Different Kind Of Journe
Bronx-born Jew has no regrets about life in Russia's Far East.
ADAM B. ELLICK
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Editor's Note: The Plowing is one of a
series of articles 0 72Jewish li f e along the
Trans-Siberian Railroad. This special
series was made possible, in part, by sup-
port from the Charles and Lynn
Schusterman Family Foundation, the
Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family
Charitable Funds and the American
Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
n 1932, as waves of Russian
Jews fled their destitute villages
in pursuit of the American
dream, 10-year-old Jacob
Gurevitch and his parents boarded a
boat in the Bronx headed in the oppo-
They were going to pioneer a differ-
ent sort of Promised Land: Josef Stalin's
dream of a Jewish socialist homeland in
Birobidzhan, a 45-minute drive from
Khabarovsk, in Russia's Far East.
The month-long boat ride and rail
journey left Gurevitch, now 81, on the
losing side of the Cold War, robbed
him of his Jewish identity and assimi-
lated him so deeply that today he can-
not even contemplate questions about
But his Soviet immersion couldn't
shake his feisty, charming Bronx atti-
tude and his habit of answering every
question with a question.
"Why would I feel pity? Here's better
than America," he says from his tiny
apartment with Soviet-era furniture.
"Have a look. I'm an honorable profes-
sor; my family has higher education.
Why should I be sorry? What would I
do over there, anyway?"
Gurevitch's migration to Birobidzhan
was organized by I-Core, a now-
defunct pro-Soviet, Jewish-American
organization that wooed hundreds of
families and dozens of tractors to the
Jewish Autonomous Republic to lead
socialist peasant lives on the vast
untapped plains of Russia's Far East.
Upon arrival, the newcomers lived
in tents until they could build wooden
homes. After decades of purges and
repression, the Birobidzhan experi-
ment is known today as "Stalin's
Gurevitch's childhood memories of
New York tell of a difficult life for his
immigrant parents, who had fled the
1913 pogroms in Lithuania and
remained ardent Communists.
His mother worked at a Jewish day
school in the Bronx, while his father
took a job at a raincoat cactory under a
boss remembered as deceitful.
When Gurevitch had an ear infec-
tion, his father panhandled for three
days on the streets of New York and
earned $600. But it still wasn't enough
to afford an operation.
"Mom longed for her Soviet mother-
land that provided medical care for
free. But in New York — no money,
no operation. That's why I'm deaf
today," he says in a hodgepodge of
Yiddish, Russian and Bronx-accented
When asked about his family's finan-
cial status, he replies, "How should I
know? I was 10. When we wanted to
eat, we ate."
Gurevitch recalls much of his
American youth, like winning an
award as the most beautiful Bronx
baby. He proudly displays a newspaper
article to prove it.
"Here's the snaps," he says of the
accompanying photograph. He
skipped two school grades because he
was "very clever," and spent his sum-
mers at Camp Kinderland. He displays
a family photo album labeled in
Yiddish that shows his family full of
"Of course we look happy. Why
shouldn't we look happy? Should we
cry in the photos?" he asks.
The photographs prompt a recollec-
tion of his four aunts and many
cousins, who he assumes still live in
America. He quickly grabs some scrap
paper and begins to diagram a family
tree, with hopes that a visitor will
reunite his family.
After all, he must seize the moment.
Gurevitch has only communicated
with two Americans since he left in
1932: a KGB agent and the editor of
an anti-American magazine.
"People say, 'Use the Internet,' but I
don't know what that is," says
Gurevitch, whose glasses are held
together with a paper clip.
Jacob Gurevitch, who immigrated to Siberia from the BronX with his parents at
age 10, at home with his wife in Khabarovsk, Russia.
Gurevitch is retired and lives a quiet
life with his non-Jewish wife.
He reflects proudly on the Soviet
Union, which offered him the kind of
state benefits that many post-war
immigrants received in the United
He talks about his days as the head
of the Theoretical Mechanics depart7
ment at Russia's oldest railway academy,
while his wife places piles of Soviet rail-
way awards on the coffee table beside
fresh ham and soft Russian black bread.
"We are highly respected here. We
have discounts and can go around
town for free by trolley, bus or tram.
And we're always involved in city cele-
brations for Veterans Day," he says.
"We've had a good life here."