When author Alina Adams speaks to groups, she often asks: What was the first independent Jewish state of the twentieth century? After a few confused looks are exchanged, someone tentatively offers: Israel, of course.
Hardly anyone volunteers the correct answer: Birobidzhan. Most people are stunned to hear of this. Located in Russia on the border with China, it was established by none other than Joseph Stalin in the 1920s.
“For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, its burning desire for a homeland, for achievement of its own national statehood has been fulfilled,” the Communist Party declared in 1934. In Alina’s historical novel, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, published in 2022, the true picture of the life of the Jews in Birobizhan is revealed.
The name derives from two rivers that flank the area. Although promoted as a compassionate gesture to Jews, there were obviously other events influencing Stalin’s decision.
In 1926, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics took land away from peasants, who were Russian, Ukranian, and Slavic. They redistributed the land among Soviet citizens, including Jews. Jews who did not want to farm converged on the cities, where they competed for the limited number of menial jobs with other unskilled laborers. These conditions aroused anti-Semitism. According to communism, the USSR was a worker’s paradise and anti-Semitism was outlawed and therefore did not exist.
The anti-Jewish mood was an embarrassment to the authorities so they decided that they would remove the Jews from the cities and countryside and would therefore eliminate anti-Semitism. Out of sight, out of mind.
A committee entitled The Committee for the Settlement of Toiling Jews filed a report explaining that the Jewish community would accept any piece of land from the USSR, except Birobidzhan. Their objection to Birobidzhan was based on numerous factors. It consisted of mostly swamp land, filled with gadflies and mosquitos. Locals living there burned fires to keep insects away from the cattle, and covered themselves in repelling ointment and netting. In addition, the territory was not empty. Koreans who had migrated years before populated the area, and Chinese warlords came in regularly to check up on their poppy (opium) fields. Many Cossaks who had fled East after the revolution had moved in as well. All this appears in My Mother’s Secret. “None of them,” Alina wrote in an essay on the background of her novel, “would likely appreciate the sudden incursion of the relocated Jewish community.”
After reading this report, however, the Soviet government decided on the location of the newly created Jewish Autonomous Region. It would be Birobidzhan.
What Alina learned about the establishment of Birobidzhan was that Stalin decided in the 1920s that he would be the one to give the Jews their own region, assisted by a Jewish member of the Central Committee, Lazar Kaganovitch. Once the area on the border with China was designated, it was advertised as a kind of socialist utopia for Jews. The idea took hold with some Jews because at the time, Palestine could not be seriously considered as a Jewish homeland since it was under the auspices of the British, who had barred Jewish immigration. Thus, many Jews saw Birobidzhan as their only chance. They would be autonomous and develop agriculture as a means of survival and livelihood. Life would be fair and everyone would be equal. A socialist dream.
In April 1928, 504 families and 150 single people settled there. In May 1928, two-thirds of the people had left. Conditions were terrible. There was little usable land and they had been given neither seeds nor animals. There was little housing and people had to live in holes in the ground. In the summer of 1928, the first Jewish collective farm was established. The struggles and obstacles led to another mass exodus. Nevertheless, Birobidzhan peaked in the 1930s. In May, 1934, the Communist Party declared the official status of Birobidzhan as the Jewish Autonomous Region.
What Alina found particularly surprising in her research is that it was not only Soviet Jews or even Eastern European Jews who were entranced with the promise of Birobidzhan. People moved there from Western Europe and from both North and South America as well. American Jews who chose to move there gave up everything they had, selling all their possessions, to follow their dream of a Jewish socialist state. They had to pay to get into Birobidzhan and there was a period after its initial establishment where they were not permitted to leave.
In My Mother’s Secret, Alina reveals the truth about conditions in Birobidzhan. The quote attributed to Stalin: “The less you know, the sounder you sleep,” which Alina’s mother had imparted, seems to be the mantra of anyone living in the Soviet Union at that time. Life in Birobidzhan was more like a harsh work camp than a utopia. The residents were worked mercilessly in the worst conditions, with little food and meager clothing for the harsh weather. Whatever they were able to produce was never enough. They were not given what they would need to build an agricultural society but were always blamed for the failure to produce. In addition, they were ruled by a group of overseers who were always on the lookout for traitors to the Communist cause, ready to cast suspicion on anyone they chose. In that environment, everyone was always looking over their shoulders, waiting to be denounced or for the opportunity to denounce.
Alina was born in Odessa when it was part of the Soviet Union. In late 1976, her parents made the brave decision to leave the country. They traveled through Italy, where they filed for permission to emigrate to the United States, and a few months later, in 1977, they came to the United States. Alina was seven years old and her family settled in San Francisco. Their ability to get out of the Soviet Union was due to a brief window in which a deal was struck – people were allowed to leave and the U.S. would buy wheat from Russia. “We were traded for wheat,” Alina quips.
Leaving Rome 1977
Leaving the only country they’d ever known was like “stepping off the edge of the world,” Alina explains. Her parents knew nothing about life in other countries. The propaganda in the Soviet Union relentlessly drove home the point that they were living in the best country in the entire world and things were terrible in other places.
Alina’s mother remembered a propaganda film they were shown called “Secret of Happiness.” In the film, a disenchanted Jewish family moves to Birobidzhan, where life is beautiful. As Alina describes it, “There, the land was rich and fertile, the livestock happy and fat, the fish so plentiful they literally leapt into nets, and – most importantly – life was so wonderful that everyone could work for the benefit of the state. In this film, the characters even found time to fall in love.”
First-person accounts of life in Birobidzhan, which Alina uncovered in her research, totally contradict this idealized picture. Interestingly, this film is still around as Alina and her mother found it on YouTube.
The ever-present portrait of Stalin
Other films did make their way to the Soviet Union on occasion. Alina’s mother remembered seeing the movies “Father of the Bride” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” It did not make her or her peers jealous of Americans because they assumed it was fantasy. It might as well have been The Wizard of Oz, in their view. The Soviet Union allowed some American movies of this type to be shown because they knew the stories would not be believed and people would assume that anything showing good living in the United States could not be true. The people had been lied to their whole lives, Alina explains, so they easily believed everything was a lie.
Growing up in Odessa until she came to the United States, Alina had heard nothing about Birobidzhan. However, her parents told her that after World War 11, they’d heard of some Jewish refugees who felt they could not return to their home cities, which had been bombed and occupied, so they opted to move to Birobidzhan. Her grandparents recalled that the early talk of Birobidzhan began at the same time as Stalin’s Great Terror. This placed an extra burden on Jews because, as Alina states, “Very few Soviet citizens were leaping out of their seats with enthusiasm to self-identify as Jews. It was bad enough their internal passports classified them as such under Nationality.”
Alina’s writing career began with Regency romances, murder mysteries, and soap opera tie-ins. Becoming interested in historical fiction, Alina abandoned these early genres and wrote The Nesting Dolls, a family saga divided into three sections, focusing on three women in a Russian-Jewish family in three different time periods. The section that attracted the most attention was the first one, which covered the 1930s in the USSR. Alina realized that readers were so fascinated by this section because most history as it is taught focuses on Western Europe and her readers therefore had no idea of what went on in Eastern Europe, especially under Stalin.
This prompted her to research that period further and she became entranced with the little-known history of Birobidzhan. Her historical novel My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region is the result. Although it is a novel, it provides an unflinching view of what life was like in the Soviet Union during that period, and how the dream of Birobidzhan as a Jewish homeland had become a nightmare.
In addition to the harsh physical conditions, the political paranoia affected life as well. “Political views deemed compulsory one day,” Alina explains, “could be grounds for execution on the basis of treason the next.” The possibility of being accused of being a traitor was always hanging over their heads.
She gives an example of this. In February 1936, Lazar Kaganovitch, the most powerful Jew in the USSR, visited Birobidzhan, had dinner with the local party head, and was served his wife’s Jewish cooking. In August 1936, this party head was removed, accused of being “unmasked as untrustworthy, counterrevolutionary, and a bourgeois-nationalist conspiring to create a murderous, Bundist, Nazi-Fascist organization.”
In My Mother’s Secret, we see the ease with which anyone can be destroyed by flimsy, paranoid accusations. In addition, the wife of this disgraced party head was accused of trying to poison Kaganovitch with gefilte fish! Alina notes that this may be “the most Jewish criminal charge ever filed.”
In the novel, Alina weaves a moving love story into the plot. Although love thrives in all kinds of conditions, the situation in Birobidzhan and the jealousies and suspicions of the leaders create a forbidding obstacle to love. The book brings us up to the present when the daughter of the heroine, who has grown up in the U.S., first learns of her mother’s harrowing experiences and of her past love affair.
What eventually happened to Birobidzhan? It still exists but it is just an ordinary town now. Only about one percent of the residents are Jews. The rest are ethnic Chinese, Korean, and Russian. The town is still part of the Russian Federation and is largely agricultural. Alina explains that it is still possible to decipher faded Hebrew letters (Yiddish, which was spoken there in the twenties and thirties, uses Hebrew letters) on buildings and street signs. Most of the remaining Jews left in 1948, when the state of Israel was established. The 1970s also saw a large exodus of Soviet Jewry. The rest left in the early 1990s, which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1988, Alina and her mother visited the Soviet Union, during the Gorbachev era. When they visited people her mother knew, they all told them: We wish we had been as brave as you. They all wish they too had left. Alina and her mother felt blessed to be able to appreciate their luck.
Alina’s parents now reside in Brighton Beach, a section of Brooklyn known as “little Odessa.” They love their lives there, near the beach, which is familiar to them, and among other Russian Jewish émigrés. They are happily reaping the rewards of the brave and difficult decision they made years ago. Alina resides in New York, where, in addition to writing, she works in school admissions.
For further information, Alina recommends her own primary source for her novel, Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region by Masha Gessen.