From the Bronx to Siberia

Jacob Gurevitch at home with his wife in Khabarovsk, Russia. (Adam Ellick)

Jacob Gurevitch at home with his wife in Khabarovsk, Russia. (Adam Ellick)

KHABAROVSK, Russia (JTA) — In 1932, as waves of Russian Jews fled their destitute villages in pursuit of the American dream, 10-year-old Jacob Gurevitch and his parents boarded a boat in the Bronx headed in the opposite direction. They were going to pioneer a different sort of Promised Land: Josef Stalin’s dream of a Jewish socialist homeland in Birobidzhan, a 45-minute drive from Khabarovsk, in Russia’s Far East. The month-long boat ride and rail journey left Gurevitch, 81, on the losing side of the Cold War, robbed him of his Jewish identity and assimilated him so deeply that today he cannot even contemplate questions about regret. But his Soviet immersion couldn’t shake his feisty, charming Bronx attitude and his habit of answering every question with a question. “Why would I feel pity? Here’s better than America,” he says from his tiny apartment with Soviet-era furniture. “Have a look. I’m an honorable professor, my family has higher education. Why should I be sorry? What would I do over there anyway?” Gurevitch’s migration to Birobidzhan was organized by I-Core, a now-defunct pro-Soviet, Jewish American organization that wooed hundreds of families and dozens of tractors to the Jewish Autonomous Republic to lead socialist peasant lives on the vast untapped plains of Russia’s Far East. Upon arrival, the newcomers lived in tents until they could build wooden homes. After decades of purges and repressions, the Birobidzhan experiment is known today as Stalin’s Forgotten Zion. Gurevitch’s childhood memories of New York tell of a difficult life for his immigrant parents, who had fled the 1913 pogroms in Lithuania and remained ardent Communists. His mother worked at a Jewish day school in the Bronx, while his father took a job at a raincoat factory under a boss remembered as deceitful. When Gurevitch had an ear infection, his father panhandled for three days on the streets of New York and earned $600. But it still wasn’t enough to afford an operation. “Mom longed for her Soviet motherland that provided medical care for free. But in New York — no money, no operation. That’s why I’m deaf today,” he says in a mess of Yiddish, Russian and Bronx-accented English. When asked about his family’s financial status, he replies, “How should I know? I was 10. When we wanted to eat, we ate.” Gurevitch recalls much of his American youth, like winning an award as the most beautiful Bronx baby. He proudly displays a newspaper article to prove it. “Here’s the snaps,” he says of the accompanying photograph. He skipped two school grades because he was “very clever,” and spent his summers at Camp Kinderland. He displays a family photo album labeled in Yiddish that shows his family full of smiles. “Of course we look happy. Why shouldn’t we look happy? Should we cry in the photos?” he asks. The photographs prompt a recollection of his four aunts and many cousins, who he assumes still live in America. He quickly grabs some scrap paper and begins to diagram a family tree, with hopes that a visitor will reunite his family. After all, he must seize the moment. Gurevitch has only communicated with two Americans since he left in 1932: a KGB agent and the editor of an anti-American magazine. “People say, ‘Use the Internet’, but I don’t know what that is,” says Gurevitch, whose glasses are held together with a paper clip. Today, Gurevitch is retired and lives a quiet life with his non-Jewish wife. He reflects proudly on the Soviet Union, which offered him the kind of state benefits that many post-war immigrants received in the United States. He talks about his days as the head of the Theoretical Mechanics department at Russia’s oldest railway academy, while his wife places piles of Soviet railway awards on the coffee table beside fresh ham and soft Russian black bread. “We are highly respected here. We have discounts and can go around town for free by trolley, bus or tram. And we’re always involved in city celebrations for Veterans Day,” he says. “We’ve had a good life here.”

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