Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region

Masha Gessen. Schocken, , $25 ISBN 978-0-8052-4246-1
In this slim and accessible book, Russian-American journalist Gessen (The Brothers) traces the grim story of Birobidzhan, a region in the desolate Soviet Far East where Jews were granted autonomy and an opportunity to escape their harsh existence of poverty, discrimination, terror, and “non-belonging” in Soviet Russia. The hopes were never realized, however, and the venture turned out to be a tale of “concentrated tragic absurdity.” It was ill-fated from the start and problems arose at every turn, including the location, planning, and logistics as well as the terror of Stalin’s purges. Gessen also frames the work as a broader cultural history of the Jewish experience in the U.S.S.R., and of “the concept of home, and knowing when to leave.” A major figure here is David Bergelson (1884–1952), the wandering Yiddish-language writer whose “outstanding survival instincts” led him to flee the U.S.S.R. and then Nazi Germany before returning to Soviet Russia, where he “placed himself in the service of Birobidzhan” in a vain attempt to revive hopes for Jewish autonomy. He was eventually executed after a nonsensical trial that further demonstrated the “cruel absurdity” of this story. Gessen ably tells one of the 20th century’s most chilling stories of struggle, perseverance, and despair. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 06/13/2016
Release date: 08/30/2016
Genre: Nonfiction
Ebook - 978-0-8052-4341-3
MP3 CD - 978-1-5414-5350-0
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