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[Page 134]

F. Flourishing Ahead
of the Holocaust


Translated by Moshe Kutten

Edited by Rafael Manory

The Settlement is Renewed with the Assistance of Jewish Organizations

The destruction of the Jews' livelihoods in the cities and the catastrophic state of the Jewish population and the willingness of a substantial portion of that population to embrace agricultural work prompted the regime to direct that “unproductive” human sector, more efficiently and on a larger scale towards settlement. Some high-ranking people in the regime realized that it would be beneficial to concentrate the settlement in certain areas and turn them into Jewish districts.

The government established a state-committee, in 1924, for dealing with the Jewish settlement by the name of “KOMZET” (acronym in Russian for “Committee for the Settlement of Toiling Jews on the Land”). A government minister was nominated to head the committee. Its members included the Jewish community activists, M Litvinov, L. Karson, A Shinman, V. Larin, A. Merzhin, V. Golda, M. Frumkin and others.

With the confiscation of the large estates, and allocation of lands to individuals, big opportunities for purchasing lands became available. However, as discussed, it was not possible to settle on available land without housing, farm buildings, live and inanimate inventory, seeds and alike. The Soviet government, in its first years, had very limited financial means and could not allocate the money required for that project. The government intended to allocate just a nominal budget for every settler, and provide construction wood from its forests at reduced prices. The people in government assumed that the settlers would make the effort and invest their own money. However, it became apparent that most of the candidates for the settlements were people who lacked resources. The KOMZET, in 1925, established an association for collecting the needed financial resources and supporting the Jewish settlement by the name of “OZET” (in Yiddish, the association was named “GEZERD”). The OZET association recruited tens of thousands of members. During the same period, the KOMZET conducted negotiations with Jewish organizations abroad, concerning their participation in financing the settlement. These organizations, which boosted their activities after the war, considered the Jewish settlement as a constructive movement. The JOINT, which spent huge sums on its philanthropic social welfare programs, considered that project a leverage for the economic strengthening of thousands of families. An agreement for mutual cooperation between JOINT and the KOMZET was signed on 29 November 1925. The JOINT established a subsidiary by the name of “JOINT-AGRO”, which invested the largest sums of money in the settlement. According to the agreement, the JOINT was committed to investing no less than $400,000 in its first year of operation. The subsidiary was awarded special privileges. It was exempt from state and local government taxes and its employees were provided with privileges of government officials.

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Similar agreements were signed with the JCA and ORT organizations that were very active in Russia as early as during the Czarist period; JCA – in the area of agriculture and ORT in the area of teaching craftsmanship skills among the Jews. After the revolution, both organizations have transferred abroad, however, they never ceased to assist Russian Jewry.

To prevent frictions among the settlement organizations and duplication of efforts, it was agreed, between them and the KOMZET, to divide to operation according to the regions of the settlement, and to allocate each organization a license to operate in certain areas. Crimea, for example, was divided into six settlement areas. AGRO-JOINT operated in five of them and OZET in the sixth one. In the provinces of Kherson and Ekaterinoslav, the settlement regions were divided between AGRO-JOINT and JCA. OZET operated in Belarus, and ORT in the Odessa and Balta districts.

From everything discussed above, it seems that three elements played a role in the implementation of the settlement, namely, the government, through KOMZET, which allocated the land areas, the settlers, and the Jewish organizations, who financed the settlement, and provided equipment and agricultural training.

Every such organization had its own method of establishing the farms and the budget allocations. The OZET organization's objective was to ensure that the farms of the Jewish settlers would be similar to the farms of other farmers in the area. As the Christian farmers had small and simple houses and primitive equipment, the Jews had to have a similar arrangement. Every house, built from clay bricks, costed 400 Rubles, the stable—150 Rubles, the live and the inanimate inventory, seeds and sustenance until the first harvest—500 Rubles, altogether—1100 Rubles. The AGRO-JOINT and JCA organizations included in their plans a more spacious house, vineyard or fruit tree grove and dairy shed. Their budget was 2000 Rubles or more.

As early as the first year of their operation (1925), 5,226 families were settled, on an area of approximately 100,000 disiyatins.

According to Z. Ostrovski in the Journal “Der Emes” [Yiddish for “The Truth”], the Jewish settlement enterprise required, in 1925, 3 million Rubles for its consolidation, and the organizations mentioned above took care of that investment. According to the same source, a collaborative conference of KOMZET and OZET, as well as representatives of the settlers from Ukraine and Belarus took place on 23–25 October 1925.

In that conference, it was decided that upon settling, the settlers would invest certain sums in their farms according to three levels, of 150, 300 and 500 Rubles. Obviously, people who were unable to invest were not prevented from settling, however, the organizations were committed to strive for having the settlers pay.

Until then, no attention was made to coordinate the human material in every collective due to the haste in securing land, allocations and other resources. The collective farms were assembled haphazardly, combining wealthy and poor people, shopkeepers and craftsmen. During the actual collaborative work, disputes erupted among the settlers who came from different backgrounds.

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It was therefore decided that every collective farm would be consolidated from people of common social background, meaning craftsmen with craftsmen, shopkeepers with shopkeepers and learned people with learned people. It was decided that each cooperative would consist of no less than 7 and no more than 20 members. It was also decided that existing collective farms, where disputes have erupted, should be dismantled into smaller collective farms. It was also decided to be more diligent when selecting candidates for settlement. Every candidate had to fill a detailed questionnaire, according to which it would be possible to determine the suitability of the candidate for settlement. A certain period was set as the registration—from 20 November 1925 to 15 January 1926. From that date forward, they started to approve the candidates and send them to the location of the settlement.

The original plan for 1926 was for settling 10,400 families in various provinces, on land areas totaling 250 thousand disiyatins [about 675,000 acres]. This mighty plan was supposed to cost about 18 million Rubles. This sum was too large for all of the organizations to assemble. Therefore, the settlement of the ten thousand settlers lasted two or three years. The plan was to settle 4,442 families during 1926, on a total area of 91 thousand disiyatins; however, either due to lack of financial resources, or for other reasons, only 2815 were actually settled. During the three-years period 1925—1927, 12,483 families have settled on an approximate area of 300 thousand disiyatins [about 810,000 acres].

The Settlement Enterprise at its Peak

When it was founded, the KOMZET had an impressive and visionary plan. The plan envisioned settling 100,000 families during a period of 10 years, which meant 10 thousand families a year. Along with the established farmers from before the war, that would have resulted in about half a million farmers, or one quarter of the entire Jewish population in Russia.

The government allocated about 300,000 disiyatins [810,000 acres], mainly in the provinces of Ukraine and Crimea, for settlement during the first few years. There were several proposals regarding other required areas, for example by the draining of swamp areas. Half of the initial land areas allocated for the settlement were located in the provinces of Ukraine, about a third in Crimea and the rest in Belarus. The allocation for each family unit was determined based on the quality of the soil: 15–20 disiyatins in Ukraine, 20 in Crimea and 25 in Belarus. The Jewish organizations also formulated their big plans for fundraising based on the KOMZET's plan. The settlement was accompanied by two aspirations. The first was the establishment of Jewish agricultural districts in which a symbolic autonomy can be established, similar to the autonomy given to other nations in the Soviet Union; the other aim was collective agriculture. There was no explicit resolution regarding the autonomous districts. However, this was the state of mind of some of the regime notables and some of the Jewish communist officials who handled the Jewish settlement.

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At the OZET convention in November 1926, Kalinin, the president of the Soviet Union, gave a long welcoming speech, in which he hinted to the intention that the Jewish settlement would gradually be transformed into an autonomy and would perhaps reach a level enabling the establishment of a Jewish autonomous republic. The idea of a national self–rule regime for the Jews was a guiding light of the Soviet policy in those years. The heads of the settlement administration aimed at settling the Jews in concentrated areas, in order to establish Jewish autonomous entities. These entities were called “districts” and were named after prominent public notables. Such a center of Jewish settlement was established in the southern Kherson province between the Inguletz and Dnieper rivers. A total of 37 thousand disiyatins were allocated for the new settlers. This area linked the colonies of Bobrovy Kut and the two colonies of Sdeh Menukha with the colony of Lvovna on the bank of the Dnieper. The district, which stretched over an area of 70 thousand disiyatins and included 49 villages, was given the name of Kalinindorf; in this district, 39 villages were populated by Jews and ten by Ukrainians and Germans. 11 rural councils were established in the district, eight of which were Jewish and the rest were Ukrainian and German.

A second center in Kherson, was established in 1929 near the city of Krivoy Rog. The center stretched over an area of 45 thousand disiyatins. The established [Jewish] colonies and the new settlements in the district totaled 37, and there were 15 Ukrainian villages and two German ones. The area included 10 rural councils, among which, 9 were Jewish and one was Ukrainian. This district was named Niozlatopol. The district's population, at the beginning of the 1930s, totaled 1,791 Jewish families, 665 Ukrainians and Russians, and 74 German.

The district of Stalindorf, which was established in 1930, stretched over 100 thousand disiyatins and its population was 30 thousand people, half of which were Jewish farmers and the rest were Ukrainians, Russians and Germans. 23 rural councils were established in the district, ten of which were Jewish, two Ukrainian, two German and nine were mixed.

The district of Freidorf in Crimea was established in 1931 and stretched over an area of close to 200 thousand disiyatins. It was divided among 31 rural councils, 15 of which were Jewish and 16 were mixed.

In 1935 an additional district, named Larindorf, was established.

(All the data about the Jewish districts, mentioned above, were taken from a pamphlet authored by M. Haft, which was published in Yiddish in 1936).

As mentioned earlier, the government preferred collective settlement. The people of the Yevsektzia [the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party], were particularly enthusiastic about that idea. However, the collective settlement was not mandatory. Many of the settlers tended to institute collective cultivation in the farm. However, as the years passed, it turned out that the collective cultivation caused disputes among the settlers. As a result, the collective plots were divided, in many settlements, into individual plots and every settler cultivated his plot individually.

It is logical to assume that the [Jewish] associations from abroad, which financed the Jewish settlement,

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were not very enthusiastic about the collective farming, as the people who headed these organizations did not favor Communism or Socialism. As partners for the settlement implementation, they, most likely, insisted on the freedom of choice by the settler. They preferred to let the settler decide whether he should join a collective farm or cultivate the land individually. However, in the provinces where the settlement was established with the help of the communist OZET association, pressure was exerted on the settlers to move to the collective regime. This was probably the reason why most of the settlements in Belarus were collective in nature. In 1927, the settlement in this area numbered 1,211 families, residing in 145 collectives, which meant, on average, about 8 settlers in each collective settlement.

In the province of Odessa, the collective farms received good land with sufficient fertile soil, as well as allocations for construction and equipment. Most settlements managed to build housing and were furnished with all the needed farm equipment. The fields were cultivated more efficiently and yielded plenty of crops. In the settlements of the Kherson province, the new settlers benefited from the closeness of the established colonies. They learned from them efficient working techniques and farm management methods. The lands in Belarus were less fertile than the ones in Ukraine and southern Russia. However, the Jewish settlers whose economic state was not very sound even before the war were used to hardships and hard labor. They cultivated their fields methodically, with the help of the agronomists, and fertilized the fields according to the agronomists' instructions. Instead of growing wheat and barley, crops that yielded poor harvest in these regions, they sowed other crops on their fields, which yielded more profitable harvests. Thanks to the methodical handling of the cows and proper feeding, the settlers also managed to greatly improve the milk sector.

In northern Ukraine, the Jews received plots with small fields. If they would have sowed wheat and barley on them, like their neighbors, they would have doubtfully sustained themselves. Therefore, they grew corn, sunflowers, potatoes and other field crops. To complement their incomes, they leased land from the sugar factories and grew sugar beets. Following the destruction of the state economy, sugar crops were sold at high prices, ensuring decent profits for sugar beets.

After Bessarabia was annexed by Romania, there was an opportunity for growing tobacco in some areas, which were suitable for this agricultural sector. The tobacco sector succeeded mainly around the bank of the River Dnieper. In 1923, the Jews grew tobacco in the province of Podolia, on an area of 900 disiyatins. The tobacco sector sustained then 1500 families. It is logical to assume that these numbers did not decrease, and even increased in the years that followed.

Like before the war, the trend to specialize in a certain single agricultural sector was prominent. The Jews began to develop vegetable gardens, particularly near big cities such as Odessa, Minsk, Kiev, Kamenetz–Podolsk and others.

The settlement in Crimea took a unique character. It started in 1923, even before the establishment of the KOMZET and its grand settling plan, when “pioneers”, members of the labor Zionist movement, came to Crimea and established three communes– colonies similar to the kibbutzim in Eretz

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Israel; these were the names of the communes: “Tel Khai” [“Hill of Life” in Hebrew, named after a village with a similar name in northern Israel where Yosef Trumpeldor was killed in 1920], “Mishmar” [“Guard” in Hebrew] and “Ma'ayan” [“Spring” in Hebrew]. The farm of “Tel Khai” stretched over an area of 1,900 disiyatins, “Mishmar”–over an area of 750 disiyatins. The members of these communes intended to make Aliya to Eretz Israel, and established these communes as places for training for themselves and for hundreds of other “khalutzim” [pioneers] who would follow them. The members of these communes were, like typical members of Eretz Israel's kibbutzim, idealistic youths, enthusiastic, diligent and dedicated to their work. Their farms were cultivated intensively and they enjoyed bountiful harvests.

As the first settlements in Crimea, where the human quality was superior, they exerted a significant influence over all the Jewish settlements that followed them. Of the 19 settlements that were founded in Crimea before 1925, eight were given Hebrew names: “Khaklai” [Agriculturalist], “Yetzira” [Creativity], “Avoda” [Work], “Hatikva” [The hope], “Akhdut” [Unity], “Ikar” [Farmer], “Kherut” [Freedom] and “Beit Lekhem” {Bethlehem, House of Bread]. Despite the fact that the first three settlements were established as pure communes, utilized advanced methods and enjoyed bountiful harvests, they were not favored by the “Yevskim” [Jewish communists], who wished to established themselves as partners of the Jewish settlement movement. Actually, the “Yevskim” were not allowed to set foot in the three communes. The atmosphere in the three communes was Hebrew–Zionist. Tensions prevailed between the members of these communes and the communists. As long as the “he'Khalutz” movement was still legal in Russia–no one could censure them. However, in 1927, when the latter movement was outlawed and many of its members were arrested, members of the communes, who would not deny the movement's ideals, faced the danger of imprisonment and punishment. They rushed to abandon their settlements and make Aliya to Eretz Israel. The three colonies were handed over to other Jewish settlers.

According to the statistics from 1933–4, there were 84 [Jewish] settlements in Crimea, on an area close to 200,000 disiyatins. Their population totaled 25 thousand people.

The dominant language in all of the Jewish settlements was Yiddish. The books read by the settlers were in Yiddish and Russian. The management team in each settlement was elected by the settlement's residents elected. The settlers began to be acclimated to the work and village life.

In addition to the settlements established throughout the provinces of the European Russia, the Soviet government decided in 1928 to establish a large–scale settlement enterprise in the province of Birobidzhan in Asia, and to settle there a quarter of the Jewish population on an area of two million disiyatins. The intention was to turn Birobidzhan, over time, into a Jewish autonomous territory. However, the implementation of this colossal–scale and far–reaching plan did not progress as planned. Difficulties were encountered from the beginning and the large– scale was cut back substantially. Even with the reduced scope, the Birobidzhan plan constituted a tremendous opportunity for the Russian Jewry during the 1930s. During the political purging at the end of the 1930s and later on during the years of the Second World War, the original plan, which was initiated during Kalinin's rein was archived and the Birobidzhan project was sunk and almost forgotten (see Appendices).

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According to the census of 1926, the Jewish agricultural population, within the Soviet Union, numbered 155,400 people. According to other official numbers, the Jewish agricultural population numbered as follows:

Year People
1927 165,000
1928 220,000
1931 255,000

These were the published numbers. However, according to statistical calculations by others (e.g. according to Yaakov Leshchinski), who took into account the people that left, only 220,000 [Jewish] people were involved in agriculture in 1931. Some estimated the number to be even lower. These numbers did not correspond to the maximum plan that the Soviet government decided upon in 1925–4. However, even if we use Leshchinski's numbers (according to which there were only 220,000 [Jewish] people in agriculture), and subtract the established farmers from before the war (about 60,000), we come up with about 160,000 [Jewish] people who settled in agriculture during the 1920s.

In the beginning of the 1930s, the ratio of the Jewish agriculturalists to the total Jewish population was 1:10, or 10%. This was the highest ratio of the Jewish agriculturalists in the history of the Russian Jewry, as well as in the history of the Diaspora Jewry in general.

The total area of the Jewish settlement, in the beginning of the 1930's, was estimated to be 800,000 disiyatins (more than 8 million dunams [2,160,000 acres]). Although not all of the land areas were fully cultivated, they enabled absorption of several additional few thousand families. These were the record years of the Jewish settlement in the Soviet Union. From then onwards the decline started.

The Decline and its Reasons; the Holocaust

According to the [Yiddish] journal “Emes” [The Truth], from the beginning of May 1938, there were 600 Jewish kolkhozes in the Soviet Union, accommodating 25 thousand families, whereas the [Yiddish] journal “Der Shtern” [The Star] reported in August 1939 that the number of the [Jewish] kolkhozes was 500 (based on the book by Y. Leshchinski about the Jews in the Soviet Union). This means that the Jewish agricultural population declined in 1939 to about 150,000 people, or about 5% of the total Jewish population, which numbered 3,020,000 people in the same year.

What were the reasons for that decline? Based on the vast amount of material published about the Jewish population in Soviet Russia, we could establish the following factors:

  1. At the end of the 1920's, the first Five–year plan of the Soviet Union was announced.
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    One of the plan's objectives was to accelerate the rate of the industrialization in the country. Many industrial plants were built which required additional work force. Employment in these plants was opened for the entire population, including the Jews and without any discrimination. The work conditions in these plants were much more favorable than in the villages and ensured a higher standard of living. Working people started to flow from the villages to the industrial plants in the cities. The Jews captured a significant portion of these jobs. During the 1920's, the years of the economic shockwaves that followed the revolution, many of the proletarian craftsmen flocked to the villages. With the development of the industry, many of those craftsmen found better positions within the industry with better conditions.
  1. The Jewish sections of the Communist Party placed a great importance on converting the masses of Jews to proletarians in the full meaning of the word. During the conference of the Jewish communists in 1926, even before the Five–year industrialization plan was announced, some of the representatives expressed their view that it would be preferable to move the Jewish proletarian to key positions in the big industries rather than directing them toward agriculture. The view was strengthened after the announcement of the Five–year plan.
  2. It is well established, that manufacturing requires not just common workers and artisans but also educated people and intelligentsia who would be able to specialize in delicate work in the laboratories. There were certainly many people among the settlers, who had acquired a high school education or knowledge in technical professions. Candidates of that kind were welcomed by the industry. Through their work, alongside of experts, they became professional workers of management rank. The Five–year industrial development plan became therefore a major factor in preventing many additional candidates from joining the settlement movement and even contributed to the decline in the existing settlement.
  3. Another factor was the government's announcement, at the end of the 1920's concerning the imposition of the collectivism regime in the Soviet agriculture. As described above, although there was a preference for collectivism over individual farms at the beginning of the settlement, the authorities did not insist then that the settlements be based on collectivism. Even settlers who originally settled on their land as a collective, were allowed to disassemble and move to an individual settlement. We do not have numbers about how many continued to operate collectively and how many transferred to private farming. However, it is certain that a certain number of collective farms disassembled, the fields were divided, and the farmers became independent. Like most of the farmers in Russia, who were not enthusiastic about the law of the kolkhozes, the attitude of the Jewish farmers towards the imposition of the collective regime was mostly negative. Anyone who was not comfortable with the collectivization order and had the opportunity to find another occupation, abandoned farming.
At the end of the 1930's the Jewish agricultural population, still numbered 5% of the overall Jewish population in the Soviet Union.

Despite the decline in the scale of new settlement, in the remaining 500 kolkhozes,

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the 25,000 Jewish families, or about 150,000 people who resided and worked there constituted a direct continuation of the 130 years of Jewish settlement in Russia, a project that started at the beginning of the earlier century. We do not have any material about the relative success of the Jewish kolkhozes as compared to the Russian kolkhozes; however, the fact that they lasted for fifteen years, supports the fact that they succeeded not worse than the others and proved their ability and skills in agriculture in the same way their ancestors did during the Cazrist Russia.

They managed to flourish until the day when the torrents of destruction and annihilation descended upon them.

The Germen conquerors flooded the Russian Jewry and wiped out the kolkhozes, along with their Jewish settlers, from the face of the earth. The villages were robbed, burned and destroyed by the conquering army and by the local Russians and Ukrainians. The fate of their residents, like the fate of the rest of the Jewish population in the conquered lands, was annihilation and obliteration.

It is possible that a few Jewish agriculturists who survived the Holocaust have returned after the war to their kolkhozes, where others have settled in the meantime. It is possible that somewhere in the Soviet Union, there are a few Jews who still work the land. However, we do not know for certain. The families of Kherson and Ekaterinoslav settlers who reside in Israel told us that all of their relatives, who continued to work in agriculture before the war, were murdered and destroyed, and there was no trace left of them.

This was how the ax put an end to the large group of people who worked the land, and who sustained themselves in the farming villages in southern Russia for one hundred and thirty years.

Note: The bibliographic list for this section appears on page 428.


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