“Birobidjan is in my veins” – Interview with Ber Kotlerman

Ber Kotlerman was born in Irkutsk, Soviet Union, in 1971. He grew up in Birobidjan—the “autonomous Jewish region” founded in May 1934 at the edge of the USSR on the Chinese border, with Yiddish as its official language. K.’s readers have already read several of his texts: “Rothenburg” and “Longing.” Ber Kotlerman has lived in Israel for thirty years, where he teaches Yiddish literature and culture at Bar-Ilan University. His novel “Koydervelsh,” which takes the reader from Birobidjan to Tel Aviv, has just been published[1]. This is his fourth book of prose in Yiddish—the first, a collection of short stories, was published in Tel Aviv; the second, a thriller based on rabbinic responsa, in New York; and the third, a family epic, in Buenos Aires. However, he says that everything he writes is in one way or another linked to the region of his childhood, Birobidjan, which is the subject of this interview by Macha Fogel, conducted in Yiddish.


Administrative map of the Autonomous Jewish Region of Birobidjan (1940s)


Ber Kotlerman, what does Birobidjan mean to you today?

I’d like to paraphrase the great Hebrew poet Shaul Chernichovsky and say that I’m “a reproduction of the landscape of my childhood,” but that wouldn’t be quite right. I may just be someone who puts a mirror in front of the face of Birobidjan. To do this, I keep returning mentally to this oblast, strolling its streets and watching passers-by, studying its anatomy with a magnifying glass. Above all, I’m always trying to find those invisible threads that link Birobidjan to something greater, which, as the Russian poet Yesenin put it, “can be seen from afar.” Birobidjan is in my veins, and I really feel moved when someone interferes with it rudely or, on the contrary, gets enthusiastic about the idea behind the place without fully understanding the complexity of its history.

Who are your parents?

My parents grew up in Birobidjan, but neither of them was born there; they were born after the war into families that had been evacuated. My father was born in south-eastern Ukraine and my mother in Uzbekistan. They were educated in Irkutsk, the great Siberian city. That’s where I was born in black and white in the 1970s. My mother studied French and German. My father studied at a polytechnic institute and specialized in aeronautics. After their studies, they returned to live in Birobidjan. My father worked as an engineer and my mother as a journalist for the Birobidzhaner Shtern [The Star of Birobidjan]—the Yiddish-language newspaper of Jewish autonomy. As a result, I grew up among the last Yiddish-language journalists of this medium.

In what circumstances did your grandparents settle in Birobidjan?

My grandparents voluntarily moved to Birobidjan. This is their story. My father’s parents didn’t speak Russian very well. Both had been brought up in southern Ukraine in Yiddish-language agricultural technical schools, such as existed at the time. They had had no opportunity to learn Russian. It was precisely because he didn’t speak Russian that my grandfather wasn’t sent to the front when the Second World War broke out. He did enlist as a soldier but was sent to Iran, with the “Asian” garrisons. In Ukraine, his wife and son were buried alive. When he returned after the war, he met and married his second wife, my grandmother, near Zaporizhzhia. She too was a widow. Her first husband had grown up in America in a family of emigrants from Tsarist Russia, then returned to the Soviet Union. During the war, he had been hidden by a Ukrainian family but was denounced by neighbors and killed. His wife, my grandmother, and their daughter, my aunt, survived. My grandparents had three children together, whom they raised with the daughter of my grandmother’s first marriage, my aunt Tsilla, who served as a sort of second mother to her younger siblings. At first, they stayed in Zaporizhzhia; my grandfather worked as a photographer. But one day, someone said to him: “It’s a pity we didn’t kill you all.” It was then, in 1949, that he and my grandmother decided to leave for Birobidjan. The emigration program to the autonomous Jewish oblast was already drawing to a close and would be actually frozen at the end of the very same year. My grandparents, who had been trained at a technical veterinary school to look after livestock, began working in a Moldavian kolkhoz in the oblast, on the border with China. My uncle was born there. But it was very hard for them. We were in the final years of Stalin’s reign and the political climate was poisonous. They left for the city. All their lives they worked odd jobs in different factories and never had a professional career. They didn’t understand Soviet life very well.

What was your grandparents’ experience on your mother’s side?

They too were from Ukraine, but were evacuated after the German invasion, along with their parents and thousands of other Soviet citizens, to Kattakurgan near Samarkand. They had married very young, at seventeen. At eighteen, my grandfather was drafted, but this occurred just when peace was signed. After the war, they didn’t want to return to Ukraine. A distant cousin in Birobidjan had written them that life there was not bad, so they moved. My grandmother was an electrician. She lived the Soviet dream and became a team manager, but she remained the daughter of evacuees all her life.

You grew up in Birobidjan with parents and grandparents, whom you’ve said spoke only Yiddish on your father’s side. What language did you speak with them?

They used to speak to me in Yiddish, and I would answer in Russian. At school, I took the optional Yiddish course, which was attended by five or six students who were a bit “odd,” so I knew the alphabet.

You also mentioned your mother’s “last Yiddish-language journalists.” What role did they play in your upbringing? 

When I was a schoolboy, a journalist from the Birobidzhaner Shtern asked me to write a piece. I loved biology and wrote an article in Russian about fishing, which was translated into Yiddish. I ought to tell you, by the way, that my paternal grandparents always refused to work as proofreaders for this newspaper. They didn’t want to collaborate with the “red chaperones,” as they said. The paper being committed, this refusal was a form of passive opposition on their part. As for me, I could hear the journalists talking among themselves, and later I remembered their conversations. One of our neighbors was the writer Buzi Miller. He had spent six years in the Gulag. He’d take my mother home from work, and I’d listen in.

Front page of a copy of Birobidzhaner shtern
At what age did your interest in the Yiddish language become conscious?

When I was seventeen, I left to study in Moscow. I took a book with me on the plane. During the seven or eight hours between Khabarovsk and Moscow, I read this book by our neighbor Buzi Miller, written in Yiddish. It looked boring and I had never been in the mood for reading it. This was a chronicle of Birobidjan entitled “Yedn dor zayns,” [to each generation its lot] recounting the story of two imaginary employees of the factory where my father worked, who went on vacation to Vladivostok (700 km from the town of Birobidjan, which is, on a Siberian scale, very close), to a sanatorium where we ourselves would spend two weeks every summer. This familiar setting interested me. The young employee was questioning the older one. As I read the story, I realized that growing up in Birobidjan was no accident. When I stepped off the plane, I was a different man. I’d realized that I was part of history. This book is not great literature, but it made me realize that there was a secret. My first story written in Yiddish and published much later, in 2017, is entitled “The Secret of Polar Bears.” In Russian, this expression evokes the Gulag. But in Yiddish, this title contains my secret, since my first name is “Ber”—a bear.

When you were seventeen, you moved to Moscow to study. Why did you go so far away, and not to Irkutsk, for example, like your parents?

I chose Moscow because of my association with journalists of the Birobidzhaner Shtern. I was attracted by languages, literature, and journalism, and Moscow University was the best. My ambition was driven by the first signs of the collapse of the USSR. Moscow was then a Western city, while Birobidjan remained a province, a hole in which time slowly passed. It was still the USSR. In Moscow, I discovered a new life, albeit with its share of disappointments. One day, I went to an exhibition at the VDNKh [Convention and Exhibition Center in Moscow] organized by the Israeli Embassy. I stayed for two hours and realized that everyone present was Jewish. In Birobidjan, seeing a Jew was natural, you understand. Not so in Moscow. It made me wonder what kind of world I belonged in. Hebrew books were on display. As she saw me gazing at them, a woman asked me if I could read. I told her I recognized the letters, but couldn’t understand the language. Until I was eighteen, I hadn’t been interested in Hebrew. This woman offered me an independent Russian-Hebrew learning method. On the subway on my way home, I opened this manual for self-taught learners. As soon as I started the first lesson, I realized that this was my language. The journey lasted forty minutes; at the end of the trip, I looked at the other passengers who were all reading a book or newspaper in Russian. I realized that I didn’t belong in this world and that I had to leave for Israel.

After the plane journey that introduced you to the Jewish reality of Birobidjan, this subway journey made you realize that you had to go to Israel… Did you really decide to emigrate straight away?

I finished Moscow University in a hurry. I spoke to the director of my program, who was truly part of the Soviet elite, but who was Jewish—even if he didn’t say so. I told him of my desire to go to Israel as I was entering my third year. He asked me—”Are you sure? You’re leaving for a country where you’ll be nothing.” However, I persisted and asked him to take all the exams required for my remaining two years in just a few months, which he accepted. So I got my master’s degree early. That summer, he invited me to the ceremony organized for the students at the end of their fifth year and introduced me as the youngest among them. He was very fatherly towards me. Ten years later, we met again… We talked about Sholem Aleichem… He was a professor of English literature but had still his “pintele yid,” his Jewish spark.

Ber Kotlerman
Did you complete your studies in Israel?

I continued my studies at Bar-Ilan University, where I discovered Agnon and Hebrew literature. But then, in an elevator, I met a professor of Yiddish, Yosef Bar-El (who sadly passed away a long time ago), who got me to write a Ph.D. thesis on the status of Yiddish in Birobidjan.

Can you summarize this thesis for us?

Even though Jewish autonomy was only nominative, Soviet authorities wanted to protect certain cultural elements. The newspaper I mentioned was financed by Moscow, not by local funding. It was useful to the government as Yiddish had a role to play. In the town of Birobidjan, everything was written in two languages, Russian and Yiddish, and the latter was again taught as an option from the 1980s onwards. It was a kind of zoo in which Yiddish played the role of a curious beast. Of course, at the outset, in the 1930s, the autonomous Jewish oblast had represented a dream for Yiddish culture. Books had been published, a theater built, plans drawn up for an opera house. The Soviets would have been able to build a theater in Antarctica. The first essay I published was devoted to the Birobidjan theater, whose productions up to the end of the 1940s were of high quality. The memory of those days lives on.

And what is the memory of Birobidjan today?

The image of Birobidjan differs from country to country. I became aware of this during a press conference organized by the journalist Anne Nivat in Paris for the publication of her book “La République juive de Staline” (2013), to which I had been invited. I noticed that people in Argentina remembered Birobidjan differently. It seemed to me, for example, that the Jewish inhabitants of the Argentine town of Moisés Ville still felt a communion of destiny with those of Birobidjan. But in Birobidjan, things are seen differently. In the USSR, we didn’t think about Judaism. We didn’t learn about our Jewish history in high school. We didn’t know why the names of the kolkhozes were Jewish. We knew that immigrants had populated the oblast, but we didn’t know why they had come here in the first place. If it hadn’t been for the journalists at the Birobidzhaner Shtern, I wouldn’t have known anything first-hand. Only later did I learn why there were so many Jews in Khabarovsk, the big Siberian city next door, where you can still get a Jewish meal in a restaurant today. It’s a puzzle I solved later.

What role does the memory of Birobidjan play in your life today, particularly in your professional life?

I deal with other subjects in my academic life, but I don’t forget this one. I studied life in Birobidjan in the 1950s. It’s a story that has remained in the shadows, unofficial. I’m about to publish an academic book on the subject in Hebrew. I was able to consult the correspondence of a former Hebrew teacher about his daily life. In his letters, he describes the Passover seder in Birobidjan or the way people met in a small circle of Hebrew language speakers (which is rather paradoxical). Being a Hebraist in Birobidjan, a region given by the Soviets to the Jews with Yiddish as its official language, is quite unusual. We always talk about the official projects carried out in Birobidjan, but the most interesting thing is the people who lived there. Today, it’s seen as one of Stalin’s great jokes, but people nurtured a dream for this region and often paid for it with their lives.

And today, for the current Russian leadership, is Birobidjan a joke? 

The name “Jewish Autonomous Region” has not been wiped off the map…

Even today, Birobidjan is a sort of trump card in the Russian power game. Let’s just say it’s a card that could still come in handy. The current governor of Birobidjan, Goldstein, was appointed there because of his name. Who knows? One day, having a Jewish governor of a Jewish region might prove useful for the Russian government…

Sign indicating the entrance to Birobidjan
Have you recently returned to Birobidjan?

In 2007, I organized a summer school in Birobidjan, which was attended by Yiddishists from all over the world, from the United States to Japan… There were around forty of us. I wanted to create a Jewish atmosphere. I had a painter employed by the cinema make posters in Yiddish. Once again, Yiddish echoed through the city. What’s interesting is that the infrastructure remains—the 1930s archives of the electric station are in Yiddish, as are those of the colleges and all the public buildings. We were able to consult them. We went to meet Jews in kolkhozes, and we also met members of indigenous peoples. It was one of my best projects. At the time, the atmosphere was very different in Russia. The governor was quite supportive. In 2008, when I organized a second summer school, the atmosphere had shifted. A war was being waged in Georgia. The regime was changing. I also founded the Center for Yiddish Language and Culture at the Birobidjan Pedagogical Institute. I wanted to support research into Jewish life in the Far East. Let’s not forget that Jews lived in Asia, from Singapore to Kamchatka. What languages did they speak? Russian, Yiddish, English, Hebrew, other languages? In 2011, as a professor at a Catholic university in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I gave a lecture on Jews in the Far East. After that event, the Birobidjan Pedagogical Institute was granted university status and renamed “Sholem Aleichem.” I pressed hard for this with its rector, a person of Jewish origin, who obtained the approval from Dmitry Medvedev, then President of the Russian Federation, himself. I told him—”We will disappear, but the name of Sholem Aleichem will remain.” Unfortunately, the rector of the university died and all our projects were dropped. His successor is a Russian technocrat. I’ve had no relations with the Institute since the war in Ukraine began.

How do you see the future of Yiddish?

I don’t believe in a renaissance of Yiddish, because the language never died. The question right now is how to expand its use. We hear more about it in the media now than ten years ago. Yiddish has become a university discipline in Europe; it is supported by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in eight countries, including the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden (which funds a radio station, seminars, and a study center)… In Israel, the situation is different. The country needs to do much more to ensure the future of Yiddish.

Interview by Macha Fogel.


1 by the Swedish publishing house “Olniansky Tekst”

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