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The Uncivil Servant: Birobidzhan Follies

Mitchell Abidor
September 9, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Where the Jews Aren’t by Masha Gessen. Nextbooks/Schocken, 2016, 170 pages.

birobidzhan-posterWHERE THE JEWS Aren’t, Russia-born Masha Gessen’s recounting of “the sad and absurd story of Birobidzhan, the Soviet Union’s “Jewish Autonomous Region,” is the latest addition to the Jewish Encounters series produced jointly by Schocken and Nextbook. The series has been uneven, producing small gems like Adina Hoffman and Peter Coles’ Sacred Trash, a thoroughly researched and brilliantly written account of the Cairo Geniza, but more often of books best left forgotten, like David Mamet’s sour and ignorant rant The Wicked Son, Roger Kamenetz’s pretentious and empty Kafka analysis Burnt Books, and Elie Wiesel’s Wieselian Rashi. Where the Jews Aren’t, unfortunately, fits squarely in the second category.

Birobidzhan can be viewed two ways: as a quixotic and doomed endeavor, or as a dreadful and doomed endeavor. Robert Weinbergs’ Stalin’s Forgotten Zion, a pictorial history of the failed attempt to set up a Jewish homeland on the Soviet border with China, handles the project in the former manner, willing to admire the heroism of those Jews who left European Russia for the impossible conditions east of Siberia. Where the Jews Aren’t, is in the latter, and though it is a defensible point of view that the whole idea was “absurd,” the result is a painful and ugly 147 pages of text, one that fails to ever get to the heart of Jews’ commitment to communism.

The cause is the choice of author for the volume. Gessen is a gifted and brilliant commentator on Russia today who has been described as the country’s leading LGBTQ activist. She has lived in the U.S. since 2014, after a surge in Russian homophobia led to speculation that authorities might soon be taking children away from gay parents. What is central to her book, and indeed to her view of much of Jewish life, is the question of when do Jews give up and leave the unlivable places. In fact, the book’s dedication is to her parents, “who had the courage to emigrate.” Her experience of life in the Brezhnev years of stagnation, the ambient anti-Semitism, the beatings she was subject to, the knowledge that her future was blocked because she is a Jew, hardly puts her in a situation to view the Jewish Communists of the Yevsektsia (Jewish Section) with anything but scorn. Child of the disappointments and tragedies of the end of communism, she cannot even fathom the hopes of that revolutionary generation. Their dreams were her nightmare.

Her book, though, is less about Birobidzhan than about its bard, David Bergelson, who, after initial equivocation and exile, returned to Soviet Russia from Germany, as Nazism was rising there, and was a leading light in Soviet Jewish cultural circles, most prominently as member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Members of that Committee, including the actor Solomon Mikhoels and the poet Itsik Feffer, traveled to the U.S. to drum up support among American Jews for the Soviet Union during the war. This activism -- government-approved, of course -- would ultimately result in all of them all losing their lives as “Jewish nationalists,” guilty, among other things, of vaunting the heroism of Jews during World War II.

GESSEN’S FOCUS on Bergelson brings out an important problem with Where the Jews Aren’t: Gessen has no Yiddish, so she is unable to refer to the local newspaper the Birobidzhaner Shtern, or to read Bergelson’s books in the original. The result is a work based almost entirely on secondary sources, and not all that many of those.

The fate of Birobidzhan was a sad one, with few Jews moving there and even fewer having the agricultural and technical abilities the region called for -- while the existence of cultural organs (not to mention actual Jews) in the region was dependent on the whims and degree of anti-Semitism of the central government at any given moment.

Gessen does a good job of telling the story of the trial of the Jewish poets and writers who were executed in 1952 for the crime of being Yiddishists and Jewish militants, but it has been far better told in other books. None of the writers acted heroically under torture, Bergelson no more than Feffer, who was a KGB plant, and the excerpts from the trial record are straight out of Alice in Wonderland:

Interrogator: Here is another poem that was confiscated during the search of your apartment. Did you write that?

[Lyubov] Vasserman: Yes, the poem I am currently being shown was found in my apartment during the search. I wrote it in 1947.

Interrogator: Do you admit that it is a nationalist poem?

Vasserman: Yes, because it contains a nationalist expression: “I love Birobidzhan, my country.”

Interrogator: So you admit that you consciously propagated nationalism.

Vasserman: No, I do not. Because I never published this poem and no one ever read it. When I wrote the poem, I immediately realized that it was nationalistic.

A reader aware of the background and knowledgeable about the American Jewish communist left will be brought up short at one point in Gessen’s book. “Proof” that the executed writers were in the pay of the American government was that they were in contact with Paul Novick, editor of the Yiddish Communist Morgn Frayhayt. However accustomed we are to reading the horrors and betrayals of the Stalin years, of how Stalin was responsible for the deaths of more Communists than Mussolini, sixty-five later it still shocks to read that a revered figure like Novick, who edited the Frayhayt up to its death and was an American Communist for some fifty years, was considered by the Soviet establishment to be a spy. This is part of the true tragedy of the Jewish communists.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the author of many volumes of translation. His translations of the poet Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems, published by New York Review Books.

Editor’s note: To read a Jewish Currents article by someone who grew up in Birobdizhan, check out Nikolai Borodulin’s piece here. To read a “Letter from Birobidzhan” from 1947, when Jewish Currents was a communist magazine called Jewish Life, click here. To read a piece written about Soviet Jewry by Paul Novick in 1947, click here. To read our long-time editor Morris U. Schappes eulogy for Paul Novick, click here.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.