Northwestern U. exhibit draws on Birobidzhan propaganda

Mabel Dwight Danse Macabre

Mabel Dwight, ‘Danse Macabre,’ lithograph, c. 1933–34. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 1995.5. Hitler is depicted in the suit of armor.

CHICAGO — A 1931 Russian lithograph poster shows a man wearing a hat pointing his finger in a manner reminiscent of the Uncle Sam “We want you!” genre. But in this case he implores the reader to spend 50 kopecks on a lottery ticket “to build a socialist Birobidzhan, the future Jewish Autonomous Region.” Another lithograph poster from 1930, which was also hawking lottery tickets to benefit Birobidzhan, appeals, “Let us give millions to settle poor Jews on the land and to attract them to industry.

Founded in 1928 along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Birobidzhan (also spelled Birobidžan) was designated as a “Jewish Autonomous Region” (J.A.R.) in 1930. Subsequently, international ad campaigns soliciting both domestic and foreign funding went into full force.

In 1928, about 525 Jews moved to Birobidzhan, and six years later, the number of immigrants who arrived reached 5,250, according to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. But, the encyclopedia adds, 60 percent of the 1934 immigrants left that same year, and Jews continued to flock away from the would-be agricultural Jewish utopia, including a recent emigration in 1989-1991.

… Among the cheerleaders from afar were a group of 14 Jewish Chicago artists, who created a series of woodcuts titled the “Birobidjan Folio,” which they sent to the J.A.R. And, in 1944, Marc Chagall illustrated a wedding scene in Birobidjan, which he based on a poem by ltzik Feffer. The works of the former group is part of the current exhibit “The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940” on view through June 22, 2014, at Northwestern University’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston, Ill.

Read more of my article “Northwestern U. exhibit draws on Birobidzhan propaganda” in Times of Israel.

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