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Up From the "Ash Heap"?
A Lost Chapter of Interwar Jewish History

by Jonathan Dekel-Chen

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

from: Colombia Journal of Historiography

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Few scholars, even specialists on Jewish and Soviet history, can say much about the Jewish agricultural colonization movement from the traditional towns (shtetls) of the former Pale of Settlement to Crimea and Southern Ukraine, which took place between 1923 and 1941. To the non-expert, the topic may seem esoteric, even exotic. Judging from the little written about it in the West, this movement had almost no upside. To date, the subject has stirred only minor interest among scholars in the former Soviet Union. Among the younger generation of Israeli historians, there is a similar silence. Do the facts justify this historiographical state of affairs?

Whereas path-breaking studies on Jewish colonization in Birobidzhan and Belorussia during the interwar period emerged in the 1960s, far less significant work has been done on the more than 200 Jewish colonies in Crimea and southern Ukraine.[1] One prominent Israeli scholar dealt with a small group of Jewish socialists from Palestine that emigrated to Crimea and established a commune, Via Nova, in the late 1920s.[2] Although it is a fascinating story with implications for the history of the Jewish community in Palestine under the British Mandate, Via Nova is not representative of Jewish settlement in Crimea. Survivors of the three agricultural communes in Crimea created by the Hehalutz Zionist movement authored a number of memoirs in Hebrew after their emigration to Palestine in the mid-1920s. Although these are fascinating accounts of the brief settlement experiences of Zionist communards in Crimea, they are uninformative about the much larger, non-Zionist, colonization movement.[3]

Voluntary resettlement by Jews from the shtetls to Crimea and southern Ukraine commenced immediately following the Russian Civil War. Impoverished from years spent in a battle zone, and recently disenfranchised by the Bolshevik Constitution of 1918, the Jews of the overcrowded shtetls were near desperation. As one avenue of response, small groups of them began to migrate southward in 1922-23. Some of them formed a handful of so-called "spontaneous" colonies in the Black Sea littoral while others joined the war-weary "old" Jewish colonies in southern Ukraine, which had originally been settled in the early nineteenth century. Given the difficult times, and considering that they had almost no outside aid, these several hundred new settlers and Hehalutz communards in Crimea and southern Ukraine accomplished much and set important precedents for what followed. Starting in 1923, the colonization movement underwent meteoric growth, bolstered by foreign philanthropies, of which the most important by far was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)—a non-governmental, non-denominational Jewish philanthropy, based in New York and created during World War I for the relief of Jewish refugees in Eastern Europe.

Beginning in 1924, the JDC entered a series of contracts with the Kremlin that institutionalized and expanded the "spontaneous" colonization: the Soviets provided free land, transportation, tax exemption and fuel. According to Soviet law, work on the land, like other so-called "productive labor," reinstated civil rights to the hitherto disenfranchised Jewish settlers. At its peak, the Joint Agricultural Corporation (the operative arm of the JDC in Soviet Russia, then known as the Agro-Joint) employed over 1000 workers in offices from Moscow to Crimea. Driven by contributions in excess of $16 million (over $200 million at present value), the Agro-Joint constructed and administered approximately 200 state-of-the-art agricultural colonies on hundreds of thousands of acres, assisted an additional forty colonies established before its arrival, operated several tractor teams, and provided technical guidance, vocational training, modern implements, and low-interest loans to the settlers and their non-Jewish neighbors around the Black Sea. In total, the Agro-Joint had settled or otherwise assisted approximately 200,000 Jews by the time it signed a liquidation agreement with the government and departed Soviet Russia in 1937.

Quantitative and qualitative measurements show that this was a remarkable undertaking. Owing to the material aid and supervision of the Agro-Joint, the colonies achieved extremely high standards of living compared to the rest of rural Russia. The agricultural systems introduced by the Agro-Joint became a focus of interest for the regime and may have served as a model for total collectivization: the Jewish colonies were the subject of repeated visits by delegations of Soviet officials interested in the agricultural techniques and the organizational practices instituted by the Agro-Joint. In addition, several members of the Politburo sub-commissions that set the character of collectivization were already familiar with Jewish colonization.[4] Because the Soviet government was relatively weak in the countryside during most of this period, the Agro-Joint operated as a veritable administrative surrogate from 1924 until at least the early 1930s.[5] Such a position also allowed it to bargain with the Soviet regime on matters not directly related to colonization. For example, the Agro-Joint negotiated the release of imprisoned Zionists, many of whom then emigrated to Palestine. It also negotiated with the regime for the easing of nationwide edicts against religious activity.

In terms of both the scale of investment and immediate results, the Agro-Joint project dwarfed the Jewish agricultural settlement of Palestine at the time. The Jewish National Fund, for example, owned 250,000 acres of farmland in Palestine in 1948, while the Soviet government had allotted approximately four times that much for the permanent use of the Jewish colonies around the Black Sea by the early 1930s. Part of this land was voluntarily returned to the Soviet government during the 1930s for lack of results.

These factors contributed to a number of extraordinary developments. Officially, the Kremlin created five autonomous Jewish districts (raiony) in the regions of agricultural colonization. But an equally important feature of the project in retrospect was the unofficial compact Jewish settlement blocs that developed in the wake of the physical expansion of the settlement enterprise. In some cases, these blocs intersected with the formal Jewish districts; in other cases, they coalesced around significant pockets of Jewish colonies outside the official districts. Within the settlement blocs (and despite large turnovers in the membership rolls of most colonies), Jews manned almost all the administrative functions and nurtured a unique cultural and religious life mostly outside the grasp of the state. All the while, the Stalinist regime applied increasing and damaging pressure on the rest of Soviet society, both in the population centers and in the countryside. In contrast, the Jewish agricultural settlements survived and, relatively speaking, usually thrived under the Soviet system. They succumbed only to occupation by the German Wehrmacht in the autumn of 1941.

The indirect results of the Agro-Joint's colonization network exceeded the proportionally small numbers of settlers—never more than 9 percent of all Soviet Jews. A Russian-language propaganda campaign forged an image of a new Soviet-Jewish agriculturalist that sharply contrasted with the negative stereotypes of Jews in tsarist literature. While this new image did not fit the majority of Soviet Jews, it did change the ways that non-Jews viewed their Jewish countrymen, and it legitimized a basic outline of Jewish national identity in an era of growing assimilatory pressures from above.[6] Migration to the colonies also helped relieve overcrowding and related socio-economic problems in the shtetls.[7]

Despite this record of accomplishment, the historiographical consensus on the Agro-Joint experiment is generally negative. Among the damaging judgments in the existing scholarship, one finds the claim that the Jewish colonists suffered from chronic poverty and severe repression. There is also a common belief among scholars that the colonies lost their Jewish character during the national collectivization of agriculture in the winter of 1929-30.[8] Historians have also implicitly agreed on the following points: Stalin evicted the Agro-Joint from the Soviet Union in 1937; the reign of terror that afflicted the cities in the second half of the 1930s had a similar effect on the Jewish colonies; the majority of colonists were murdered shortly after the Nazi conquest of the region.[9] According to these arguments, the annihilation of the colonies during the war—combined with the cynical fabrication of the "Crimean Plot" (to be discussed below) by the Soviet regime in Stalin's last years—condemned the whole enterprise to failure. The validity of these conclusions notwithstanding, the aim of this essay is to explore why a one-sided historiographical consensus has materialized from such a complex episode in Jewish and Soviet history.

Research versus Recall

In the study of closed societies, such as Stalinist Russia, the reliance on narrow or unrepresentative source bases is perhaps unavoidable. The inaccessibility of archives in the former Soviet Union until the early 1990s magnified the problem for scholars in the West. As a result, even the more recent general histories in English and Hebrew that refer to the Agro-Joint episode have cited mainly secondary accounts, particularly Yehuda Bauer's classic history of the JDC.[10] Writing in the mid-1970s, Bauer made use of only one archive (in New York) when exploring this complex event, and he did not intend or claim to offer a detailed description of the colonization enterprise. More focused studies of Soviet-Jewish colonization in English or Hebrew have thus far relied on memoirs, Soviet-era periodicals and other published materials. Therefore, a lack of thorough research, combined with the habit of citing imperfect sources, has led to the replication of unsound scholarship on the subject from 1942 to date.[11]

Moreover, an over-reliance on survivors' testimonies weakened the existing scholarship. To be sure, the memoirs of Holocaust survivors among the colonists and those of Hehalutz members persecuted by the Soviet regime provide faithful ground-up views of the horrors that they endured. Such accounts, however, are far less useful on other issues.[12] Furthermore, when Soviet sources published Holocaust memoirs, they often distorted the narrative in order to emphasize what they called the "fascist crimes" of the German occupiers. For reasons I will discuss below, government publishers also minimized any mention of life in the colonies.

When previous authors placed blanket faith in the memoirs of leaders of the JDC—who were themselves traumatized by the Holocaust—this also proved problematic. The former President of the Agro-Joint, James Rosenberg, expressed excessive pessimism when he stated in 1959 that "the Crimea, which we thought was a safe place, was overrun by Hitler's hordes. Stalin completed the gruesome job of mass murder. So this great effort [of the Agro-Joint] . . . ended in bitter nothingness. Never since 1938 have I heard a single word from any of those Jews."[13] Because neither Rosenberg nor his contemporaries in the West was privy to developments in the Soviet countryside from the late 1930s onward, the worst was most often assumed. Rosenberg could not have known that most of the Agro-Joint's colonists had evacuated the settlements before the German conquest of Crimea. Consequently, conventional historiography speaks of nearly total annihilation, whereas the archives reveal a much more evenhanded description.[14]

Deciphering the Silence

What caused the historiographic void around this story of Jewish-Soviet colonization? In fairness, one cannot overemphasize the most basic of reasons—the Soviet archives were off-limits to independent scholars. Although it was possible to produce partial studies without these collections, a full picture could not be reconstructed using only the materials available in the West. Additional factors, however, also account for this half-century of historical amnesia.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that very few people capable of relating the story survived beyond 1952. Most significantly, the senior staff of the Agro-Joint and the Soviet agencies responsible for supervision of the colonies (known by their Soviet acronyms KOMZET and OZET) perished in the Stalinist purges of 1937 and 1938. These men and women had by far the deepest familiarity with the project among Soviet Jews and the personal skills to document its history.

Compounding this tragedy, in 1948 the regime arrested the leading Soviet-Jewish cultural elites who had led the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC) during the Second World War.[15] Encouraged by the willingness of the Joint Distribution Committee to reengage itself in the Soviet Union after the war, most of the leaders of the JAFC promoted a renewed colonization movement as a means for the postwar revival of Soviet Jewry. In a characteristic irony of late Stalinism, the Soviet regime turned the warm memory and great potential of foreign-supported Jewish colonization in Crimea and southern Ukraine against the JAFC. After a number of Soviet leaders suggested that they submit to Stalin a proposal for a renewed program of Jewish agricultural settlement, the Committee's members were accused, in what became known as the "Crimean Plot," of conspiring with Americans (namely, the JDC) to take over Crimea and secede from the Soviet Union. Arrested in 1948, all but one of the JAFC members were shot in August 1952. Even after this and other deadly inventions of the Stalinist period were exposed in the late 1950s, the image of Crimea as a potential American-Jewish bridgehead in the USSR persisted among Soviet leaders long after Stalin's death.[16]

Owing to the all-but-official antisemitism that dated from 1948, if not earlier, Soviet Jewish culture went underground, and barely survived, through most of the next forty years. In this state of affairs, the study of the Agro-Joint episode by Soviet Jews was extremely unlikely. When Jewish culture began to resurface in the second half of the 1980s, in the wake of glasnost, the enormous tasks of rebuilding functional communities throughout the country greatly outweighed the impetus to explore subjects of historical, but not necessarily current, import. Among non-Jewish Soviet scholars, the Agro-Joint and its project were considered taboo. Because the government had systematically discredited the JDC from the late 1940s, the study of the episode became suspect.[17]

But what of the colonists who survived the war? After all, a majority of these Jews had evacuated the Crimean peninsula before the arrival of the German army. Those among them who were not recruited into the Soviet armed forces often spent the war years in the relative comfort and safety of Central Asia and many returned to Crimea after the war. Did they not try to memorialize the accomplishments of their colonies before the war? At least in part, the rampant anti-JDC atmosphere and the demonization of supposed "national chauvinism," in Stalin's last years, deterred most of these former colonists from any such attempts.

But there were additional reasons for the silence of the Agro-Joint's former beneficiaries. The survivors had lost their collective voice during the Second World War: many male leaders of the colonization movement were killed while serving in the Red Army and the Jewish kolkhozes had dispersed throughout Central Asia following the organized evacuation in the autumn of 1941. Even if some of the Jewish colonists resettled in their original kolkhozes after 1944, they no longer constituted coherent communities. Rather, they lived as small pockets of Jews in non-Jewish surroundings. As a result, the returnees had little interest or capacity to uphold the memory of the Agro-Joint, with or without the antisemitic environment rampant throughout the Soviet Union during High Stalinism.

The very act of the German invasion robbed the colonies of their symbolic significance. Once non-Jews occupied the colonists' homes and farms in wartime, these colonies became just another point in the Soviet countryside, with no obvious justification for memorialization among the local population. In a further blow to the perpetuation of historical memory, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet reconfigured the political maps of Crimea and Ukraine in late 1944, thereby eliminating the official status of the five autonomous Jewish districts. In 1948, the Presidium applied Russian titles to those former Jewish kolkhozes that still possessed Yiddish or Hebrew names—hence, "Naidorf" suddenly became "Nikolaevo," and "Herut" turned into "Dmitrovka."[18] Hereafter, only those colonists who had returned to the region after the war had a living memory of communal Jewish life before 1941.

Stalin's brutal exile of the Tatar and the other ethnic minorities of Crimea to Central Asia in 1944 is one of the critical factors that contributed to the historiographical void over Jewish colonization. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing debates about the reasons and effects of these deportations, the issue occupied the most scholarly and journalistic attention about the region in the ensuing decades—first from Western scholars, and, since 1991, from researchers and other commentators in the former Soviet Union.[19]

American-Jewish politics merged with personal tragedy to dull the memory of colonization in the New York headquarters of the JDC. The richest source of information—Dr. Joseph Rosen (the director of the Agro-Joint)—died prematurely in 1948. He left no memoir and his surviving records shed light only on specific issues and periods.[20] A handful of publications from other senior officials of the JDC are inadequate for proper scholarly investigation. These were mainly rosy travelogs written by visitors with a limited view of the colonization enterprise.[21] In retrospect, such memoirs had little resonance outside of the small leadership circle and the major donors of the JDC.[22]

Political developments in the Jewish Diaspora after 1944 discouraged the JDC from reviving the memory of the Agro-Joint. During and immediately after the Second World War, the leaders of the JDC (and much of American Jewry as a whole) threw themselves into the rescue of Holocaust survivors and the building of the State of Israel. Overall, non-Zionist subjects left the front page of Jewish historiography and very little time or interest remained for the now defunct Soviet-Jewish colonies. Finally, the bogus accusations of espionage leveled by the Soviets against the JDC surely dampened any desire to reopen discussions about the Agro-Joint. Furthermore, because the Joint continued to work behind the scenes on behalf of Soviet Jewry until the start of Perestroika, it could not afford to attract unnecessary attention to itself by resurrecting memories of Jewish colonization.

At first glance, the many dozens of Hehalutz commune members helped to Palestine by Joseph Rosen in the second half of the 1920s were another possible source for histories about the Agro-Joint. Although their memoirs were regularly cited in the existing historiography, they revealed almost nothing beyond the travails of the tiny Hehalutz communes.[23] In fairness to the memoirists, they could not be expected to do more; having left Soviet Russia shortly after the Agro-Joint began its work, they had little direct knowledge of Joseph Rosen's accomplishments. Furthermore, their experience differed fundamentally from the vast majority of settlers—the regime treated Hehalutz as an adversary from the mid-1920s, whereas it celebrated the mainstream colonists.[24]

The Politics of Historical Narrative

Were events in the Soviet Union the lone culprit in the omission of the Agro-Joint episode from the grand narrative of recent Jewish history? Did ideology and academic predispositions outside of Russia perhaps intrude as well? In most attempts to record past political controversies, the "winning" side usually enjoys a clear advantage. Whatever the JDC's contemporaneous value and the true correlation of forces between its colonies and the building of a Zionist homeland in Palestine between the world wars, there is no question that the Agro-Joint experiment "failed" in one undeniable sense—it ended in the autumn of 1941.

From the moment it began the systematic construction and support of Jewish colonies in Soviet Russia, the Joint drew zealous supporters and ardent critics. For its opponents, mostly from the ranks of organized Zionists, this was a zero-sum rivalry: every dollar collected among American Jews for the Agro-Joint was a dollar lost for the development of Palestine. Moreover, Soviet propaganda at first trumpeted the Jewish agricultural settlement around the Black Sea as a precursor to the establishment of a Soviet-Jewish republic. Frightened by the financial and political specter of this project, and the ease with which the JDC seemed to collect huge sums in America, Zionist leaders and publicists attacked the very legitimacy of the Agro-Joint.[25]

In addition to these financial and political worries, a deep mistrust of the Bolshevik regime overshadowed the Zionist view of colonization in Soviet Russia. Indeed, many American Jews still had fresh memories of pogroms in Russia and were angered by the repression of Zionist organizations in Soviet Russia. Because most Zionist authors found opprobrious any American-Jewish association with "the Bolshevik," they viewed the JDC's cooperation with the Bolshevik regime with an a priori skepticism.[26]

The thinness of the existing scholarship in English and Hebrew on this subject is also indicative of a traditional focus on political—particularly Zionist—issues in the study of modern Jewish history. As a result, most of the Western scholars have addressed the project only in the context of Soviet nationality policy.[27] Other authors deal with colonization episodically or refer only to narrow features of the movement.[28] If it is discussed in any depth, the colonization enterprise is often seen through the prism of its lesser Zionist components, namely the Hehalutz communes and Via Nova. But when these four communes are the historiographical lens through which the vast majority of Jewish colonies in this region are assessed, the latter must assume an aura of futility. Given the repetitious nature of the subsequent historiography described above, it is not surprising that so little is known today about the Agro-Joint.

The existing studies also tend to extrapolate conclusions from experiments in Jewish agricultural colonization in Belorussia and Birobidzhan onto Crimea and southern Ukraine. Although it occurred during the same period, Jewish colonization sponsored by the Agro-Joint bore no resemblance to these other projects. The absence of foreign philanthropies doomed the Belorussian settlements: without a strong, attractive economic base, they warranted no special consideration from the Bolshevik regime. Together with the objective problems of land tenure, the lack of a foreign benefactor left the Jewish settlements in Belorussia exposed to the worst aspects of Soviet rural policy. At the other end of Eurasia, the patron-less Jewish kolkhozes in Birobidzhan withered.

Notwithstanding these fundamental differences, scholars have invoked the well-documented failures in Belorussia and Birobidzhan in their discussions of the Agro-Joint colonies. For example, some writers seem to transfer onto Crimea Chone Shmeruk's valid conclusions about the forced "internationalization" of Jewish collective farms in Belorussia during the national campaign of total (sploshnoi) collectivization in the winter of 1929-30.[29] Thus, the drastic demographic changes that extinguished the Jewish character of the colonies in Belorussia are improperly assigned to the Jewish kolkhozes around the Black Sea; as I have mentioned, the archival evidence clearly shows that a number of factors protected the latter's ethnic coherence until 1941. Other authors make analogous extrapolations from the Jewish settlements of the Autonomous Jewish Province in Birobidzhan to those in Crimea and southern Ukraine. To be sure, Yaacov Levavi and Robert Weinberg correctly identified the chronic problems of Birobidzhan: agricultural inviability, poor administration, insignificant foreign investment, the devastating impact of Stalin's purges on the local Jewish leadership, and the inability of the Soviet authorities to attract and then attach substantial numbers of Jewish recruits to the Far East.[30] But a similar dismissal of the colonies in Crimea and southern Ukraine by later authors is baseless.[31] In most respects, the Agro-Joint project blossomed for the exact same reasons that the settlements in Birobidzhan and Belorussia failed: the influx of significant foreign aid and instruction; the establishment of an orderly administration; and an attractive site for recruits.

Scholars have thus repeatedly fallen into an understandable trap—their conclusions were frequently based on the narrow sources available to them. The case of Jewish colonization in Soviet Russia demonstrates that when incomplete documentation underpins sweeping conclusions, historiographical accuracy can suffer. Hence, according to a popular book about the influential Warburg family, "[in the early 1940s] the State Department informed the JDC that the Soviets had confiscated its funds and shot many Jews."[32] On the surface, this assumption seems reasonable and might even be valid for some, perhaps a large portion, of Soviet Jewry. Yet its indiscriminate nature reflects upon all sectors of the community, including the Agro-Joint colonists. Upon further inquiry, the above statement becomes suspect because it is based on one monograph whose author cited a British Foreign Office record. Again, this seems to be a reliable source of information. Further reading, however, reveals that the Foreign Office had merely quoted the hearsay of one of its workers who was later charged with espionage for the Soviets.[33]

Sourcebase and Accuracy

Until recently, the historian's dilemma over the quality of documents was greatly magnified in the study of the former Soviet Union; in this immense empire, conscious distortion of data as well as bureaucratic ineptitude were endemic to the system. Scholars must treat contemporaneous official publications and newspapers with caution and circumspection. These, like letters to government officials from ordinary citizens, often reflected what the writer thought the intended audience or "the boss" wanted to hear. In the case of the postwar historiography of Jewish colonization, the relevant Soviet archives were either partially or completely closed to researchers on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Yet even recent Western studies have made only limited use of Soviet-era archival collections. More surprisingly, the archival sources available in the West were lightly cited, if at all, in previous studies of the Agro-Joint.[34] For reasons often tied to the financial plight of scholars in the former Soviet Union, new studies there confine themselves to very slender sourcebases.[35]

Heretofore, the use of government-generated materials has artificially inflated the weight of certain well-publicized individuals or events. For instance, by incorporating only what was readily available to them, some Western authors overestimated the practical contributions of the leading Bolshevik officials who spoke in favor Jewish colonization.[36] This dependence on published Soviet materials also caused scholars to misjudge the significance of a short-lived political debate in Moscow over the transformation of the colonization movement into a full-fledged Jewish republic in the Black Sea littoral.[37] In reality, these were all minor phenomena. But this misinterpretation of the Bolshevik and "republican" aspects of the project fed the suspicions of Zionist-oriented authors and helped to reinforce the negative image of the colonization enterprise in the ensuing historiography.

There is no one fail-safe formula to assure an accurate historical account, but misinterpretations can be corrected. As weathered advisors of graduate students inform their disciples, footnotes in a secondary source are frequently no less informative than the text. In hindsight, the faulty historiography on the Jewish colonization first came to my attention when I was culling the recycled footnotes of the existing studies. A second ingredient for scholarly precision is often contained in local archives, not the well-digested material that worked its way up the bureaucratic ladder between the provinces and the administrative center (in this case, from Crimea to Moscow). Because they hold disaggregated data, local archival collections in the former Soviet Union reveal a more authentic picture of conditions on the ground. Comparing the relevant documents from the dictatorial Soviet Union with those in "free" New York, one sees in both cases a serious gap between events in the Soviet countryside and the pictures presented to the Kremlin and to the headquarters of the Agro-Joint by their respective field officers. For this reason, whatever the central Soviet government or the JDC main office published was often quite detached from reality.

Conclusion

Having tracked the progress of the historiography on Jewish colonization in Soviet Russia, it appears that the victors in the political contest surrounding the Agro-Joint in the Diaspora inherited the right to determine the subsequent historical narrative. This, of course, should surprise no one. Nonetheless, this episode should serve as a cautionary lesson for specialists and other scholars. Judging from this case, it seems that a phenomenon or movement that winds up on the proverbial "ash heap" of history is then likely to escape the historian and is considered, by its nature, unworthy for serious inquiry. After all, why should one waste valuable time on the "losers" of political disputes or those on whom history did not smile?

Simply stated, the events surrounding the Agro-Joint are key to the examination of both the milieu and the nuances of this period in Jewish and Soviet history. Above all, the colonization movement reveals previously obscured views on the integration of Jews into early Soviet society, the nature of survival in the rural economy, as well as the power relationship between an increasingly ambitious regime and the ambivalent countryside. Moreover, a realistic assessment of this episode is important when confronting periodic attempts to resurrect venomous accusations of new "Crimean Plots" in the former Soviet Union.[38] The Agro-Joint episode is also vital to grasping the contours of political life in the Jewish Diaspora between the world wars. It not only enlightens us on the depth and complexity of the conflict between Zionists and other parts of American Jewry, it reveals more pointed issues, such as the refinement of fundraising techniques in the Diaspora. In addition, close study of the JDC's activity on behalf of Jewish colonization sheds rare light upon the murky workings of unofficial diplomacy between the governments of the United States and Soviet Union in the interwar period.[39]

Finally, for democratic Russia there is a need for a levelheaded, detached understanding of the events and underlying forces of the Stalinist period; the Agro-Joint episode is one part of this huge undertaking. Only then can a normal civil society blossom anywhere in the former Soviet Union. All this, from the historiographical "ash heap."


 

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* Research for this article was made possible through the generosity of a John Fischer Scholarship from the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, the Lowenstein-Wiener Fellowship from the Jacob Rader Marcus Center, YIVO's Visiting Research Fellowship at the Max Weinreich Center, the Sachar Fund for Academic Aid at Brandeis University, and the Research Scholar Program of the American Councils for International Education (ACTR-ACCELS). The Lady Davis Fellowship Trust supported post-doctoral work at the Hebrew University. The author also wishes to thank Professor Jonathan Frankel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his comments on this paper.

1. See Yaacov Levavi (Babitsky), Ha-hityashvut ha-yehudit be-Birobizhan [The Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan] (Jerusalem, 1965); Chone Shmeruk, "Ha-kibbutz ha-yehudi veha-hityashvut ha-haklait be-Belorusyah ha-sovietit, 1918-32" [The Jewish ingathering and the agricultural settlement in Soviet Belorussia, 1918-32] (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1961); Yehezkiel Keren, Ha-hityashvut ha-haklait ha-yehudit be-hetzi ha-i Krim [The Jewish agricultural settlement in the Crimean peninsula] (Jerusalem, 1973). Levavi wrote a number of articles on the colonization in Crimea, including "Mityashvim haklaim yehudim be-Krim, 1922-41" [Jewish agricultural settlers in Crimea], Shvut 10 (1984): 55-61; and "Atudat ha-karka le-tsorkhei ha-hityashvut ha-haklait ha-yehudit be-Krim" [The land reserve for Jewish agricultural settlement in Crimea], Shvut 9 (1982): 62-8. See also Allan L. Kagedan, Soviet Zion: The Quest for a Russian Jewish Homeland (New York, 1994).

2. Anita Shapira, "Goralah shel ïkvutzat Elkind' be-Rusya" [The fate of the "Elkind" group in Russia], Shvut 1 (1973): 87-94.

3. See for example Dan Pines, Hehalutz be-kur ha-mahapechah [Hehalutz in the crucible of the revolution] (Tel Aviv, 1937); Benjamin Vest and Miriam Shtarkman, eds., Hehalutz be-Rusya [Hehalutz in Russia] (Tel-Aviv, 1931); Zvi Livne-Liberman, et al. eds., Haklaim yehudim b'aravot Rusya [Jewish farmers on the Russian plains] (Merhavia, 1965); Yehuda Erez, ed. Halutzim hayinu be-Rusya [We were halutzim in Russia] (Tel Aviv, 1976).

4. See Jonathan Dekel-Chen, "Shopkeepers and Peddlers into Soviet Farmers: Jewish Agricultural Colonization in Crimea and Southern Ukraine, 1924-1941" (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 2001), see idem Jewish Agricultural Colonization and Local Soviet Power (New Haven, forthcoming). Although I do not concur with all of her argumentation, recent findings by Chizuko Takao, "The Origin of the MTS in the USSR: A New Perspective," Acta Slavica Iaponica 19 (2002): 117-36, reinforce my conclusions.

5. The weakness of the regime in the countryside, before and after 1917, has received extensive scholarly attention. See for example Paul Avrich, Russian Rebels, 1600-1800 (New York, 1972); R.E. Jones, Provincial Development in Russia (New Brunswick, NJ, 1984); Theodore Weeks, Nation and State in Late Imperial Russia (Dekalb, Ill., 1996); Moshe Lewin, Russian Peasants (Evanston, Ill., 1968); Neil Weissman, "Policing the NEP Countryside," in Sheila Fitzpatrick, ed., Russia in the Era of NEP (Bloomington, 1991), 174-91; Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels under Stalin (Oxford, 1996). The surrogacy exercised by the Agro-Joint is discussed in Dekel-Chen, "Farmers, Philanthropists, and Soviet Authority: Rural Crimea and Southern Ukraine, 1923-1941," Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4, no. 4 (Fall 2003): 849-85.

6. For a general survey, see Dekel-Chen, "Shopkeepers and Peddlers," 202-6, 278-83. As Yehoshua Gilboa observed in his Hashanim hashahorot: yehadut be-brit ha-Moatsot, 1939-1953 [The black years: Soviet Jewry] (Tel Aviv, 1972, 1965), from 1927 onward, some party organs condemned the idolization of a separate Jewish kolkhoznik among writers in Yiddish.

7. Archive of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, collection AR 21/32 (henceforth "JDC") 508, p. 15 (meeting of the Committee of Seven, June 17, 1924); Archive of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (henceforth "YIVO"), RG 358/19, p. 9 (Fischer, "To the Soil Movement," 1925); YIVO, RG 358/121, pp. 2-3 (settlers' contingent, 1925-27); YIVO, RG 358/87, p. 4 (Levintan's report, June 2, 1926); The State Archive of the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, f. p-1, op. 1, d. 990, l. 40, 46 (Narkomzem conclusions and proposals, late 1930).

8. For example, Robert Weinberg, Stalin's Forgotten Zion (Berkeley,1998), 8; Kagedan, Soviet Zion, 98-9; Keren, 119, 156; Yaacov Lestschinsky, Ha-yehudim be-Rusya ha-Sovietit me-mahapechat oktober `ad milhemet-ha-`olam ha-sheniyah [The Jews in Soviet Russia from the October Revolution until World War II] (Tel Aviv, 1942 or 1943), 170; Zvi Gitelman, "Formirovanie evreiskoi kul'tury i samosoznania v SSSR: gosudarstvo v kachestvo sotsial'nogo inzhenera" [The formation of Jewish culture and consciousness in the USSR: the state in the role of social engineer], in I. Krupnik, ed., Istoricheskie syd'by evreev v Rossii i SSSR: nachalo dialog (Moscow, 1992), 24; Mordechai Altshuler, Ha-evsektsia be-Brit ha-Moatsot, 1918-1930 [The Evsektsiia in the Soviet Union, 1918-1930] (Tel Aviv, 1980), 355; Henry Feingold, A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream, 1920-1945 (Baltimore, 1992, 181-82; Ron Chernow, The Warburgs: The Twentieth Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family (New York, 1993), 295.

9. Yaacov Levavi, "Tsionei derech be-hityashvut ha-haklait ha-yehudit be-Brit ha-Moatsot" [Signposts of Jewish agricultural settlement in the Soviet Union], Behinot 1 (1970), 31; American Jewish Yearbook, vol. 38 (1936), 213; Yehuda Bauer, My Brother's Keeper: A History of the AJJDC, 1929-1939 (Philadelphia, 1974), 97; Kagedan, 98-101; Ol'ga Barkovets, "Ob osnovnykh etapakh deiatel'nosti Agro-Dzhoint v SSSR" [The main phases of Agro-Joint activity in the USSR], Vestnik Evreiskogo Universiteta v Moskve (henceforth "VEUM"), 1996, no. 2: 140; Israel Gutman, ed., Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 1990), 797-98, vol. 4, 1358-1359; Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust (New York, 1993), 86-7.

10. See Bauer. Earlier studies include Salo Baron, The Russian Jew Under Tsars and Soviets (New York, 1976); Lionel Kochan, ed., The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917 (Oxford, 1972); and Gilboa. Newer synthetic histories include Benjamin Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority (Cambridge, 1988); and Gitelman, A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union,1881 to the Present (New York, 1988)

11. Akiva Etinger, Im haklaim yehudim be-tefutsot [With Jewish farmers in the Diaspora] (Merhavia, Israel,1942). In this first synthetic account of the Agro-Joint episode, Etinger cited no primary documents, only books and testimonies of friends who had visited the colonies. Feingold, 78, 87, repeatedly criticized—with only contemporary newspapers for support—Agro-Joint's "failures" in the USSR and the motivations of JDC officials. The most recent reliance on secondary sources can be found in Matthew Silver, "Mi-dfus pa'il le-dfus savil: pe'ilut tsiyunit amerikanit be-eretz yisrael be-tekufat ha-mandat" [From an active to an inactive model: American-Zionist activity in Palestine during the Mandate] (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1999), 226-30. Silver, who is dismissive of the Agro-Joint, cites only Feingold and Bauer. See also Chernow; Melvin Urofsky, A Voice that Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise (Albany, NY, 1982); Mark A. Raider, A History of Zionism (New York, 1998), 194-95; Samuel Halperin, The Political World of American Zionism (Detroit, 1961), 160, 199; Herbert Parzen, "The Enlargement of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, 1923-29," Jewish Social Studies 39, nos. 1-2 (1977): 129-58; Priscilla Roberts, "Jewish Bankers, Russia, and the Soviet Union, 1900-1940: The Case of Kuhn, Loeb and Company," American Jewish Archives Journal 69, nos. 1-2 (1997): 9-37.

12. As revisionist interpreters of the Stalinist era argued, the victims of a traumatic event often know little about the motivations at the top of the political hierarchy. See J. Arch Getty, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-38 (Cambridge, 1985); J. Arch Getty and Roberta Manning, eds., Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives (Cambridge, 1993).

13. Quoted in Weinberg, 10, n. 14. Toward the end of his life, Rosenberg became more circumspect; see his interview in The New York Times Oral History Program (Hebrew University, Contemporary Jewry Oral History Collection, Part II—World War II, reel 7, no. 343): 4-5.

14. In the autumn of 1941, approximately 60 percent of the Jewish colonists in Crimea evacuated in an orderly fashion to Central Asia, with somewhat lower rates of evacuation from the colonies in southern Ukraine. See Vladimir Broshevan, Voennaia mobilizatsiia v Krymu, 1941-44 [Military mobilization in Crimea, 1941-44] (Crimea, 1997), 20, 83; M. Tiaglyi, "O tshchatel'nosti v nauchnom poiske, ili khotel li Stalin spasti evreev?" [On precision in scientific explorations, or did Stalin save the Jews?] Khaverim 44, no. 2 (2002): 3-4; idem, "Kholokost evreiskikh obshchin Kryma v dokumentakh GAARK," [The Holocaust of the Jewish community in Crimea in the documents of The State Archive of the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea] (unpublished manuscript). For the conventional interpretation, see above, n. 9.

15. Without steady support in the Kremlin for massive resettlement, the Committee abandoned the plan by the close of 1944. For the JAFC and its end, see Joshua Rubinstein, Stalin's Secret Pogrom (New Haven, 2001), 1-47; Shimon Redlich, Propaganda and Nationalism in Wartime Russia: The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the USSR, 1941-48 (Boulder, CO, 1982).

16. Shimon Redlich, War, Holocaust, and Stalinism (Harwood, 1995), 147.

17. R. Zaichik, "Dzhoint v Rossii" [The Joint in Russia], VEUM, 1993, no. 3, 218.

18. The process of renaming Jewish colonies began in the late 1920s. See S.A. Efimov et al. eds., Administrativno-territorial'nye preobrazovaniia v Krymu, 1783-1998 gg. (Administrative-territorial transformations in Crimea) (Simferopol, 1999), 396, 413-35. The renaming of sites and institutions was a central component of Soviet-style iconoclasm and political control.

19. See for example Alan Fisher, The Crimean Tatars (Palo Alto, CA, 1978); S.V. Fatuev, "K probleme natsional'no-gosudarstvennogo stroitel'stva v Krymskoi ASSR," [On the problem of nation-building in the Crimean Republic] in Problemy otechestvennoi istorii 3 (Moscow: Rossiiskaia Akademiia Uprav. Gumanitarnyi Tsentr, 1994): 192-212; David R. Marples and David F. Duke, "Ukraine, Russia, and the Question of Crimea," Nationalities Papers 23, no. 2 (1995): 261-89; Vladimir Broshevan, Raskulachivanie v Krymu [Dekulakization in Crimea] (Simferopol, 1999).

20. These are housed in the Joseph Rosen Collection at the YIVO Institute, the "Agro-Joint" collection of the Joint Distribution Committee Archive in New York, and in several collections of the American Jewish Archive in Cincinnati, Ohio.

21. David Brown, The New Exodus (New York, 1927); James N. Rosenberg, On the Steppes: A Russian Diary (New York, 1927)

22. The JDC delayed the publication of a final travelog in the late 1930s because it wanted to avoid publicizing the Agro-Joint's activity at a time when alarming news had reached the West about the extent of Stalin's purges. See Evelyn Morrissey, Jewish Workers and Farmers in the Crimea and Ukraine (New York, 1937); JDC 537 (Morrissey to Warburg, Baerwald, and Strook, September 1, 1936); (Baerwald to Morrissey, September 3, 1936); (Strook to Morrissey, October 8, 1936).

23. See n. 3.

24. For the regime's public praise of the non-Zionist Jewish colonists, see Mikhail Kalinin and Petr Smidovich, O zemel'nom ustroistve trudiashchikhsia evreev v SSSR [On the land settlement of laboring Jews in the USSR] (Moscow, 1927); Anatolii Lunacharskii, Ob antisemitizme [On antisemitism] (Moscow, 1929); Georgii Reitanovskii, Na kolkhoznoi zemle: evrei-pereselentsy v Krym [On the kolkhoz land: Jewish settlers in Crimea] (Simferopol, 1933); B. Ia. Kagan, Stalindorf: piat' let evreiskogo natsional'nogo raiona na Dnepropetrovshchine [Stalindorf: the Jewish national district in the Dnepropetrovsk region after five years] (Kiev, 1935).

25. For example, JDC 508 (resolution by American Jewish Congress, October 26, 1925); JDC 62a (digest of editorials from Yiddish press, April 17, 1928); JDC 527 (digest of the Yiddish press, April 17, 1928); "The New Book of Lamentations," Ha-Doar, March 23, 1928; Shlomo ha-Elkoshi (Zalman Epstein), Mi-sham: emet mi-Rusya ha-sovietit be-nogeah le-"shealat Krim" [From there: the truth from Soviet Russia in connection to the "Crimean question"] (Jerusalem, 1926), 9-43, 57; Baruch Stopniker, Ha-yehudim be-Rusya ve-Ukraina be-tekufah she-aharei ha-mahapechah [The Jews in Russia and Ukraine in the period after the revolution] (Tel Aviv, 1926 or 1927), passim; JDC 528, (Brown to Hyman, July 19, 1928); American Jewish Archives [henceforth, "AJA"], Maurice Hexter Papers, Box 547 (interview by M. Alperin, 1978-79). As seen from these and later works, most authors with a Zionist orientation—both contemporary critics of the JDC and later historians—held an unflinching belief that nothing, no matter its humanitarian value, should interfere with the development of the Jewish homeland in Palestine.

26. For such concerns among contemporary American Jews, see JDC 526 (Rubin to Adler, September 3, 1925); JDC 526 (Glickman to Hyman, August 6, 1926); AJA, Warburg Papers, Manuscript Collection 457, Box 222/8 (N.I. Stone to Lehman, August 1925). Among later authors, the most caustic was Zos,a Szajkowski. See also ha-Elkoshi, 22, 49, 67; Stopniker, 35-36; Lestschinsky, 167-72; Feingold, 179. Zionist leaders in Palestine and some Labor Zionists in the U.S. expressed more moderation toward Jewish colonization in Soviet Russia. See Central Zionist Archives, A24/177 (Menachem Ussishkin to the editor of Univers-Isràelite, February 24, 1926); Arthur Ruppin, Ha-hityashvut ha-haklait shel ha-yehudim be-Rusya [The agricultural settlement of the Jews in Russia] (Tel Aviv, 1928), 38-40; Maier Bryan Fox, “American Zionism in the 1920s” (Ph.D. diss., George Washington University, 1979), 299-300.

27. See Altshuler; Ha-evsektsiia; Zvi Gitelman, "The Jewish Sections of the Communist Party and the Modernization of Soviet Jewry" (Ph.D. Diss., Columbia University, 1968) and Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU (Princeton, NJ, 1972); Allan Kagedan, "Jewish Territorial Units and Ukrainian-Jewish Relations," Harvard Ukrainian Studies 9, no. 112 (1985): 118-32. Mattatiyahu Mintz has written extensively on the background of Jewish territorialization and agrarianization in the Soviet Union; see for example his "Neyarot avoda le-tsorech ha-hidayanut ha-ideologit be-kerev tsameret ha-evsektsiia b'inyan bisus sheelat ha-mamlachtiyut ha-yehudit ha-sovietit" [Working papers for ideological discussions in the Evsektsiia leadership connected to the basic question of Jewish-Soviet statehood], Iyunim b'tekumat yisrael 10 (2000): 165-79, and "Problems of Agricultural Resettlement and Territorialization of the Jews in Soviet Russia during the 1920s," Shvut 17-18 (1995): 124-45; "Hamoshavot ha-haklaiot ha-yehudiot be-pelach Kherson erev ha-mahapechah ha-bolshevikit ve-samuch l'achareiha" [The Jewish agricultural colonies in the Kherson region on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution and shortly thereafter], Michael 6 (1980): 110-52.

28. Mikhail Beizer, "LenOZET" Shvut 12 (1997): 96-122; Aryeh Munitz, "Ha-napot ha-leumiot shel ha-yehudim be-Ukraina" [The Jewish national districts in Ukraine] Shvut 2 (1987): 47-54.

29. See fn. 15. See also Zvi Gitelman, A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present (Bloomington, 2001), 102; Yaacov Levavi, "Haklaim yehudim b'aravot Krim: perek be-toledot ha-yehadut ha-sovietit, 1918-1948" [Jewish farmers on the Crimean prairies: a chapter in the history of Soviet Jewry] (unpublished manuscript, 1984), chapter 5, p. 3. The author thanks Prof. Mordechai Altshuler of the Hebrew University for granting permission to consult this manuscript.

30. Levavi, Birobidzhan, 88, 344-45; Weinberg, 26, 31-32, 39, 43, 67.

31. See for example Szajkowski, passim; Feingold, 185.

32. Chernow, 295-96. Felix Warburg chaired the JDC for much of the interwar period.

33. Naomi Shepherd, Wilfrid Israel: German Jewry's Secret Ambassador (London, 1984), 213, n.18

34. Although they cannot reveal the full picture of Jewish colonization, important collections were available in the United States. To date, only Zos,a Szajkowski has made significant use of one of them.

35. Ol'ga Barkovets, "Ob osnovnykh etapakh deiatel'nosti Agro-Dzhoint v SSSR" [The main phases of Agro-Joint activity in the USSR], VEUM, 1996, no. 2: 134-43; Tatiana Tsarevskaia, "Krymskaia alternativa Birobidzhan i Palestine" [The Crimean alternative to Birobidzhan and Palestine], Otechestvennaia istoriia, 1999, no. 2: 121-5; A.D. Glubochanskii and E. Rivkina, "Via Nova: evreiskie sel'skokhoziaistvennye poseleniia v stepnom Krymu" [Via Nova: a Jewish agricultural settlement on the Crimean steppe], Ostrov Krym, no. 5 (1999): 40-41; A. Naiman. "Evreiskoe zemledelie na Ukraine v 1930-e gody" [Jewish land settlement in Ukraine in the 1930s], VEUM, 1995, no. 1: 217-21; V. Sotnichenko, "Evreiskaia sel'skokhoziaistvennaiia kolonizatsiia na Ukraine v seredine 20-kh godov XX veka" [Jewish agricultural colonization in Ukraine during the mid-1920s], VEUM, 1997, no. 3: 51-60; E. Solomonik, ed., Evrei Kryma: ocherki istorii [The Jews of Crimea: historical sketches] (Simferopol, 1997).

36. Kagedan, Soviet Zion, 39-46; S. Levenberg, "Soviet Jewry: Some Problems and Perspectives," in Kochan, ed., 33-34, 67; Gilboa, 160; Eliyahu Benyamini, Medinot le-yehudim: Uganda, Birobidzhan ve-od 34 tochniot [States for the Jews: Uganda, Birobidzhan, and another 34 plans] (Tel Aviv, 1990), 104) all assigned undue importance to the role of Mikhail Kalinin (the President of the Soviet Union) in the colonization. The "All-Union peasant elder," as he was known, was in fact a powerless figurehead. At most, Kalinin's stature helped legitimize and popularize colonization among the general public through widely circulated pamphlets. Similar misinterpretations surround the role of Simeon Dimanstein, the assistant to Stalin as Commissar of Nationalities and a chairman of OZET.

37. Existing studies also misjudged the importance of the national conferences of OZET and Evsektsiia (the Jewish Section of the Soviet Communist Party) in late 1926. See Pinkus, Jews in the Soviet Union, 72; Kagedan, Soviet Zion, 88-92. These were not watershed events, since the Politburo had already rejected the idea of a Jewish republic and the practitioners of colonization never focused on it. Mattatiyahu Mintz, "Neyarot," 172, has recently reached similar conclusions.

38. See for example "Kak Rossiia poteriala Krym" [How Russia lost Crimea], Delovaia zhizn,' 1998, no. 10: 25-31; "Kto mozhet vernut' dostoinuiu zhizn' prostym liudiam?" [Who can restore diginity to the lives of simple folk?], Krymskie izvestia, 20 March 2002.

39. The U.S. government suspended diplomatic relations with the Soviet government from the revolution until late 1933. For a discussion of the JDC's unofficial diplomatic role, see Dekel-Chen, "An Unlikely Triangle: Philanthropists, Commissars, and American Statesmanship Meet in Soviet Crimea, 1922-37," Diplomatic History 27, no. 3 (July 2003): 353-76.

 

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