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Across the Former Soviet Union Veterans of Russia’s Jewish Land Take Lots of Pride in the Good Ol’ D

September 23, 2004
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Zyama Mikhailovich Geffen came here in 1928, brought by parents fleeing famine and anti-Semitism in Lithuania, hungry Jews desperate to carve out a better future for themselves in the taigas of the Russian Far East. Fira Moiseyevna Kofman arrived in 1936, a 19-year-old orphan, a freshly minted graduate of Minsk’s construction engineers’ college, a young idealist eager to build the new Jewish Communist city of Birobidzhan with her own hands.

These two young Jews — now among the oldest residents of Birobidzhan, which Stalin “created” as a Jewish homeland — have spent their lives helping the Jewish region flourish. But like many of the region’s earliest immigrants, they didn’t do it for particularly Jewish reasons.

Geffen’s family fled its small shtetl near Vilna, Lithuania, to work at a mill in Kazan, Russia, in 1924.

In 1927, their shul voted on whether to move en masse to the Crimea — Stalin’s first ill-concei! ved Jewish project — or head 5,000 miles east to the wilds of the Russian Far East.

East it was, and in February 1928 his father’s three brothers were among the first handful of Jewish pioneers to accept the Soviet government’s challenge. They pitched tents in the marsh, cleared trees and filled in the swamps.

On New Year’s Day 1929, their wives and children joined them, moving into the four first houses. Other Jewish families followed, working the land and owning property in common, much like the early kibbutzim in Israel.

“Those first years we had no tractors or farm equipment,” recalls Geffen, who was seven when he arrived. “Everything had to be done by hand. Only tough people stayed, those with strong nerves.”

The first tractors arrived in the mid-1930s, a gift from sympathetic American Jews.

The residents of the Waldheim kolkhoz, or collective farm, where Geffen’s family settled, came mostly from Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, he says, although ! there were some Argentines and Americans in the nearby farm collective s.

Waldheim’s first school was established in 1929, with one teacher and five desks. All subjects were taught in Yiddish, in keeping with the region’s mission of providing a national Jewish homeland.

But Geffen says his family was not ideologically motivated.

“We didn’t even think about a ‘Jewish’ republic then. The main thing for us was to work the land.” Cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, wheat and soy were the main crops, and cattle and pigs were raised.

Although by the late 1930s there was one small synagogue in Birobidzhan, Geffen says the Jews in Waldheim were little interested in Judaism. They celebrated Jewish holidays, but without prayers or religious ritual.

“My grandmother baked matzah until she died in 1949, and on Purim we made hamentashchen. But we didn’t keep Shabbas — we had to work every day.”

In 1934, when most of the Jewish agricultural experiments were on the verge of collapse, Stalin gave the Jewish Autonomous Region official st! atus and declared his intention of erecting its capital city, Birobidzhan.

Two years later, Geffen’s uncle moved to the city of Birobidzhan from Waldheim to become the caretaker of the first, small synagogue.

That same year, Kofman volunteered with a Komsomol work brigade that set out from Minsk by train to construct the new city.

Nothing about the region’s Jewish name motivated her.

“We were young, patriotic, filled with great enthusiasm,” she recalls. “We wanted to build something new from the ground up, to help our country.”

Kofman spent 20 years laboring for Birobidzhan Construction Company, serving as leader of the company’s Komsomol section and veterans’ committee. She turned down several Communist Party positions, preferring, she says, to remain a worker.

In 1990, she opened a museum dedicated to the history of the city’s construction, filled with photos and artifacts she collected herself from friends, co-workers and company archives.

Unlik! e the city’s official historical museum, which altered its focus after perestroika to reflect Russia’s new political correctness, Kofman’s museum unabashedly glorifies the city’s Communist past. “We built it all, so we had the right to create a museum and preserve that history,” she declares.

Until quite recently, Kofman herself served as the museum’s director and sole guide. Visitors had to call ahead and she’d open it for them, pointing out her friends and late husband among the portraits gracing its walls.

She has been wheelchair bound for three years, but is as feisty as ever, with a deep, raspy voice that she uses at full volume.

“That’s from years of speaking over construction,” she explains.

She was recently reelected as head of the company’s veterans’ association, a job she carries out by phone, working from her bedroom.

Still an unapologetic party member, Kofman says she’s ashamed of the current generation’s greed and lack of idealism. She describes the 1984 celebrations of Birobidzhan’s 50th anniversary, when she ! marched at the head of the parade and was personally congratulated by party officials.

“Now I can’t even look at the celebrations,” she grumbles. “When I was young, we lived for others, not for ourselves. We worked from enthusiasm, from a desire to build something, not for money.”

Geffen, too, bemoans many of the changes that have taken place over the last 15 years. Waldheim disbanded as a collective more than 10 years ago and is now a joint stockholders’ company.

Some of the farm equipment was parceled out in lieu of final salaries; the rest of it “disappeared,” he says.

But both of them bristle at the suggestion that Birobidzhan was a “failed experiment,” as it is often called in the Western media.

“Why would you say that?” queries Geffen, sitting in his flower-filled courtyard. Pointing to the freshly painted cottages that line Waldheim’s leafy main street, their front yards filled with crops and plump cows, he looks hurt. “And look at Birobidzhan, at t! he changes they made there. It’s a beautiful city now.”

Indeed, Bir obidzhan’s physical structure reflects its economic prosperity, although much of it is because of the 50 percent increase in the GNP since 2000.

The wide, tree-lined boulevards are swept clean regularly. In the city center, fresh bricks have been laid down on the sidewalks, and the facades of the stores and residential buildings are nicely painted.

There’s an energy in the streets, unlike the depressive atmosphere that prevails in much of post-Soviet Russia.

All of Geffen’s children and grandchildren have stayed nearby, although he has one sister-in-law in Israel. Kofman’s children, however, have left. In fact, three of her five grandchildren live in Israel.

She doesn’t admit it, but it’s easy to see in her face that she wishes they had stayed.

“I saw this city grow from the taiga and the mosquitos to the city you see today,” Kofman says with pride, spreading her strong, large-boned arms in front of her. “And we did it with our own hands.”

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