Birobidzhan is a town and the administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Russia, located on the Trans-Siberian Railway, close to the border with China.
Birobidzhan is named after the two largest rivers in the autonomous oblast: the Bira and the Bidzhan, although only the Bira flows through the town, which lies to the east of the Bidzhan Valley. Both rivers are tributaries of the Amur. The city was planned by the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, and established in 1931. It became the administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in 1934 and town status was granted to it in 1937.
Yiddish writer David Bergelson played a large part in promoting Birobidzhan, although he himself did not really live there.
Bergelson wrote articles in the Yiddish language newspapers in other
countries extolling the region as an ideal escape from anti-Semitism
elsewhere. At least 1,000 families from the United States and Latin
America came to Birobidzhan because of Bergelson.
Life could be quite hard in the mountainous region. In her book on the region, Where the Jews Aren't: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region, Masha Gessen writes that
in the summer of 1928 there were torrential rains, causing flooding
that washed out what little the new settlers had managed to plant,
stymied by the late arrival of seeds. Their cattle arrive late too, and
were felled by an anthrax epidemic that raged that first year. The
settlers at Birofeld, though they managed to put up eighteen houses over
the summer, faced a cold winter of relentless hunger, surrounded by
their ruined fields and foreboding woods, where tiger and bears roamed.
When the Stalinist purges began shortly after the creation of Birobidzhan, Jews there were likewise targeted.
″Jews in Birobidzhan are targeted, and they're targeted in this very
Soviet way specifically for what they came there for - for nationalism,
for promoting the Yiddish language, for what they were told was a good
thing just a couple of years earlier,″ explained Gessen in an interview
discussing her book.
Following World War II, tens of thousands of displaced Eastern European Jews found their way to Birobidzhan from 1946 to 1948. Some were Ukrainian and Belarussian Jews who were not allowed to return to their original homes.
However, Jews were once again targeted in the wake of World War II when Joseph Stalin embarked on a campaign against ″rootless cosmopolitans″ — a code name for Jews. Nearly all the Yiddish institutions of Birobidzhan were liquidated. Amongst those executed was David Bergelson, Birobidzhan's early promoter, who was killed in 1952 on his 68th birthday.
Birobidzhan is the administrative center of the autonomous oblast and, within the framework of administrative divisions, it also serves as the administrative center of Birobidzhansky District, even though it is not a part of it.
As an administrative division, it is incorporated separately as the town of oblast significance of Birobidzhan — an administrative unit with the status equal to that of the districts. As a municipal division, the town of oblast significance of Birobidzhan is incorporated as Birobidzhan Urban Okrug.