Lives of Ashkenazi Jews (Polish Citizens) in Central Asia

Lives of Ashkenazi Jews (Polish Citizens) in Central Asia

The pictures are of the tombstone of Moshe Bijalostocki, born in 1911 in Warsaw, deceased in 1943 in Jambul (Taraz) Kazakhstan. The photo of his remaining brothers (left) and their spouses was taken in 1946 just before they were repatriated back to Poland. (Photo courtesy of the family archive of Dr. Eitan Reem, Israel). Moshe Bijalostocki fled the Nazi invasion to Poland in 1939. He and two of his younger siblings crossed the newly established border on the River Bug to Soviet territory near L’viv (Lvov). They were imprisoned and sent to a hard labor GULAG camp near Chelyabinsk and released following the Nazi attack on the USSR in Fall of 1941. With many other released ex-Polish nationals, they traveled South to Central Asia and found refuge in Jambul (Taraz today). On Oct. 1943 Moshe died of typhus. His younger brother (left in the picture) was drafted and served as an officer in the Red Army and his younger sister stayed in Jambul and worked in a factory. The younger brothers survived the war and took this picture as a memoir a few days before their repatriation back to Poland. They emigrated to Israel in late 1947.

Behind the personal ordeal of Bijalostocki family, this picture reveals a few wider stories. The story of the arrival and settlement of the Ashkenazi Jews in Central Asia and another, even greater one, of Central Asia as a hub and shelter for millions of refugees and evacuated populations during the “Great Patriotic War”.

Ashkenazi Jews began arriving and settling in Central Asia following the Tsarist colonization of the region. They did not integrate with the existing Jewish communities of Bukharan Jews but set up their own in the newly established “Russian” neighborhoods of the central cities. Ashkenazi Jews continued arriving to Central Asia following the Bolshevik revolution. It was the Civil War and the anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe on the one hand and on the other, the demand for literate professionals and career opportunities in the newly established republics which brought them to the region. But it was during the years of the WWII when the greatest number of Ashkenazi Jews arrived in Central Asia. 

Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviet government began evacuating factories and valuable property from the endangered regions of the front lines to the East into Siberia and Central Asian Republics. It was then when the populations of the many Central Asian cities more than doubled and hundreds of new industrial facilities were brought to the region. There are only estimates available of the number of evacuated and those among them who survived the war: the hunger and diseases struck not only the refugees and the evacuated but local populations too. Nevertheless, for Jews chances of survival in Soviet Central Asia were much higher than for those who stayed behind in the Nazi occupied territories. After the war ended, many chose to go back to their previous living locations, but many others choose to stay. Prior to the war (1939) the Ashkenazi Jewish population of Central Asia was estimated at about fifty thousand people while the next census (1959) showed a population of 120 thousand. In the same period Bukharan-Jewish population, with much higher fertility rates, almost didn’t change at all. 

Today, more than a century since the first Ashkenazi Jews began settling in Central Asia only a handful of them still remain there. On the second photograph one can see the same gravestone uncovered, after a successful quest. As seen the black color it was painted with (to resemble black marble?) had totally faded. (Photo by Yefim Grinberg, Taraz 2020). In a way, this picture of an individual tombstone symbolizes also the end of Jewish presence in the region.

Further Reading
Levin, Zeev. Ed. Evreiskie Bezhentsy i Evakuirovanye v SSSR 1939-1946. Jerusalem, 2020.
Manley, Rebecca. To the Tashkent Station. Cornell UP, 2009.
Pirimkulov, Sh. D. Pol’skie Shkoly i Detskie Ucherezhdeniia v SSSR (1941-46), Tashkent, 1990.
Stronski, Paul. Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City 1930-1966. Pittsburgh UP, 2010.

Zeev Levin, is head of the Central Asian and Bukharan Jews Research Unit at Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem and a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Author of Collectivization and Social Engineering, Soviet Administration and the Jews of Uzbekistan, 1917-1939 (2015) and editor of Jewish Communities in the East in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Central Asia: Bukhara and Afghanistan (2018), and Jewish Evacuees and Deportees in the Soviet Union, 1939-1946 (2020).