The Last of the Voluntary Settlers

The Star of David is scribbled on a broken apartment block window. Photo by Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

BIROBIDZHAN, Russia—The first time I logged on to the official Web site of the Jewish Autonomous Region, its home page featured an article called “Twenty Facts About the Jewish Face.” I later realized that it was fed to the JAR site at random via a link from a Moscow-based Jewish-book site, but the article’s appearance seemed fated, for it spoke to the basic question raised by the JAR: What is a Jew? A Jew is his face, said the article, which was lighthearted for the most part, written by a Jewish woman for a Jewish readership. A Jew is eyes wide open in eternal surprise, large ears tuned to the sounds of the world, and a large nose, which evaded functional explanation and as a result took up points 3 through 5 in this 20-item list. The last fact stated simply that the human habit of determining another’s tribe by his face is hard-wired—which, to a Russian reader, was very much a “fact about the Jewish face.”

The original Birobidzhan project was to create a center of Jewish culture without Judaism. David Brown, a Jewish-American journalist who visited Birobidzhan in the 1930s, predicted that this would prove impossible: Deprived of their religion, Jews would assimilate and their identity would dissipate. He was wrong, sort of. The Jews of Birobidzhan seem to have done pretty well at maintaining their cultural identity through the 1930s and ‘40s, when most of their children attended Yiddish-language elementary schools—even local ethnic Russians and Koreans studied Yiddish, the better to get along in the JAR. Following the annihilation of European Jewry, Birobidzhan briefly became a true center of Yiddish culture, the one place in the world where Yiddish was the language of cultural production. Yiddish-language writers who survived the war flocked to Birobidzhan.

The Soviet regime took care of that. In 1948-49 the writers—all the writers—were arrested on charges of belonging to a “bourgeois nationalist conspiracy to create a center of Jewish culture in Birobidzhan.” Yiddish-language schools were shut down or quickly re-formed as Russian-language schools; the Jewish orphanage was disbanded, its charges torn away from one another and shipped to children’s homes in other regions, where their names were often changed. Yiddish-language books and journals were confiscated from libraries, bookstores, and even warehouses, and burned. Let me repeat that: Four years after the end of World War II, the Soviet regime staged a mass burning of Yiddish-language books. A few people must have hidden theirs in their houses and apartments; later they found their way back to the Birobidzhan library, which, in turn, gave them to a museum at an old collective farm just outside the city, where they are now kept under glass: “No one can read them anyway,” the museum’s director told me.

For most of the second half of the 20th century, what remained of Jewish culture and identity in Birobidzhan stayed largely underground. Starting in the late 1980s, the JAR tried to restore some of its Jewishness, often to comical effect. There is a synagogue and a Jewish community center named Freud, located on Lenin Street, where the city has also built two Russian Orthodox churches. This is the unofficial main street; it runs parallel to the official main street, which is named after Sholem Aleichem, whom a plaque identifies as “a people’s writer,” quaintly demurring to identify the people, as though the word Jewish had no place in polite society.

Jewish-themed monuments, designed by a single local artist and installed by an energetic Jewish deputy governor, speckle the city now. There is a tiny rabbi blowing his shofar on Lenin Street, and a menorah with a treble clef at the center in front of the philharmonic, and, in front of the railway station, a bearded Jew moving his life’s possessions in a horse and buggy—an image that clearly made its way from Ukraine to Birobidzhan via Hollywood. The Jewish deputy governor’s next project is to get some Jewish food cooking in Birobidzhan. (I went on my own quest for Jewish food; it took three days and finally yielded two gefilte fish patties, taken from a jar and reheated, for a price of roughly $4.) There are now memorials at historic sites, all of them adorned with a menorah and containing text in three languages: Russian, English, and Yiddish. One of the city’s last remaining Yiddish-speakers, though, told me that a memorial in the regional library (also named for Sholem Aleichem) purports to list well-known writers who worked at the library “in Sholem Aleichem’s lifetime.”

“I told them that’s what it said, and that he died 40 years earlier, but they said, ‘No one can read it anyway,’ ” Iosif Bekerman told me. He is the oldest living resident of Birobidzhan and probably the last of the voluntary settlers.

Bekerman was born in a shtetl in Ukraine. He was in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, studying to be a pharmacist, when Germans invaded the Soviet Union. The shtetl was occupied in the first few days of the war. Bekerman, disqualified from military service because of a childhood injury, managed to survive far from the front line. When he went home after the war, the locals told him all the shtetl’s Jews had been rounded up in February 1942 and buried in a single pit outside the village. “They told me that pit was heaving for days, because so many of the people were buried alive,” Bekerman told me. Only two Jews in the entire village had survived, both of them hidden by Ukrainian peasants. One of them was Bekerman’s aunt.

Bekerman returned to Kharkiv to finish his education and to dream of Birobidzhan. He had read about it in the Yiddish-language papers, and he was convinced it was the promised land. He signed up to become a settler as soon as he graduated, and he arrived in Birobidzhan in the summer of 1948. “I asked the head of the pharmaceutical department, I said, ‘I wrote you a letter asking to come, and you never wrote back. Why didn’t you write back?’ She said, ‘What is good here?’ And I knew what she meant. She meant there is nothing good here.” He’d already seen what Birobidzhan had to offer: wooden barracks saturated with the stench of too many human beings crammed together; wooden sidewalks laid right over swampland, its own stench stubbornly seeping through; and the bane of Birobidzhan’s existence: the mosquitoes. “But I didn’t turn back.”

“Why didn’t you turn back?”

“Where would I go?”

He married and had three children. For years he thought he’d eventually be set up well enough to invite his aunt—who had married the other surviving Jew from their shtetl—to move to Birobidzhan. That never happened. But he did well enough eventually: He now has a two-room apartment with a bathroom and a kitchen in a brick building in a Birobidzhan suburb called Bezymyanka (“Nameless”). His wife died nine years ago, so he now lives alone, and he is very proud of how well he has done for himself.

And after half a century, Iosif Bekerman is getting to be Jewish again. I picked him up at the synagogue—there were three other men there on Saturday morning, including the rabbi—and we walked next door, to the Freud community center, to talk. Bekerman likes going to synagogue, even if he doesn’t much like the rabbi, a well-meaning young Lubavicher import. “He wanted to get us all to cover our heads at all times,” Bekerman said with disdain. “But no, this is not possible. We don’t believe in God. And we will never believe in God. Sure, I go to synagogue, because I like to read and I like to study. But God? Where was your God when the Jewish people were killed? You say he chose the Jewish people? He forsook the Jewish people!” These words, typed on the screen, look like so much rhetoric heard so many times in so many places in the last half-century. But I’m pretty sure Iosif Bekerman, whose parents, three sisters, and two brothers were buried alive in a pit in Ukraine, came up with these words all on his own: For too many years, he never would have dared talk about Jews, or Hitler, or God. When he said those words, he covered his purplish lips with his gnarly hand with its ragged fingernails and cried, his 4-foot-11-inch frame shaking.

His tears were brief, and then he told me how life had been very good to him. He told me he was very proud of his children and grandchildren, most of whom have stayed in Birobidzhan. His children are all married to ethnic Russians, but his favorite granddaughter, Yulia Bekerman, is strongly Jewish-identified. “She even went to Jewish study classes” in the big city of Khabarovsk, where she studied to be a dentist. “Imagine that! She told me she would always keep the name, she would be Bekerman.” But as Yulia’s wedding date neared last May—she was marrying an ethnic Russian—Iosif sensed doubts and finally decided to talk to his granddaughter. “I said to her, ‘Take his name. You are going to have to live among people. You are not going to want to be a Bekerman.’ ” She is working as a dentist now, married, with a Russian surname, saving for an apartment in Khabarovsk, and it is good, Iosif Bekerman says, life is good.