Moscow-born Gessen (The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, 2015, etc.) addresses the story of the Jewish struggle for autonomy in Stalin’s Russia.
With no reason given, the Russian government decided that Jews, along with other ethnic groups like the Koreans, should be granted their freedom in an out-of-the-way spot along the Chinese border. Birobidzhan was one of the world’s two Jewish states, a place with a Yiddish language newspaper but no Yiddish-speaking residents. As the author tells of the formation of the settlement in 1934, she describes life as a Russian Jew. Even though she left when she was 12, Gessen ably explores the mindset of those before her who lived through the time. Simon Dubnow, the historian of Eastern European Jewry, and poet and author David Bergelson contribute to the cultural picture. A Jew’s legacy is a “long string of migrations.” Home was always elsewhere, and being Jewish meant being ostracized, beaten, and forbidden entrance to university. Bergelson’s survival instincts were legion. He knew when to run without looking back, fleeing Russia and then Nazi Germany. He understood the concept of home and knowing when to leave. After working with Stalin, he bided his time and then worked against him. The history of Birobidzhan, writes Gessen, is absurd. In the interwar years and again after World War II, families, orphans, and other displaced persons were sent to an area that grew nothing to live in quarters without running water and that leaked in the frigid winters. In short, it was a place with little hope of continued success. However, it still felt the wrath of Stalin’s purges, particularly the great terror of 1936 and his postwar paranoid cleansing of rootless cosmopolitanism.
Though the narrative offers a depressing picture of Russian Jews, it is packed with wonderful stories of strength, intelligence, and impressive perseverance.