Birobidzhan – Vision to Reality
Birobidzhan, 2019. “The edge of the world”. Silence. We are going to document the Jewish story of one of the most remote places in the world – Birobidzhan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region in Siberia, Russia. The black and white photographs from the 1930s are reminiscent of the early documentation of the Jezreel Valley agricultural settlements back then. JDOCU’s modern-day photographs are color documents, coming full circle around a fascinating human story that is physically distant, but near to the Jewish heart. All this, 50 degrees above and below zero.
“The edge of the world”. Silence. After hours of flying over frozen landscapes, the engine roars and we begin our descent. I’m so excited by the prospect of an unfamiliar place and the encounter with a distant Jewish community, that I haven’t slept. Tension and expectation spark the imagination. I’ve always been fascinated by photographing different cultures. How does the distance affect our work? Does the difference make photography easier? We are going to document the Jewish story of one of the most remote places Jews have ever lived, and live to this day.
Birobidzhan is the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region in Siberia, roughly 46 miles from the Chinese border. It was founded in 1915 next to the Tikhonkaya rail station and was later renamed Birobidzhan, an amalgamation of the names of nearby rivers Biro and Bidzhan. In 1928 it became a workers’ colony, when the СССР also decided on the establishment of the Jewish Autonomous Region. In 1934 Birobidzhan was declared the capital of the Region, and in 1937 it was granted town status.
I feel most Jewish when I’m away from home. We were greeted by a women’s choir singing in Yiddish, and both sides were equally excited. Affection and love warmed the body and soul, contrasting the freezing cold outside. We were certainly outsiders, and the looks we received were proof of that. The smells, the tastes, the extreme weather conditions, the language – everything was different, nothing was familiar, and I asked myself why live like this? The physical and mental distance was greater than we thought.
The Region was formed due to Stalin’s policies, partly out of an interest in creating a national home for Jews away from the Land of Israel. The Jewish community was badly affected by Stalin’s great purges of 1936-1938, and after World War II all efforts to strengthen Jewish settlement in the area ceased. Meanwhile, the formation of the State of Israel became a real alternative for the Jewish people. During the Perestroika reformation of 1987 – 1991, centers of Jewish culture and research as well as a synagogue were reestablished in Birobidzhan. The town and its surroundings are now home to roughly 3,000 Jews. The local newspaper, which was the template for this exhibition’s catalog, is the “Birobidzhan Star”, published in Yiddish and Russian since 1930.
During Soviet rule, the multitude of Jews who emigrated to Birobidzhan were forbidden from engaging in Jewish public life. Today the place enjoys a Jewish resurgence. Community elders who stood their ground work together with the next generation to rebuild it, reflecting a desire to be Zionist in their own homeland, to choose their childhood home and raise their children as an inseparable part of the Russian people and yet with a strong Jewish identity.
The early photographs in the exhibition are from 1928 – 1933 and come from Jewish organizations such as the JDC Archive, YIVO and the city’s own archive. These black and white photographs are reminiscent of the early documentation of the Jezreel Valley agricultural settlements by the Zionist photographers of the 1930s. JDOCU’s modern-day photographs come 90 years later: They are color documents in the vein of social documentary photography, coming full circle around a fascinating human story that is physically distant, but near to the Jewish heart.
The JDOCO photographer group is made up of high-tech and business professionals who are also social entrepreneurs, dedicated to social outreach and initiatives in the fields of education, Aliyah absorption and employment.
Amir Halevy, Atalia Katz, Benny Levin, Ilan Cohn, Joel Katz, Shai Beilis, Tali Idan, Yitzhak Goren and Eli Atias - group instructor
Eli Atias (2019) / Guy Raz (1929)