MOSCOW (Sep. 2)
Jews in the Soviet Union are still afraid that they may be forced to move from various parts of the USSR to Birobidjan, the section in Siberia which was at one time proclaimed by the Soviet Government as a “Jewish Autonomous Region. ” David Miller, special correspondent of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency established her today (Mr. Miller is now in Moscow on a Pulitzer Scholarship from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.)
Soviet Jews may talk a little about Birobidjan, but they watch carefully the addresses by leaders of the Communist Party. They keep looking for a shift in policy–a shift they hope will never come. They would like to think of Birobidjan as a dead issue. They prefer not to discuss the matter at all and to dismiss the rumors of Jewish removal to Birobidjan as fabrications. But the rumors are there.
Twice the size of New Jersey, Birobidjan is the only place in the Soviet Union today where Yiddish can be found on street signs, where a Yiddish-language newspaper–the twice-weekly “Birobidjan Shtern”–survives and where a segment of Yiddish tradition remains. But Yiddish has disappeared from the schools and Russian is used more than Yiddish for every-day conversations. The Yiddish theater is closed and only one make-shift building remains in use as a synagogue.
Even this bare data is not available to Soviet Jews since their own sources of information are tightly controlled. Visits by Westerners are rare–impossible for tourists and information is scarce and usually outdated. Jews outside the area know nothing of events there.
BIROBIDJAN IN DISFAVOR IN MOSCOW; POSTAGE STAMP MARKS IT “JEWISH PROVINCE”
Official Soviet policy has changed frequently toward Birobidjan as the power struggle in Moscow continued. Since its creation in 1934, Birobidjan has gradually slipped into complete disfavor. The territory, the original proclamation read, was. “not intended to furnish the Jewish race throughout the world with a Jewish political life, but merely to extend to the Jewish masses what is offered to other minorities. “
During the purge of 1936 and 1937, many Jews were arrested and some shot. The library, which had contained more than 30, 000 Yiddish and Hebrew volumes, was destroyed Many rare books were burned. The Yiddish Theater and schools were closed.
A case in point is the cancellation mark used on postage from Birobidjan. The stamp used today bears the letters “JAO” for Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Province). Previously, the postmarks read “District of Birobidjan” the fifth change since the first Jewish families arrived The first postmark was in Yiddish.
The living standard, never high, has failed to rise above the subsistence level. The cultural level, which also was never high, has failed to hold its own, according to information reaching Moscow. Young Jews are reported anxious to leave for better opportunities elsewhere. They want to be as much like other Soviet citizens as possible and appear to have lost interest in anything Yiddish.
At the same time regulations make it difficult for any Soviet citizen, regardless of nationality, to move about. Permission is required to move from one city to another and movement into crowded cities like Moscow is closed indefinitely because of a critical housing shortage.
The major exception to this restriction is the drive to populate the underdeveloped regions of Siberia and areas in the Far East like Birobidjan. The program to settle these “virgin lands” has resulted in intensive drives to promote patriotism and adventure among the youth. Success among Jews, however, is believed to be almost nil.
In the Yalta Papers published by the State Department, Stalin was reported to have told President Roosevelt that the experiment had failed because Jews would remain only two or three years and then leave for city life. Jews, in fact, have never wanted to leave their homes in the Western Soviet Union for the primitive region which lacks any historic, socio logical or spiritual ties with the Jewish people.