The island of Sakhalin!
How much of the tragedy of Czarist Russia is associated with this place of “torture girded round by water,” this terrible isle of penal servitude, darkness and injustice!
The Russian proverb has characterized Sakhalin, and famous classicists like Dostoyevsky, Doroshevitch, Chekow and others have described all its horrors. Now it is ten years since Soviet Russia began an intensive constructive campaign which has completely changed its half of the island, divided into two parts after the Russo-Japanese war, the southern end going to Japan and the northern remaining Russian.
Today there are several hundred Jews in Sakhalin, most of them in the capital city of the island, Alexandrovsk, and in the newly established petroleum center, Okha. There are also a number in the central colony of the coal region, Mgatch.
PRISON MADE HARDY MEN OF ITS INMATES
In speaking of the Jews on the island of Sakhalin one must turn back the pages of history and recall that among the many who were sent to the island half a hundred years ago or more in Czarist Russia there were also a number of Jews.
These Jews, who had been sent to the island “whence one never gets back to the mainland,” served their terms and then concentrated in Nikolaevsk on the Amur, the point on the island which is nearest the mainland. There they established, with their children and grandchildren, a Jewish colony that was economically sound.
These prison veterans and their offspring were strong and healthy. Many of them lived to be ninety and a hundred years old. They raised large families of twenty and thirty persons, and there was much interrelationship.
Among themselves the Jews of Nikolaevsky spoke a rich Lithuanian Yiddish. To the rest of the world they spoke a virile Russian replete with sharp “r” sounds. These people were hospitable, sharing their wealth of goods with others. They controlled the most important fish trapperies and canneries at the mouth of the Amur, where the greatest river in the Far East falls into the Tatar Strait and the Sea of Japan. The fish of the Amur are of the most valuable kind, those large red fish that are exported from there and from Kamtchatka to all the world markets.
TURN TO MINING, LUMBER, FUR TRADES
The export of furs, too, was a major occupation of the children and grandchildren of the earlier Nikolaevsk Jews. The half-savage tribes of the region brought them their catches of sable, skunk, marten, dark-brown bear and silver fox.
The Sakhalin Jews also engaged in the gold mining industry and the lumber industry at their end of the Amur. Other natural resources of the region also were exploited by them, and they played an important part in navigation.
Since they were so large a part of the economic life of the harbor city, the Jews of Nikolaevsk remained neutral through the various political changes which gave it first to the Japanese, then to the White Guardists, then back again. Ten thousand kilometers from any large center, the city was beleaguered for four months before the gates were opened. In the massacre that followed, two-thirds of the Jewish population was annihilated. The leaders of the movement were later executed by the Soviet government at Khabarovsk.
The Jewish world knows little of this tragedy of Nikolaevsk and of the several hundred Jewish victims in that massacre, one of the first of that period of Jewish martyrdom when Jewish blood ran like so many rivers through all the towns and cities of the Ukraine and White Russia. The tragedy of Nikolaevsk was not, indeed, specifically Jewish, as it was in so many other cities; but the very fact that two-thirds of the Jewish population was lost should not be ignored in the pages of the history of that period.
DESCENDANTS ADAPTED TO SOVIET METHODS
The remaining Jews of Nikolaevsk had nothing to go on with. Now their children and grandchildren are in Alexandrovsk and other parts of Sakhalin, where their fathers and grandfathers were chained to the iron ball three score years ago and built the roads to the accompaniment of the sadistic torture of their guards.
Under the Soviet order the descendants of these prisoners have adapted themselves to the new way of life, and despite their former wealth they have proven themselves to be as faithful workers for Soviet undertakings as they were when they exploited the region’s natural resources for themselves. Being more primitive and less deeply imbued with the religious traditions and customs than is the average Jew of Russia, Poland or Lithuania, they have found it easier to bear the disregarding of the Sabbath and other religious matters.
Until recently Sakhalin has always been isolated from the mainland and the rest of the world during the four winter months. Their only contact has been through the sacks of mail lowered to them occasionally by daring aviators. For this reason the establishment of normal navigation between Sakhalin and Vladivostok means a great deal to the island. This year the summer navigation began early and on March 15 the first ship, the “Okhotsk,” arrived after its long trek from Odessa by way of the Dardanelles, Suez, India and Japan. The “Okhotsk” brought flour, fats, meat, sugar and new literature. It also brought new people, industrial specialists of all sorts, among them a number of Ukrainian Jews.
TERRITORY FEELS NEED OF TRAINED WORKERS
The lack of specialists is keenly felt in Sakhalin, which needs engineers, technicians, scientists, office workers, doctors, artists, film mechanics, dentists, photographers, shoemakers, tailors, hairdressers, watchmakers, bakers and miners.
Of late many persons have been coming to the “isle of tears” from the mainland, which is attracted by Sakhalin’s natural wealth. Of these newcomers many are Jews, who make up half the present Jewish population. Some of them are planning to go to Biro-Bidjan soon, where they will make use of the experience they have gained on the island.
Alexandrovsk is no longer that dreary, horrible place, where people go about with chains clanging on their wrists and ankles, which the great Russian writers described. It is a beehive of industry, a new center of progress, the haven of many youths eager to become acquainted with their natural environment.