Biro­bidzhan rail­way sta­tion with meno­rah, Pho­to by And­shel, 2007

When I did book club vis­its in 2020 for my his­tor­i­cal fic­tion nov­el The Nest­ing Dolls, I would end by ask­ing my audi­ence a ques­tion: What was the first inde­pen­dent Jew­ish state of the twen­ti­eth century?

Most lis­ten­ers remained silent. They sus­pect­ed a trick. Inevitably, one hand would go up, half in con­fu­sion, half isn’t‑it-obvious, and they would say, Israel.”

Hard­ly any­one ever said, Biro­bidzhan.”

Except that was, in fact, the first inde­pen­dent Jew­ish state of the twen­ti­eth century.

Biro­bidzhan, locat­ed on the bor­der between Sovi­et Rus­sia and Chi­na, was the first Autonomous Jew­ish Region of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, pre­dat­ing Israel by almost two decades.

How did that happen? 

In 1926, the fledg­ling gov­ern­ment of the Union of Sovi­et Social­ist Republics was advised that Jew­ish agri­cul­tur­al set­tle­ments (have) called forth a sharply height­ened anti-Jew­ish mood.”

Trans­la­tion: Com­mu­nism took away land from Russian/​Ukrainian/​Slavic peas­ants and redis­trib­uted it among all Sovi­et cit­i­zens, which includ­ed Jews. Also, Jews who did not want to farm came pour­ing into the cities, com­pet­ing with oth­er unskilled labor­ers for the already lim­it­ed pool of menial work. 

Both of these devel­op­ments vexed the farm­ers and the non-farm­ers alike. Since anti­semitism had been offi­cial­ly out­lawed by the new­ly formed, self-pro­claimed work­ers par­adise” of the USSR, it annoyed those in charge that it still exist­ed. It was an embar­rass­ment to them and they decid­ed that some­thing need­ed to be done.

Their think­ing was this: If you removed the Jews from the cities or the coun­try­side, then you also elim­i­nat­ed the antisemitism.

But where to send them?

The Com­mit­tee for the Set­tle­ment of Toil­ing Jews on Land filed an eighty page report stat­ing that the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty would accept any piece of land the USSR decid­ed to put them on. Except for Birobidzhan.

Why not Biro­bidzhan? First­ly, the ter­ri­to­ry was most­ly swamp land, cov­ered in gad­flies and mos­qui­tos. Locals burned fires to keep insects away from the cat­tle, and cov­ered them­selves in repelling oint­ment and net­ting. Sec­ond­ly, the area was already pop­u­lat­ed by Kore­ans who’d migrat­ed years ear­li­er, and was fre­quent­ly vis­it­ed by Chi­nese war­lords who crossed the bor­der to check on their pop­py (opi­um) fields. Addi­tion­al­ly, the area was the new home of many Cos­sacks who’d fled East after the rev­o­lu­tion. None of them would like­ly appre­ci­ate the sud­den incur­sion of the relo­cat­ed Jew­ish community.

Nat­u­ral­ly, after read­ing the report, the Sovi­et gov­ern­ment decid­ed their new­ly cre­at­ed Jew­ish Autonomous Region would be in Birobidzhan.

In April 1928, 540 Jew­ish fam­i­lies and 150 indi­vid­u­als made the trek to Biro­bidzhan. There was no infra­struc­ture for them. They lived in holes in the ground, deal­ing with the tail end of the rainy sea­son. By May 1928, two-thirds of the set­tlers had returned to where they’d come from.

Nonethe­less, dur­ing that same sum­mer, the first Jew­ish col­lec­tive farm in Biro­bidzhan was estab­lished. Called Biro­feld, the farm sub­sumed the Cos­sack vil­lage of Alexan­drov­ka, the first record­ed inci­dent of a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty over­tak­ing a Russ­ian one. 

Biro­bidzhan, locat­ed on the bor­der between Sovi­et Rus­sia and Chi­na, was the first Autonomous Jew­ish Region of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, pre­dat­ing Israel by almost two decades.

In May 1934, the Com­mu­nist Par­ty grant­ed Biro­bidzahn its offi­cial sta­tus as the Jew­ish Autonomous Region, pro­claim­ing, For the first time in the his­to­ry of Jew­ish peo­ple, its burn­ing desire for a home­land, for achieve­ment of its own nation­al state­hood has been fulfilled.”

Fast for­ward to 1970s Odessa, USSR, where I grew up. 

I nev­er heard a word about Biro­bidzhan. My par­ents said that after World War II they’d come across sto­ries of when some Jew­ish refugees moved there rather than return­ing to their bombed and occu­pied cities. My grand­par­ents remem­bered when talk of Biro­bidzhan began, con­cur­rent with Josef Stalin’s Great Ter­ror. In between The Night of the Mur­dered Poets and The Doc­tors Plot, 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.

I first learned about Biro­bidzhan when I start­ed research­ing the set­ting for my recent his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, My Mother’s Secret: A Nov­el of the Jew­ish Autonomous Region. My pri­ma­ry source was Masha Gessen’s Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Sto­ry of Biro­bidzhan, Russia’s Jew­ish Autonomous Region.

I also made use of Swarth­more College’s fab­u­lous online archive, Stalin’s For­got­ten Zion.

But one of my most fas­ci­nat­ing finds came when my moth­er remem­bered she’d once seen a Russ­ian lan­guage pro­pa­gan­da film star­ring the direc­tor of the Moscow State Jew­ish The­ater, Ben­jamin Zuskin, called Seek­ers of Hap­pi­ness.

Released in the USSR in 1936, it told the tale of a dis­en­chant­ed Jew­ish fam­i­ly set­tling in Biro­bidzhan. 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; some­times with fel­low Jews, some­times with neigh­bor­ing Russians. 

Against all odds, my moth­er and I found Seek­ers of Hap­pi­ness on YouTube. This film, more than any­thing, illus­trat­ed how the Sovi­ets want­ed poten­tial immi­grants to think life in Biro­bidzhan was, ver­sus what Gessen described in their book, what the Swarth­more archives showed, and the truth doc­u­ment­ed in oth­er first-hand accounts.

As my fic­tion­al char­ac­ters learn in My Mother’s Secret: A Nov­el of the Jew­ish Autonomous Region, sur­vival in (real-life) Biro­bidzhan was a very pre­car­i­ous and often unlike­ly thing.

Alliances were con­stant­ly chang­ing. Polit­i­cal views deemed com­pul­so­ry one day could be grounds for exe­cu­tion on the basis of trea­son the next.

One such exam­ple came after Lazar Kaganovitch, sec­re­tary of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, Com­mis­sar of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and col­lo­qui­al­ly known as the most pow­er­ful Jew in the USSR, vis­it­ed Biro­bidzhan in Feb­ru­ary of 1936. He had din­ner with the local par­ty head, and praised his wife’s deli­cious Jew­ish cooking.

By August of 1936, that same par­ty head was removed on charges that he’d been unmasked as untrust­wor­thy, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and a bour­geois-nation­al­ist con­spir­ing to cre­ate a mur­der­ous, Bundist, Nazi-Facist orga­ni­za­tion.” And the par­ty head’s wife was accused of try­ing to poi­son Kaganovitch with gefilte fish. Pos­si­bly the most Jew­ish crim­i­nal charge ever filed.

This is the set­ting that Regi­na, the hero­ine of My Mother’s Secret: A Nov­el of the Jew­ish Autonomous Region, finds her­self in when she flees from Moscow to Biro­bidzhan after she, too, is accused of being a trai­tor. The char­ac­ter is fic­tion­al. But the place and the con­se­quences of seek­ing asy­lum there are, trag­i­cal­ly, all too real.

Ali­na Adams is the NYT best-sell­ing author of soap opera tie-ins, fig­ure skat­ing mys­ter­ies, and romance nov­els. Her lat­est his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, My Mother’s Secret: A Nov­el of the Jew­ish Autonomous Region chron­i­cles a lit­tle known aspect of Sovi­et and Jew­ish his­to­ry. Ali­na was born in Odessa, USSR and immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States with her fam­i­ly in 1977. Vis­it her web­site at: www​.Ali​naAdams​.com.