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Monday, 8 July, 2002, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Russia's forgotten Jewish land
Sabbath dinner at Birobidzhan Jewish community centre
Jewish culture is now flourishing in Birobidzhan

Some 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometres) east of Moscow, an elderly group of Jews are gathered around a dinner table, talking animatedly in a mixture of Russian and Yiddish.

It is an unlikely place for a Jewish community - a small Russian town perched close to the Chinese border, further east than Siberia, further east than Mongolia.

Birobidzhan is the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region, designated by Joseph Stalin in 1934 as the first official Jewish homeland.

The first Jewish settlers arrived in 1928 - 20 years before Israel was created. They had come to the virgin lands of the Far East to build a new city, and set up a national homeland for Soviet Jewry with Yiddish as the official language.

But less than 10 years after the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region, Stalin began to crack down on Jewish culture. The government head was executed, Yiddish books were burnt, and Jewish schools and the synagogue closed down.

New Russia

In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of Jews left Birobidzhan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region, to build new lives in Israel and the West.

Couple dancing
Dancing on the Sabbath
And Stalin's failed experiment in social engineering may well have been consigned to history were it not for an estimated 12,000 Jews who have remained against all odds to rebuild the Jewish cultural life of Birobidzhan.

"During Communist times we weren't able to meet like this," said Sasha Schwartzman, one of the people having Sabbath dinner at the newly-built Jewish community centre.

"It's amazing because we're able to learn so much about our culture. We didn't know any of this before."

War-time legacy

The group of elderly people spent their childhoods in a Jewish ghetto in Ukraine, under Nazi occupation.

When the Red Army liberated the town in 1945, they were resettled in Birobidzhan. Their lives had been saved, but their culture was all but destroyed in the years that followed.

Boy lights candle by memorial
Holocaust memorial outside Jewish community centre
As Holocaust survivors, they recently applied to Germany for compensation, but most were refused because they did not have the relevant paperwork.

"Every Jew was scared to be Jewish, so we buried our birth certificates and identity documents. People were looking for a better life, and dashed down here to the Far East, where there were mosquitoes, where there was deprivation," said Dina Sadreyava, who has submitted an appeal to Germany.

"People put up with so much in this swamp to build a city, and 60 years down the line it's simply very difficult to find this document or that document. I really want Germany to pay attention to us. But we're so far away. We're so far away."

Hope amid hardship

While most East European Jews are now living in the US, Israel or Western Europe, the Jews of Birobidzhan have had to bear the brunt of economic hardship in one of the most remote regions of Russia.

For many elderly Russians, the post-Soviet period has been traumatic: suddenly all they worked for and believed in was swept away for a new, messy, capitalist future.

When the teacher tells us about our traditions, my memories come flooding back,

Pesser Aronovich
Their state pensions are almost worthless, and unless they have wealthy children they struggle even to feed themselves.

Yet the Jews of Birobidzhan are finally being treated with dignity in their adoptive homeland.

In addition to providing free meals and medicine for Jewish pensioners, the Jewish community centre gives numerous groups of Jews - both old and young - a place to meet and learn about their traditions.

Free meals are distributed five times a week
"When the teacher tells us about our traditions, my memories come flooding back," said Pesser Aronovich, a man in his 60s who attends classes in Jewish culture.

"I feel I have found myself," he said, as he recalled going to the synagogue with his mother as a small boy, before it was burnt down during Stalin's purges.

A younger woman confided that she did not even know she was Jewish until quite recently.

At a chance meeting with the Jewish studies teacher, she mentioned that her grandmother used to teach her prayers as a small child. "It turned out all these prayers were Jewish. And suddenly all these memories have been flooding back," she said.

She recalled how she was nearly expelled from pioneers - a Soviet version of girl-guides - when they found out she prayed. "So then my mother taught me Christian prayers too, to hide the fact that we were Jewish if anyone asked - that's how scared we were," she said.

When I asked her if she still remembered the prayers, her face lit up: "Of course," she said, and in a low melodic chant she recited the Hebrew lines.

See also:

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