Bir Obidjan No Longer Jewish Region, U.S. Correspondent Finds
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Bir Obidjan No Longer Jewish Region, U.S. Correspondent Finds

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There are about 100,000 Jews living today in Birobidjan, Siberia, which was officially proclaimed a Jewish autonomous region years ago by the Moscow Government. However, Jewish immigration has dropped considerably during the last eight years and interest in the Yiddish language has declined to a point where the only Yiddish theatre there has been closed down and the Yiddish newspaper which appears three times a week is published in only 1,000 copies, as compared with the daily Russian-language newspaper which has a circulation of 10,000.

An extensive report on the situation of the Jews in Birobidjan was published to-day in the New York Times by its Moscow correspondent Harrison E. Salisbury, who visited the province about ten days ago. “While Birobidjan has grown and expanded since World War II it must be emphasized that its importance as an area primarily dedicated to the settlement of persons of Jewish nationality has tended steadily to decline, “the New York Times correspondent reports.

The correspondent suggested to Lev Yefremovich Vinkevich, administrative head of the Birobidjan Provincial Government, that from the factual viewpoint instead of being called a Jewish region, the area might equally well be called a Soviet region since Jews are actually only one of a number of nationalities living in the area, Mr. Vinkevich, a Jew who was transferred to work in Birobidjan from Kuibyshev five years ago, agreed that the region was indeed “very Soviet. “

The correspondent asked Mr. Vinkevich to explain the difference in emphasis given to the Yiddish language and culture in Birobidjan compared with that placed, for example, on the Yakut language and culture in Yakutia. Mr. Vinkevich suggested that in Yakutia and other “younger” Soviet republics the problem was one of undeveloped or hitherto neglected or repressed national qualities. With the Jews, he said, it was a question of a matured nationality. The Jews of Birobidjan, said Mr. Vinkevich, except for insignificant older elements, all read and use the Russian language and in fact prefer Russian to Yiddish.


The New York Times correspondent estimates that the total population of the Jewish Autonomous Region is about 200,000, nearly twice the population at the last census of 1939. Most of the increase has been in rural areas. The present estimate of the percentage of Jewish population to the whole is “about 50 percent,” with percentages running a bit higher in urban than in rural areas.

“The accuracy of the 50 percent estimate seemed fairly well borne out by the situation in schools, factories, shops and other institutions,” Mr. Salisbury reports. “This correspondent asked for the Jewish percentage in each instance and the answer invariably was in the vicinity of 50 percent,” he writes.

“Present population accretions,” he continues, “are said by officials to be largely Russians and Ukrainians and do not seem to be drawn from any specific area of the country. Post-war immigration has included Jews from a number of Ukrainian cities. Tartars from the Crimea, Russians from almost all points in European Russia, and a fair sprinkling of other peoples, including some from the Caucasus. At the present time, there does not appear to be a very high Jewish percentage among the newcomers but the movement of Jews to Birobidjan has not completely stopped.”


As far as the knowledge and interest of Birobidjan Jews in foreign developments conceding fellow Jews is concerned, the correspondent was repeatedly told by Birobidjan officials that this interest was no greater on the part of Jews than among any other groups of Soviet citizens. “Never during question periods, which uniformly occurred when this correspondent was escorted through schools, factories of other

All street signs are in Russian and Yiddish. Most public institutions and some industrial establishments post their names in both Russian and Yiddish. However, the party and administrative offices carry their designations only in Russian.

The local radio station generally transmits programs from Khabarovsk and Moscow, Two hours weekly, on Tuesdays and Fridays, there are broadcasts in Yiddish. This is considered sufficient to meet the present needs of the Yiddish-speaking population. The library director, a young Jewish woman, told the correspondent that the library had 100,000 volumes, including 29,000 in Yiddish. In the museum there was a wealth of agricultural, industrial and historical exhibits about the region, but no emphasis on the Jewish side except for a copy of the Shtern of 1935.

There were Yiddish books to be found in a local bookshop, however. They included a 1939 edition of the “Short Course of the History of the Communist Party” and several volumes on Sholem Aleichem published in Moscow in 1948, A Yiddish theatre existed until a few years ago, when, according to local officials, it became “unprofitable.” It has now been converted into a club for young people, the Times correspondent established.

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