The Promised Lands, Part II (Uganda, Canada, Birobidzhan)

There is an old joke that because of Moses’ stutter, when he told his brother Aaron to announce to the Jewish people that they were headed to the promised land, Aaron heard “Canaan” instead of what Moses actually said, “Canada.” Think of all that space, there could probably be 50 Israels in Alberta alone.  In 1903, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered the Mau Plateau, part of today’s Kenya and Uganda, to Theodor Herzl as a possible solution for the pogroms in Russia and as a general place of refuge for Jews. The Zionists ultimately rejected the so-called “Uganda Scheme”  but it led to the formation of the splinter Jewish Territorialist Organization – led by British Jews who were open to the idea of finding an alternative tract of habitable land for their people, either in the British Empire, the Americas, or even Portuguese Africa ( Alaska was even considered at some point; apparently “habitable” is a very relative term).  The Territorialists mostly faded with the famous & infamous Balfour Declaration  in 1917.

But one other project to establish a Jewish homeland in the wilderness, far away from Palestine, or really any recognizable civilization, did materialize in the eastern reaches of the Soviet empire, near the border with China.  Birobidzhan was to become the first Jewish socialist autonomous (urban) region – for settlement by all Jews, not only Russian ones. This was in the early 20th, when the Russian Soviet experiment still stood as relatively  uncorrupted — a beacon of hope and inspiration for fellow travelers looking for alternatives to the colonialist, capitalist world.  Big Solutions seemed possible.  Architects as much as anyone, began to plan Big.

According to the catalogue of the 1998 exhibit Bauhaus in Birobidzhan (Tel Aviv Bauhaus Center– on the 80th anniversary of the Birobidzhan experiment): “From the stabilization of the new Bolshevik regime in Soviet Russia, Western modern architects – mostly Germans but also Americans and others – looked to the first socialist state in the world. They saw in it endless possibilities for modern architecture. In addition to the revolutionary momentum in all areas of life, private land ownership was revoked. In theory, it was possible to build and plan entire cities without limitation.” In the late 20’s and early 30’s there were many exchanges between the new Bauhaus School of Design  in Dessau and the Soviet Union, as well as Bauhaus architects and designers in Mandatory Palestine.

On March 28, 1928, the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR allocated the banks of the rivers Bira and Bidzhan for Jewish settlement and the first Jews arrived the next month. After he left his role as director of the Bauhaus School,  in the summer of 1933, Swiss architect Hannes Meyer traveled to Birdobidzhan  and developed a master plan for the city. Unfortunately, Meyer was eventually replaced as master planner because he was a foreigner. As Micha Gross and Iosif Brenner write in the catalogue, “Still the city stamp of Meyer legacy and the echoes of the dreams of thousands of Jewish settlers who came here from all over the Soviet Union as well as the US, Argentina, Poland, France, Mandatory Palestine and elsewhere. “

BY 1934 the Central Committee established the area as a “Jewish Autonomous Region”  and in 1936  declared it a “Soviet Jewish culture in which masses of working Jewish people will develop their own state-structure.” However, the brutal, all-encompassing reality of Stalin and his purges finally caught up with the proletariat Jewish dream and by summer of 1938 all plans were scaled back and then ceased altogether.

Some activity picked up again after the war but more “mild” post-Stalinist purges of Jewish leaders in late 40’s officially closed the door on this Jewish homeland in the far far Russian east and the Jews who had made their way to Birobidzhan mostly left and headed to the new Jewish state in the Middle East.  But it remains a Jewish ghost town if nothing else – the names of the streets and squares of this Russian outpost are all Jewish — a Yiddish grid on an Asian map.

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2 Responses to “The Promised Lands, Part II (Uganda, Canada, Birobidzhan)”

  1. lydia friedman Says:

    Excellent and intriguing…I want to visit Birobidjzhan…will you come with me?

  2. Michael Pollak Says:

    There was actually another Jewish settlement project in the Crimea after the 1920s (called snappily the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region in Crimea). It was in many way more hopeful and interesting, and really flourished in the first decade after WWI, but then got curtailed and is now almost totally forgotten. (It had a strategic purpose at bottom that is still dear to the Russian heart — to keep the Ukranians from controlling the Crimea (very untrusted after the Russian Civil War). But eventually the Russians gave in on it, and that was the end of the protected zone.) There is a fabulous one hour documentary on it called _Red Zion_, directed by Evgeny Tsymbal and composed of archival tape. Sadly I’ve never seen it on a DVD anywhere, just at the Jewish Film Festival. Maybe you have connections and could nodge someone to issue it? It would certainly be in the filmmaker’s interest.

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