Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Jews 20 Percent of Birobidzhan’s Population, Not Four Percent Russian Census Says, People There Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Sept. 19 – Because Jews in Birobidzhan were first forced and then encouraged to change their nationality in Soviet censuses after World War II, the actual share of Jews in the population of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is not the four percent Russian censuses record but rather 20 percent, people in the region say.

            At the same time, they recount that many Russians who could find a Jewish individual in their genealogies were among the first to leave the USSR for Israel and that these and other Russians often spoke and even continue to speak Yiddish, the language of the titular nationality of the district.

            These findings come from a survey of the Yiddish language there conducted this summer by the American Yiddish Book Center for its Oral History Project (yiddishbookcenter.org/) and now discussed by Yekaterina Khasina and Vladimir Yakovsky of the SibReal portal (sibreal.org/a/govori-na-idish-kak-vyzhivaet-ofitsialnyy-yazyk-evreyskoy-avtonomii/31455403.html).

            Yiddish is “the declared language” of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the survey found, but “it is not used at all by the organs of state power, neither in courts nor in official documents.” Few of its citizens speak Yiddish fluently, although many, including many non-Jews, know some words and use them in everyday speech.

            Between 1934 when the oblast was established and the late 1940s, the Yiddish language and Jewish identity were encouraged. But after Stalin launched his anti-Semitic campaign in 1949, both suffered. Yiddish language institutions and schools were closed, and many Jews reidentified for official purposes as ethnic Russians.

            Despite this “almost complete disappearance of Yiddish from culture and daily life,” the researchers found, “in recent years, the Birobidzhan authorities have been trying at least formally to preserve the dialect of Jewish resettlers in the Far East,” using Yiddish for street signs and public transportation stops.

            Many older people in Birobidzhan know Yiddish and even  use it when they don’t want their children to know what they are saying. Their Yiddish is mostly like that spoken in Odessa before World War II, although there are also elements of the Lithuanian variant as well, the researchers say.

            Many Jews and even some Russians who could claim Jewish backgrounds emigrated to Israel where many of the younger ones remain. But some of the older ones who moved there have now returned, although there appears to be a vigorous exchange between Yiddish speakers in both places.

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