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Lost and Found

A mysterious gift of art leads a local curator to connect the dots between Chicago and the Soviet Union's failed Jewish homeland


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A decade ago Karol Verson was working at a Jewish senior center in Chicago when an elderly man wandered into the office with a battered paper portfolio under his arm. "Listen," she recalls him saying, "I found this in my basement. Does anybody here want it?" The portfolio contained 14 old woodcuts, most of them in pretty good shape. Verson thought the prints were interesting, so she took them. She didn't catch the man's name, and she never saw him again.

Verson's home is full of paintings, wood sculptures, antiques, and murals painted by her son-in-law. She didn't have space to hang the woodcuts, so they just sat for several years.

Early in 2001 she invited her friend Nathan Harpaz, curator of Oakton Community College's Koehnline Gallery, to take a look at the woodcuts. He recognized the names of several of the artists as Chicago painters, printmakers, and muralists, including Aaron Bohrod and Mitchell Siporin. Many of the prints touched on popular Depression-era themes of struggle and social justice. Intrigued, he persuaded her to donate them to the college.

Harpaz then started trying to figure out what the portfolio was. Noticing that the prints "had some Jewish aspects," he called Olga Weiss, curator of the Spertus Museum. Verson had gone to the museum when she first acquired the prints, but Weiss identified them simply as WPA-era works identical to a set Spertus owned. Weiss gave Harpaz a bit more information: the limited-edition prints, titled "A Gift to Biro-Bidjan: From Despair to New Hope," had apparently been produced to raise money for Birobidzhan, the Soviet Jewish territory founded in the 1920s. But she couldn't tell him much more. Harpaz, an Israeli who'd emigrated to the U.S. in 1987 with his Chicago-born wife, was dimly aware of the story of Birobidzhan. But he says he wondered: "Why are Chicago artists during the Depression doing fund-raising for something that happened in Siberia?"

The 1936 Soviet propaganda film Seekers of Happiness tells the story of a Jewish family that makes the arduous trip by boat and rail from the United States to the newly created Jewish Autonomous Region in the far eastern Soviet Union. Wise, pragmatic babushka Dvoira and her children--happy-go-lucky Lyova, beautiful brigadista Rosa, and long-suffering Basya, who's married to Pinya, an alarmingly stereotypical shiftless, gold-obsessed Jew--struggle against adversity to build a socialist Jewish homeland. The roof of the barn leaks, and there's rarely enough bread to go around. But by the end of the movie the wheat has been stacked high by cheery workers, good-for-nothing Pinya has been banished, and Basya is free to seek happiness in the arms of noble, hunky Natan, chairman of the Red Field collective farm.

The reality was different. In 1928 Stalin designated an undeveloped region in Siberia, some 5,000 miles from Moscow, the site of the new Soviet Zion, and it was formally established six years later. Sharing a border with Manchuria, the marshy, mountainous territory--about twice the size of New Jersey--was an inauspicious site for colonization. The land had been annexed by Russia in 1858 but was sparsely populated; its 27,000 inhabitants were clustered along the Trans-Siberian railroad and the Amur River, two of whose tributaries--the Bira and the Bidzhan--gave the area its name.

The creation of a Jewish Autonomous Region was in keeping with Lenin's policy of developing official territories for the more than 100 national and ethnic groups that made up the Soviet Union, which he saw as a critical step in creating a unified socialist culture. Soviet Jews had no historical connection to Siberia, but Birobidzhan was rich in natural resources. It was also of strategic interest to the Kremlin, given the potential for Japanese and Chinese aggression.

State officials envisioned the JAR as a secular, socialist utopia of farms and small towns, with Yiddish rather than Hebrew--the language of the synagogue and the bourgeoisie--as the official tongue. They also saw settling Jews on the land as a practical solution to the "Jewish problem": by turning shopkeepers and unskilled laborers into productive agricultural workers, the Birobidzhan project would both weaken anti-Semitism and strengthen the place of Jews in the new Soviet economy. Between 1928 and 1938 government subsidies, tax exemptions, and a propaganda campaign drew more than 35,000 migrants to Birobidzhan from within the USSR, many from Ukraine, where Stalin's brutal collectivization campaign had caused mass starvation.

Less than half of the pioneers lasted more than a few years. Plagued by mosquitoes, mud, disease, and repeated flooding, they lacked the tools with which to build barns and housing. Farming equipment promised by Moscow never arrived. Many of the new farms had no access to potable water. Winters were bitter, summers stiflingly hot. Robert Weinberg writes in Stalin's Forgotten Zion, "The overwhelming majority of Jews who came to the JAR in its early years had little or no firsthand knowledge of farming, and many were unprepared psychologically and physically for the rigorous demands of pioneer life." Of those who stuck it out, most gravitated to the capital city of Birobidzhan and nonagricultural employment. Many lived in squalor and were forced to beg or turn to prostitution.

Conditions improved slowly, but the dream of an agrarian utopia never materialized, and by the mid-1930s the second Five-Year Plan had subordinated agriculture to industrialization. Yet for a brief time many saw the JAR as an international oasis of Jewish culture. Organized religion was banned, but Yiddish schools, Yiddish theater, and a Yiddish newspaper took root. Despite vociferous opposition to the experiment from supporters of a Palestinian Zionist state, communist and Jewish organizations worldwide raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on Birobidzhan's behalf, and a thousand Jews, inspired by romantic notions of building socialism and living on the land, emigrated from as far away as the U.S. and South America.

Harpaz was hired in 1998 to be the Koehnline's first full-time manager and curator. A specialist in 20th-century modern art, he'd taught museum studies at Tel Aviv University and spent eight years as director of the Tel Aviv Memorial Museum. In his four years at Oakton he's increased the profile of the gallery and the size of the museum's permanent collection, installing a sculpture park at the Des Plaines campus and creating a state-of-the-art on-line database of the college's holdings.

Harpaz says his role fits well into the larger mission of the college. "As a community college," he says, "we are connected to the suburbs around us. So the same way that we're serving them as a college with a formal education program we're also serving them as an art center." The 1,000-square-foot gallery has only enough space for temporary exhibitions, so the college's permanent collection is scattered around its buildings.

That collection totals around 300 pieces, nearly two-thirds of which are by Chicago and Illinois artists. It includes works of Miro, Dali, Calder, and Oldenburg, as well as a small Richard Hunt bronze, John Pitman Weber's 1968 eight-panel mural Elements, and pieces by eminent locals such as William Conger, Karl Wirsum, and Ruth Duckworth. Harpaz doesn't have an acquisitions budget--all of the art comes from grants or private donations.

The introductory text included in the Birobidzhan portfolio indicated that it was commissioned in 1937 by the Chicago chapter of ICOR, whose acronym comes from the Yiddish name for the Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union. Harpaz plugged "ICOR" and "Birobidzhan" into Internet search engines and netted a handful of far-flung academics doing research on related topics. "It was like starting from scratch," he says. "Information was scattered--there was nothing specifically written on this portfolio."

He got in touch first with Weinberg, who teaches Russian history at Swarthmore and had helped mount a touring exhibition on the history of Birobidzhan that stopped at Spertus in 1999. Weinberg referred him to an archivist at New York's YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, who sent him information on ICOR. Slowly, he says, "I put all the puzzle pieces together."

"We, a group of Chicago Jewish artists," begins the introduction to the portfolio, "in presenting our works to the builders of Biro-Bidjan, are symbolizing with this action the flowering of a new social concept wherein the artist becomes moulded into the clay of the whole people and becomes the clarion of their hopes and desires."

ICOR was founded in Philadelphia in 1926 to support Soviet efforts to further Jewish autonomy, first in Crimea, then in Birobidzhan. The group championed the goals of the American Communist Party and was openly pro-Soviet in its politics, but it also counted among its supporters such titans of capital as Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and founder of the Museum of Science and Industry, who donated over $2 million to the cause.

By the mid-30s ICOR had more than 10,000 members internationally, many of whom endorsed the Birobidzhan project less out of ideology than because it would help get European Jews out of Hitler's reach. Many also saw it as a realistic alternative to Palestine, which they believed posed intractable problems. "It created some debate between Jewish organizations, because traditionally they financially supported Jews to go to Palestine," says Harpaz. "But Rosenwald and other people that were involved actually thought that temporarily it would be easier to move European Jews to Birobidzhan than to Palestine, because of what had started already after the Nuremberg laws and the restriction in Germany. And they predicted that it was going to get worse. It was a way to save European Jews from a future holocaust--that was the whole idea."

ICOR actively encouraged Jews worldwide to move to Birobidzhan and raised money to buy tools and equipment for the fledgling collective farms. The "Gift to Biro-Bidjan" portfolio was one fund-raising tool. "At the time it was created that was the glory years of Birobidzhan," says Harpaz. "That's when the population was at its peak and everything was really very optimistic. Just two years later it all started to fall apart."

Birobidzhan wasn't spared Stalin's purges of the late 30s, in which millions of Soviet citizens, including several thousand Birobidzhan Jews, were arrested and imprisoned or executed for "counterrevolutionary activities." By 1937 official efforts to encourage migration to the region stopped, and when the USSR entered World War II only 16 percent of the estimated 109,000 inhabitants of the JAR were Jewish. Efforts to stimulate migration to Birobidzhan were briefly revived after the war, because government officials and international Jewish organizations promoted the area as a home for orphaned Jewish children. But in 1948 those efforts ended when Stalin began his campaign to wipe out Jewish cultural and intellectual activity throughout the Soviet Union. The Birobidzhan schools and theater were closed, the staff of the newspaper arrested, the Jewish wing of the historical museum destroyed, Yiddish books burned, and many thousands of Birobidzhan citizens were shot or disappeared into labor camps. Stalin died in 1953, before he could implement the next step in his "final solution"--the deportation of all Soviet Jews to camps in the far east. By then the Birobidzhan experiment was seen by its former champions as at best a noble failure, at worst a sinister hoax.

Jewish culture all but disappeared in Birobidzhan for the rest of the 20th century. By 1959 Jews made up only 9 percent of the population, and those who stayed were afraid to express their Jewishness. But the region continued to exist, at least administratively, as a Jewish territory, and with the fall of the Soviet Union the government began trying to revive interest in it. Yiddish schools were reopened in 1992, and soon the local newspaper began running stories in Yiddish. But with poverty epidemic across the new Russia and emigration now an option, 10,000 Birobidzhan Jews have left in the last decade, many for Israel. Today the Jewish population hovers around 5,000. The mention of Birobidzhan elicits a blank stare from most Americans under 80.

When Harpaz got the woodcuts from Verson they were still attached to their original backings, each of which bears the name of the artist and the work's title in Yiddish and English. While he researched the history of Birobidzhan he also read up on the artists, the Depression era, and the WPA.

The introduction to the portfolio states that 200 sets were printed, but Harpaz thinks that's a generous estimate. Other complete portfolios can be found at Spertus, Northwestern University's Block Museum, and the Whitney Museum in New York City, and he knows of one in the private collection of Mitchell Siporin's nephew. That's only five. "Nobody I've talked to thinks that they ever actually produced 200," says Harpaz, who believes the artists probably printed them only on demand. Because the backings weren't archival quality, it's also possible that many sets didn't survive.

The title page of the portfolio is missing from the Oakton set, but Harpaz obtained a reproduction from the Block Museum. The red-and-black page includes two small images that illustrate the folio's theme of "from despair to new hope." In the bottom right corner smokestacks spew black smoke into the air above a dark industrial landscape; in the top left corner a human figure stretches a hand toward the sun. It's unsigned, but Harpaz is pretty sure he's pegged the artist.

In the Spertus archives he found an album of Todros Geller woodcuts published in 1937 by L.M. Stein, who also produced the Birobidzhan portfolio. Entitled "From Land to Land," the album included work created to support the republicans in the Spanish civil war and a reproduction of Raisins and Almonds, the piece that appears in the Birobidzhan collection. "The style is so obvious," says Harpaz, pointing to smoke rising from factory chimneys in two WPA-commissioned Geller prints, South of Chicago and Chicago Towers, and comparing it with the smoke on the title page of the Birobidzhan portfolio.

He learned that some of the portfolio artists created work during the heyday of WPA muralism that can be seen today. Mitchell Siporin's 1938 four-panel mural The Teaching of the Arts decorates the entrance of Lane Tech. Edward Millman's murals still dot Chicago: Women's Contribution to American Progress (1940), in the foyer of Lucy Flower high school, was whitewashed 18 months after it was completed but was restored in 1996, and The Blessings of Water (1937) looms over room 100 of City Hall.

The portfolio artists were free to choose their subjects, though all of the prints loosely reflect the portfolio's theme. Morris Topchevsky, the most politically radical of the group, contributed To a New Life, a portrait of a young pioneer couple complete with blueprints and a socialist-realist hammer. Raymond Katz's Moses and the Burning Bush is the most explicitly religious work in the set, incorporating the first letters of the Hebrew names for God and Moses into its depiction of the Exodus story of the burning bush. Millman's Shoemaker "goes back to van Gogh," says Harpaz. "He started with shoes as a symbol of wandering and homelessness." Exodus From Germany, by Morris Topchevsky's brother Alex--who died in 1999, though his widow still lives in Skokie--depicts refugees fleeing a flaming swastika. "It's already a prediction of what's going to happen," says Harpaz. "This is 1937. Kristallnacht was a year later, in '38, but look what he's saying here. You can already see people running out. You see all the fire and the flames. It's really amazing. Sometimes artists can see--sometimes they have vision."

In March, Harpaz hung the 14 prints in a hallway in the Skokie campus building, at 7701 N. Lincoln. Because it's a public space, there's no way to track how many people have seen the exhibit, but Harpaz estimates the number at around 3,000--in addition to the thousands of students who've seen it as they walked by. He sometimes wishes the school had space in its museum for the permanent collection because the current location poses security and conservation risks. But there's no room, so the prints are firmly bolted to the wall and UV filters are being installed over windows and lights to protect them. "It's not the best," he says, "but it's better than putting them in storage, where only experts can come and take a look."

Harpaz also has put together a catalog for the exhibit that contains historical photos of Birobidzhan and of other works by the portfolio artists. And he's put the collection on-line at the Koehnline's Web site (www.oakton.edu/news/events/gallery/), which has garnered new information about the artists from people across the country. He recently got a note from a relative of Ceil Rosenberg, who died in her 30s and, as a result, was the artist he'd had the most trouble tracking down. "I'm still in discovery," he says. "It's amazing."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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