Once upon a time in Birobidzhan – a Yiddish speaking socialist republic

July 9, 2020

The Winnipeg Jewish Left and the Establishment o a Jewish Socialist Republic in the USSR

With the current debate on Confederate statues and monuments as symbols of slavery and the hegemonic rule of white patriarchy, community activists have posited a counter narrative aimed at broadening the scope of history. Of course history as a contested terrain of conflicting interpretations of reality is nothing new. It has played out at the local, national and international level. At the local level, a case in point is the various competing perspectives on the creation of a Jewish homeland. The lion’s share of the literature is dedicated to Zionist efforts to create a homeland in what is now the present-day state of Israel. But some groups had envisioned other regions for the future Jewish homeland. Members of the Jewish Territorialist Organization considered areas such as Texas, Alaska, Uganda, Angola as well as Asia and Australia.

An interesting development involved the creation of an autonomous Yiddish-speaking Jewish socialist republic in Birobidzhan in the USSR. Based on Lenin’s view that Jews were a distinct nationality, Birobidzhan came to existence in 1928 specifically for the benefit of Jews who adhered to socialist principles and a collectivist approach to economic development. After World War II, the Jewish population peaked at 50,000, or 25% of the total population.

Leftist Winnipeg Jews particularly those influenced by Marxist and Socialist Territorialist tenets took great interest in Birobidzhan. They coalesced around two organizations, the Jewish Colonization in Russia (ICOR) which was originally an affiliate of the American ICOR and later an autonomous entity, and the Canadian Birobidzhan Committee, created after World War II as a counterpart to the American Committee for the Settlement of Jews in Birobidzhan (Ambijan).

By the late 1920s ICOR had a presence in Winnipeg. According to Henry Srebrnik, by 1932 Winnipeg had a men’s and women’s branch. ICOR sponsored lectures by Charles Kunz who reported on Birobidzhan and organized a bazaar to raise money for a national tractor campaign. By 1936, a youth committee was formed and local activist Dr. B.A. Victor, a key figure in the Winnipeg Jewish Left and an indefatigable figure in the ICOR movement, who had just returned from Birobidzhan, presented a lecture about the region. ICOR also supported numerous anti-fascist causes and played a leading role in raising funds for Canadian volunteers of the Mackenzie- Papineau Battalion who fought on the side of the republic during the Spanish Civil War.

On October 24, 1941, a meeting of at the residence of Dr. B.A. Victor served as the catalyst for the creation of the Winnipeg Council for Allied Victory. The Council’s first meeting on November 9 included talks by lawyer Joseph Zuken and Leybl Basman. The Council garnered support from organizations whose views had been antithetical to IKOR. These included the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) whose president was Samuel Bronfman. By 1941 the Yiddish Kultur Farband or Yiddish Cultural League (YKUF), a leftist Yiddish Reading Circle had been formed which included members of ICOR. YUKF became the dominant vehicle of activities for the pro-Soviet Jewish movement. By 1942, seven such reading circles (one exclusively female) were active in Winnipeg. Another organization which emerged as a byproduct of the activities of ICOR was the Jewish People’s Committee which organized bazaars and carnivals in support of the Soviet Union.

By the end of 1945 the Canadian Birobidzhan Committee had been formed. The Winnipeg branch was chaired by Dr. B. A. Victor. The committee in conjunction with other national branches fundraised for war orphans and refugees of Birobidzhan. In addition, the Committee also expressed unqualified support for the State of Israel. It saw no contradiction in supporting Israel while extolling the virtues of Birobidzhan. As Srebrnik notes, by 1948 “the cause of Birobidzhan had meshed with support for Holocaust survivors, Israel and the building of socialism in eastern Europe.”

The death of Dr. B.A. Victor in 1950 deprived local pro-Birobidzhan proponents of a vital and dynamic figure. Victor’s commitment to Birobidzhan was not only due to his socialist principles but also because the region had adopted Yiddish as a national language and Victor was a fervent Yiddishist.

Over time, the idea of Birobidzhan as “the promised land” for Jewish socialists was to dissipate. Due to inadequate infrastructure and poor weather conditions, the establishment of a settlement became impracticable. Srebrnik noted that “all the stories and statistics had been, simply put, mainly fantasy. Birobidzhan was a ‘sand castle’, a ‘Potemkin country’, the product of misplaced hopes…” Another critical factor was the unleashing of antisemitic sentiments and actions on the part of the Stalinist regime which persecuted Jews and created wide spread disillusionment among a sector of world Jewry that had placed great faith and promise in soviet communism. To this day, Birobidzhan is the administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Russia (JAO). As of 2010 the population of the JAO stood at 176,000 of which only 1,600 were Jews. 

Suggested reading

Reiter, Ester. A Future Without Hate or Need: The Promise of the Jewish Left in Canada.

   Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.

Srebrnik, Henry. ‘Birobidzhan on the Prairies: Two decades of pro-Soviet Jewish Movements in

   Winnipeg.’ In Jewish Life and Times Vol. VIII: Jewish Radicalism in Winnipeg, 1905-1960,

   edited by Daniel Stone, 172-191. Winnipeg: Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, 2003.