Review of Where the Jews Aren’t by Masha Gessen (Schoken 2016) pp.171.
When should the Jews leave and when should they stay put? This is the general question which the gay, Jewish, American-Russian writer Masha Gessen asks about her own life.
She was beaten in primary school, ostracized at secondary school and barred from university in the USSR because of her Jewishness. Her parents argued vociferously for six years before they finally made the decision to leave Moscow for Boston in 1981. Gessen joined the émigré Russian Jewish intelligentsia that was equally at home in Russian and in English. Gessen returned to Russia as an American reporter and left – for a second time in 2013 – due to Putin’s campaign against homosexuals. Unlike her parents, there was no period of prolonged indecision.
Gessen’s engaging book looks at the careers of the historian Simon Dubnov, who left Soviet Russia and the Yiddish writer, Dovid Bergelson, who returned to it. Dubnov argued that the dispersed Jews throughout the millennia had refused to
renounce their national will and exuded “a stubborn determination to carry on its autonomous development.” Yet he left
with hundreds of thousands of Jews after the pogroms of 1881. He later fled from St. Petersburg to Odessa and back again,
then to Weimar Germany, and finally to Riga. The non-Zionist Dubnov refused an offer to leave for the US, believing Stalin
would never violate the independence of the Baltic states. The 81-year-old Dubnov was killed because he moved too slowly
during a Nazi round-up of Riga’s Jews.
Bergelson was far more astute at predicting the future – an opportunist in protecting himself and his family. He too fled from town to town and ended up in Berlin. Returning to the USSR from Nazi Germany in search of an appreciative readership, he became a pliant tool in Stalin’s hand. In January 1937 he wrote a letter denouncing Yiddish writers who had been arrested. Yet along with other Jewish writers and poets, he joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in World War II.
Nazism had awakened many assimilated Jews whom Bergelson described previously as “scratching off their Jewishness until
the blood had started to run.” Ironically, Bergelson’s participation in the JAFC became the pretext for his arrest, incarceration, trial and execution in 1952. Like Dubnov, despite all his twists and turns, his luck had run out.
The price of Bergelson’s return to the USSR in the early 1930s was the writing of a crude propaganda article, extolling the virtues of Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomous region near the Chinese border. President Mikhail Kalinin suggested its establishment in 1926, but its winters were harsh and unforgiving, its summers scorching hot. Its landscape was mainly
swamps, populated by bloodsucking insects.
The idea of a socialist homeland attracted Jews from Argentina, the US and Palestine, as well as the impoverished and
persecuted from the western reaches of the USSR. In 1928, 504 families and 150 individuals arrived with the dream of
building a better life. Two thirds of them returned, leaving only those too destitute to buy the return ticket. There was
no food, habitation or infrastructure. The Soviets silently delivered the Jews and expected them to get on with it. Yet American Jews helped and those who stayed established the first collective farms.
Despite the hardships, by 1932 there were six Yiddish schools and a daily newspaper. The Great Purge of the 1930s saw the
leaders of this Soviet Jewish experiment denounced as Japanese spies and Trotskyist agents. Their children were declared
orphans of the state. Following the war, Holocaust survivors and those with no hope elsewhere arrived. Yiddish actually
experienced a revival, but Stalinist paranoia in the late 1940s finally destroyed this idea for a Jewish homeland. In 1949,
Jewish congregants were arrested during Rosh Hashana services; Yiddish writers were shipped off to the Gulag and Jewish
books were burned.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Israeli ambassador Yosef Avidar visited Birobidzhan and was shocked and distressed to see what had happened. In the decades since, the Jewish autonomous region has declined to the point of Jewish invisibility.
Gessen’s book is a testimony to the tortuous decisions Jews had to make during the last century, and how such situations
brought out both the best and the worst in human nature.
It also relates Gessen’s own journey and her defiance of the Putinization of Russia, as both a Jew and a homosexual. The
question of when to leave and when to stay is not solely a Jewish one.
Jerusalem Post 16 September 2016