From the acclaimed author of The Man Without a Face, the previously untold story of the Jews in twentieth-century Russia that reveals the complex, strange, and heart-wrenching truth behind the familiar narrative that begins with pogroms and ends with emigration.
In 1929, the Soviet government set aside a sparsely populated area in the Soviet Far East for settlement by Jews. The place was called Birobidzhan.The idea of an autonomous Jewish region was championed by Jewish Communists, Yiddishists, and intellectuals, who envisioned a haven of post-oppression Jewish culture. By the mid-1930s tens of thousands of Soviet Jews, as well as about a thousand Jews from abroad, had moved there. The state-building ended quickly, in the late 1930s, with arrests and purges instigated by Stalin. But after the Second World War, Birobidzhan received another influx of Jews—those who had been dispossessed by the war. In the late 1940s a second wave of arrests and imprisonments swept through the area, traumatizing Birobidzhan’s Jews into silence and effectively shutting down most of the Jewish cultural enterprises that had been created. Where the Jews Aren’t is a haunting account of the dream of Birobidzhan—and how it became the cracked and crooked mirror in which we can see the true story of the Jews in twentieth-century Russia.
(Part of the Jewish Encounters series)
In this slim and accessible book, Russian-American journalist Gessen (The Brothers) traces the grim story of Birobidzhan, a region in the desolate Soviet Far East where Jews were granted autonomy and an opportunity to escape their harsh existence of poverty, discrimination, terror, and "non-belonging" in Soviet Russia. The hopes were never realized, however, and the venture turned out to be a tale of "concentrated tragic absurdity." It was ill-fated from the start and problems arose at every turn, including the location, planning, and logistics as well as the terror of Stalin's purges. Gessen also frames the work as a broader cultural history of the Jewish experience in the U.S.S.R., and of "the concept of home, and knowing when to leave." A major figure here is David Bergelson (1884 1952), the wandering Yiddish-language writer whose "outstanding survival instincts" led him to flee the U.S.S.R. and then Nazi Germany before returning to Soviet Russia, where he "placed himself in the service of Birobidzhan" in a vain attempt to revive hopes for Jewish autonomy. He was eventually executed after a nonsensical trial that further demonstrated the "cruel absurdity" of this story. Gessen ably tells one of the 20th century's most chilling stories of struggle, perseverance, and despair.