Birobidzhan through grey eyes

In the 1920’, Stalin decided to create ex-nihilo a Jewish colony in far-east Siberia., a new episode to the Russian state anti-Semitism: At the end of the 18th century, Catherine II stated there were too many Jews in the country (5 millions). They were then assigned to residence and couldn’t own lands. At the end of the 19th, after an anarchist assassinated Alexander II, Christians started to assassinate and rape Jews, mass killings approved by Alexander III & Nicholas II; and resulting in migrations to Poland and the US.

Both to get rid of Jews on the West side of the country, and to colonize the East, this “Jewish Autonomous Oblast” was finally funded in 1934, with Birobidzhan as capital city. Mainly Jews from Ukraine and Belorussia migrated there in the 1930’, though many of them left when finding out this was a MARECAGE’ region (36 000 km2 large), not very friendly indeed.  It got even worse at the end of the 1930’, when the central powers, more and more anti-Semitic, forbidden Yiddish and synagogues.

When I asked Alexander, yesterdays’ painter if he as born here, in Novosibirsk, he replied: “No, I was born in Birobidzhan”. Of course I tried to know more: What were his parents doing there (had they been forced to move being the real interrogation), how had been his childhood, why had he left? Answers were kind of elliptic.

His mum was an economist; his dad was a Sports’ teacher, sent there because he was a communist… Alexander didn’t mention religion at all. He left Birobidzhan to study Arts, and chose Novosibirsk because it was halfway from Moscow and his hometown. As I seemed interested still, he finally showed me this book, in Yiddish and Russian languages.


Later in the conversation, I asked about censorship nowadays. Not much, as far as he is concerned. Nothing in comparison to the soviet times of course. And he showed us illustrations he had prepared for a book, back in the 1970’. They were rejected. The wolf: Not Russian enough. The king: Not Russian enough. The hills: Not Russian enough. So what? Too Jewish…


Many Jews moved to Israel after the Perestroika. The synagogue only reopened in 2004. According to Wikipedia, there are 4,000 Jews in Birobidzhan, 5 % of the town’s population of 75,000.

1 thought on “Birobidzhan through grey eyes

  1. I like Saturday’s mornings a lot. This is still quiet around, my family is sleeping and I have at least an hour or two to go to my private emails, read some news, and read Stephanie’s blog 🙂 When I read this story, I recalled the memory of a story told by my Mother. When she was a teenager, living in my hometown already, there were many Jewish families in the community. My Mom remembers how Jewish ladies was walking in the main street of the town in their furs eating candies 🙂 She repeated several times to me that “they were always eating something sweet while walking”. Amazing what the child’s memory consumes … Of course those years the communism was in its continuous development phase and influenced many people’s life. One of them was Ruta Ramscheid, my mother very good classmate. in 1961, her family as well as the others Jewish ones got the order – “you need to leave Poland – we do not want Jews anymore in our country as it does not fit to our communistic approach”. So they left their little one-bedroom apartment in downtown and decided to start their new life in Australia. My Mom went to the railway station with some other friends from the class to say good bye. She did not really understand why all that is happening, why she looses her very good friend, what will happen to them? After years, she learnt that Ruta and her parents traveled to Italy from Warsaw, where they supposed to take a boat to Australia, however they were not to succeed fully to get there. Entering the boat,Ruta’s father died. I guess that stress about the future was at high level and his body did not make it. Ruta and her Mom continued the trip and they lived in Australia for a couple of years where they both worked for living including 18 years old Ruta. Then her “very beautiful mother in her youth time coming from Russian Jews (as my Mom used to say)” met a businessman from Argentina. So they again moved now to South America. I do not know how the story developed further, neither my mother, but don’t you think it is a significant influence of totalitarianism? Nazis killed Jewish nation, didn’t communist either? and I am not talking about the gulags only …

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