“Red Zion” [New York Jewish Film Festival]
Jewish agricultural colonies were set up in the northern Crimea in the 1920s by Lenin’s regime in the wake of the Russian civil war. Eugeny Tsymbal, the director indicated in the Q & A after (through a translator) that the Crimea was a last bastion of White Russian support (pro-Czar, anti-Communist forces) and that “93,000 people” were shot there. There was then room for Jews, known for their Red sympathies and made homeless by the civil war, to settle there. Over time, many Jews came from around the world– about 3,000 to the Crimea and to Birobidzhan– attracted by Soviet propaganda films and other efforts. But most were from other parts of the Soviet Union.
Some “tens of thousands” may have settled in the Crimea. The film focuses disproportionately but with impact upon a group of 100 kibbutzniks who resettled from Palestine. They set up a commune that was quite successful economically for a couple of years, based upon the voluntary principles of the kibbutz. But viewing these early happy scenes, including the picture of the leader of the ex-kibbutzniks who had come from Palestine, I knew that this guy would meet an unfortunate end. Within a couple of years, he, along with others of his group, were arrested for “counter-revolutionary” offences; he was executed in the Great Purge ten years later.
Stalin is said to have refocused Jewish settlement efforts from the Crimea to Birobidzhan when the local Crimean Tartars complained that their homeland was being gobbled up. In the Far East, the Jewish colonists were also to play a strategic role, settling a region along the border with Manchurea– then a Japanese puppet state and including White Russian exile elements– with loyal Communists as a base for the Soviet defense of Siberia. The Soviet organizations set up to encourage and organize Jewish settlements in the Crimea were shut down and the loyal Jewish Communists associated with them were soon swallowed up by the Gulag and worse. As for Birobidzhan, this remote and primitive area became home to some 30-odd thousand Jews. But at least they avoided the fate of the remaining thousands of Jews in the Crimea, who were not evacuated with the livestock when the Nazis invaded and were entirely annihilated.
The film includes scenes of Jews cultivating pigs as an activity with political as well as economic implications. In the Soviet Union, as well as in Palestine, there was an emphasis on Jewish identity as ethnic and cultural rather than religious. The anti-religious Soviet regime was trying to de-Judaize the Jews. I am sympathetic with separating out the religious from the cultural and ethnic aspects of Jewish identity, but what repulses me is the heavy-handed and top-down aspect of Communist ideology in this regard. This dovetails with how the ex-kibbutzniks’ voluntaristic mode of organization worked better economically and socially than the typically Soviet authoritarian approach, not to mention the cold-blooded and calculated manipulations of Stalinism.
Isaac Babel stands out as someone who struggled to find an equilibrium between his brutal Revolutionary activism and his Jewish traditional Humanism. Among his stories in “Red Cavalry,” “Gedali,” represents the Jewish experience as if one can walk in Babel’s moccasins.
His stories encompass the turmoil caused by the anti-Semitism of the regime, resulting in the liquidation of the Crimean Jewish settlements as well as in the erosion of Jewish life in Birobidzhan. Much worse was to come with Stalin’s purges in the
30’s and the postwar arrest and bodily liquidation of the members
Anti-Fascist Jewish Committee created by Stalin during WW-2, and the “Jewish Doctors Plot” of 1952 which created a popular wave of anti-Semitism. Only Stalin’s death in March, 1953, prevented another Holocaust.
Although I no longer was a Zionist, I volunteered for the Israel Indpendence war of 1948/49, because I felt that 2000 years of persecution had been enough.