and enlisting the services of Jewish writer David Bergelson to sing the praises of the new Jewish Socialist paradise. Later, after World War II with their villages destroyed and families wiped out many Soviet Jews who’d survived the Holocaust migrated East to Birobidzhan in hopes of rebuilding their shattered lives.
Sadly, once Stalin turned against the Jews in the twilight of his reign Birobidzhan became an empty dream. Jewish leaders were imprisoned with many, like Bergelson executed on bogus charges of treason or “rootless cosmopolitanism.” Eventually, Birobidzhan became a Jewish territory in name only. Even after Stalin’s death in the early 1950s Soviet Jews saw little value in living in Birobidzhan. The modern state of Israel became the preferred Jewish national homeland as evident by the roughly one million Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel once given the chance.
Where the Jews Aren’t is great book for people like me who love reading about those quirky and forgotten parts of history. It also makes great follow-up reading to Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry Lev Golinkin’s memoir, A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka and Paul Goldberg’s 2016 debut novel The Yid. I enjoyed Gessen’s book and look forward to reading more of what she’s written.