Kontakt / contact     Hauptseite / page
          principale / pagina principal / home     zurück / retour / indietro / atrás / back
zurück / retour / indietro / atrás / backprevious   nextnext

Yehuda Bauer: My Brother's Keeper

A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee 1929-1939

[Holocaust preparations in Europe and resistance without solution of the situation]

The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1974

Transcription with subtitles by Michael Palomino (2007)



Chapter 2. Agro-Joint [work in Russia 1919-1938]

[2.7. The Biro-Bidjan / Birobidzhan project for Jews from Russia and Poland 1926-1935]

[Since 1926: Biro-Bidjan is far away from Jewish centers in Russia]

In the mid-thirties a new factor appeared, which seemed to promise a certain reversal of the trend that was pushing the Agro-Joint out of Soviet Russia. This was the question of Biro-Bidjan and the prospects of immigration into Russia.

Back in 1926 the Soviet government had put forward a proposal to set aside the territory of Biro-Bidjan, on the Amur River in the Far East, for settlement by the Jews. If enough Jews settled there, a Soviet Jewish republic would be set up; the Jewish nation would have the benefit of a territorial basis, like all the other nationalities in the Soviet Union.

Kalinin, the president of the Soviet Union, was a particularly ardent proponent of this scheme and expressed his views in a (p.90)

number of speeches. But acceptance of the scheme by Jewish Communist circles in Russia was rather equivocal. Some Jewish Communists thought that this was a reversion to Jewish nationalism or Zionism. Indeed, that is how the Zionists themselves saw it: as a belated recognition of the fact that the Jews were an ex-territorial nation whose national revolution could only be achieved by the settlement of a land of their own. Of course they did not accept Biro-Bidjan as the final goal, but hoped that an early failure of the experiment would open the way for Soviet recognition of Palestine-centered Zionism.

JDC was approached about - indeed, pressured into - accepting the Biro-Bidjan project and working there. Rosen, however, was wary. The Crimean venture was still in the making, conditions there were relatively good, and he was disinclined to embark on a wild project in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from the centers of Jewish life in Russia. Biro-Bidjan obviously needed investigation, and the fact that the government wanted to populate areas on its borders with Japanese-controlled Manchuria and to exploit its natural resources was no argument in favor of Agro-Joint's participation.

[Since late 1920s: Biro-Bidjan / Birobidzhan becomes attractive because of discriminations in Poland and by NS governments]

This situation changed considerably with the advent of the Hitler regime and the decided worsening of the economic conditions for Polish Jewry. Soviet Russia was now playing with the idea of providing an asylum for victims of Nazi persecution; Biro-Bidjan could develop into a national home that was not necessarily restricted to Russian Jews.

In 1931 Rosen reported that he had been officially approached by COMZET to assist in the immigration of 10,000 Jewish families, of whom half would go to agriculture, half would come from Poland, and many would go to Biro-Bidjan.

(End note 42: AJ 66, 10/8/31 [8 Ocotober 1931])

Rosen's reaction was cool. With the pressure mounting, early in 1932 Kahn defined his attitude to the question in a letter to Max M. Warburg in Hamburg.

(End note 43: AJ 173, 2/14/32 [14 February 1932])

Stating that Biro-Bidjan was one of the so-called territorialist projects (envisaging the concentration of Jews in a territory or territories outside of Palestine), he said that (p.91)

these so-called territorialists are now becoming stronger everywhere in the world, and especially this movement is winning support among the youth, since one can see for himself that Palestine is not in a position to relieve the needs among the Jews and that a mass immigration to Palestine is not possible. Utilizing this psychological situation, the highest Russian officialdom have now in their sessions for some time determined to make available in Biro-Bidjan a territory in which a Jewish national entity could develop.

But, added Kahn,

at the present time for the Jews of Russia the better possibility for support lies in industry and in the factories, so that the Russians have proceeded to enlist foreign Jews for Biro-Bidjan. A number of Jews from the Argentine have already emigrated there, as have also 20 young people from Germany and 200 from Lithuania  and Latvia. In view of increasing unemployment, it is believed that perhaps even unemployed from America and Palestine will settle in Biro-Bidjan. At this time there are about 5,500 Jewish persons which is approximately double the amount of a year ago. This year 12,000 new immigrants are to be sent there, and in the year 1933 they plan to settle 20,000 there. ... I personally do not believe in the success of this settlement. What has been achieved there up to now does not justify great hopes.

This was probably an expression of Rosen's vies also.

There the matter rested till about the middle of 1934. However, with the refugee problem growing worse in Western Europe and the Polish Jewish problem becoming more acute, Rosen slowly came around to the view that Biro-Bidjan should be considered.

[Oct-Nov 1934: Joint representatives inspect Biro-Bidjan / Birobidzhan]

With his closest co-workers, Lubarsky, Grower, and Zaichik, he made a trip through Biro-Bidjan in October and November 1934. His observations in no way different from previous reports, such as those of a committee of experts sent by the pro-Communist ICOR group in New York in 1929, or the observations of David A. Brown, who visited the territory in 1932. It was clear that a great deal of investment would be needed to make the territory feasible for agricultural settlement. But Rosen was now more optimistic than he had been before;

[Soviet regime uses force labor for infrastructure works in Biro-Bidjan / Birobidzhan]

the government had promised large sums (p.92)

to improve the land and was employing kulak prisoners and Red army men to build roads, railroads, and drainage canals. Rosen's major point was that the Soviet government had offered a place of refuge, and that could not be refused.

[Agro-Joint leadership organized Biro-Bidjan / Birobidzhan for eventual emigration of Polish Jewry]

The JDC leadership now convened to discuss the situation. To people like James N. Rosenberg the situation was simple: "Do we wish to give hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews an opportunity to emigrate to a country ready and willing to open up their borders for immigration?"

(End note 44: AJ 23, 1/26/35 [26 January 1935])

Rosen himself "conceded that years back, he had very definitely stated that no private or philanthropic organization should engage in this work until all the prerequisites had been brought about; that it would entail very large government expenditure." But now the situation was different, and so were the needs. "There are men in the government who feel very keenly the plight of the Jews in Germany and elsewhere, and whose attitude certainly can be regarded as actuated by humanitarian feelings. The importance of Biro-Bidjan lay not so much in the immediate results as in the development of potential possibilities for immigration."

(End note 45: AJ 86, 6/20/35 [20 June 1935])

[Plan of immigration and financial agreement for Biro-Bidjan / Birobidzhan]

The Soviet proposal was that 1,000 Jewish families and 500 single people would be settled, some in Biro-Bidjan, some in the Crimea (100 families) and the Ukraine, in both agriculture and industry. The Agro-Joint would provide the money to transport them to the Russian border and then supervise the agricultural settlement in the Crimea and in Biro-Bidjan. The money was to come from $ 1.2 million of AMSOJEFS bonds that were to be handed to the Soviets. The Agro-Joint would get $ 200,000 in hard currency for expenditures outside Soviet Russia, and $ 1 million in Russian goods would be bought at gold ruble prices. The government of the USSR would add 25 million rubles as a counterpart to the American fund.

The immigrants would be chosen by the government, as the Agro-Joint refused to be responsible for that part of the scheme. The newcomers would have a right to leave Russia within a given period. But the whole question of citizenship and military service (p.93)

was still not agreed upon by the time Rosen brought up the proposals for discussion in June 1935.

[June 1935: JDC meetings about Biro-Bidjan / Birobidzhan - Stalin regime takes over the costs - Polish government is also interested - work of Joint in Poland without effect]

At these meetings, at one of which members of ICA participated with JDC executives, Rosen explained this scheme further. In contrast to South America and other countries outside of Palestine, Biro-Bidjan was the only undeveloped country in the world where there were vast immigration possibilities for thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, and it was the only country where the government would be willing to bear the major part of the cost, thanks to the fact that the Russian government was anxious to promote settlement in those Far Eastern regions.

In his informal discussions with the Polish officials, Rosen gathered that the Polish government was alive to the problem of the Jews, knew that they could not be absorbed in Poland, and would help in any plan to send large numbers out of the country. "As I see the whole question", he said, "practically every country in Europe is trying to push the Jews out as a foreign body - some in a gross way - some in a finer way." Only Russia was prepared not only not to push Jews out but actually to take them in.

From what I know of the work of JDC, the (Reconstruction) Foundation, ICA, etc., I must say quite frankly that a good deal of this very important work - I do not want to minimize it - a good deal of the so-called reconstruction work that has been carried on is not in the real meaning of the word reconstructive. There is no use hiding your heads under your tails. ... The people assisted there remain just petty traders with the few rubles (sic!) you give them. The younger generation is not getting the advantages of Umschichtung (occupational restratification) in the real meaning of the word. The kassas are making visible efforts, but they are all comparatively insignificant. This applies to the loan kassas in all countries.

The competition was great, Rosen went on, and it was highly doubtful if they could hold on very much longer. The Russians were "honest and decent and sincere" in their opposition to anti-Semitism and their support for a complete equality of opportunity. (p.94)

[Rosen: Russia is projected to be the main immigrant country for Jews]

Generally, he said, "there is no specific Jewish problem in Russia except an insignificant one - that of helping a few of the religious people out", and he was doing that. As for the rest, Russia was becoming a country of immigration, the country of immigration, and it would be irresponsible not to utilize that.

Rosen also suggested a scheme whereby machinery would be imported into Russia by a JDC financial operation; this would add working funds to the Agro-Joint in Russia. But it was the immigration scheme that aroused discussion and interest.

(End note 46: AJ 13, 6/15/35 [15 June 1935])

Rosen, as he had made abundantly clear, was not a Communist. At a press conference held in 1931,

(End note 47: AJ 2, 11/12/31 [12th November 1931])

Rosen had declared that he was not a Bolshevik. But, he added, the Russian government had approached the Jewish problem better than any other government had done, and for this it should receive full recognition. There was more to it than that, however. His close working relations with Soviet Officials had led him to appreciate the positive side of the Soviet regime, and he was undoubtedly impressed with the sincerity of those officials - unfortunately unknown to us - who made the offer.

[1935: 21 German Jewish doctors immigrating to Russia]

In 1935 it was clear to him that it was not the hope of acquiring hard currency that influenced Soviet thought, for the Soviets had developed a favorable balance of payments and they were producing gold in large quantities. It was other aspects of the project that interested them. As an experiment, they had accepted 21 German Jewish doctors who had been screened by JDC; for the most part these doctors came from refugee barracks in France.

[Doubts in JDC about Biro-Bidjan / Birobidzhan]

The attitudes of the participants in the discussions varied. Lessing Rosenwald had doubts, but these were centered more on the climate and the fact that Biro-Bidjan was so close to the Japanese border than on the implications arising from the establishment of a Soviet Jewish state. As far as he was concerned, he said, "that would not enter his consideration. Those people who would want to seize on that as an argument would find it." Dr. Oungre of ICA and Alexander Kahn and Dr. Cyrus Adler of JDC opposed the project because they doubted the stability of Soviet conditions and (p.95)

were afraid of the antireligious activities of the Soviets.

[Warburg's arguments for Biro-Bidjan / Birobidzhan - green light for Biro-Bidjan]

Warburg argued that the Russians had always honored their debts, that they were sincere, and that no one knew what would become of the three million Jews in Poland. This opportunity should not be rejected, he said. The calm reigning at the moment in Russo-Polish relations might not last, and the opportunity should be grasped now. This was the attitude that was finally adopted by a large majority of those consulted, and Rosen was given the green light.

(End note 48: AJ 86, 6/20/35 [20 June 1935])

zurück / retour / indietro / atrás / backprevious   nextnext