By the Black Sea

By the Black Sea

Jewish Farmers in the USSR, 1922–1941

Opening: June 20, 2006

The exhibition tells the story of the Jewish agricultural colonies in the Soviet Union, and in particular those in southern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula (now part of Ukraine). The exhibition includes 45 photographs and 20 paintings by Meir Axelrod, a Russian-Jewish artist who documented the lives of the Jewish farmers in the colonies, and excerpts from historical films.


The first settlers in Crimea (1922) were members of the Hehalutz movement. Thanks to assistance from Jewish philanthropies abroad, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Agro-Joint), and the introduction of advanced farming methods and western technologies, the project was expanded. The region, most of it previously uncultivated, came to life. The Jewish colonies suffered a severe setback in the 1930s but continued to exist, despite the collectivization policy, Stalin’s reign of terror, and the suspension of Agro-Joint activities in the Soviet Union (1938), until the Nazi invasion in 1941 put an end to the enterprise.


In 1930, the Soviet authorities sent the artist Meir Axelrod to document the lives of Jewish farmers in the Crimean colonies. He settled in the commune of Vojo Novo (Esperanto for “New Way”); many of his works depict life there.


The story of Vojo Novo is also linked to a dramatic chapter in the annals of settlement in Eretz Israel: its founders were members of the left-wing faction of the Joseph Trumpeldor Labor Battalion (Gedud Ha’avoda), who returned to the Soviet Union after the group split in 1927. These “traitors to Zionism,” as they were perceived in Eretz Israel, came to a tragic end. After the commune was converted into a kolkhoz, some of its members moved elsewhere. Some, falling victim to the purges, were arrested and executed or disappeared without a trace into the labor camps of Siberia.


The exhibition was mounted in conjunction with an international conference, “To the Land! 200 Years of Jewish Agricultural Settlement,” and was organized in cooperation with the Leonid Nevzlin Center for the Study of Russian and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The paintings and drawings of Meir Axelrod were on display by courtesy of the Yahilevich Collection.


About Meir Axelrod (1902–1970)

Meir Axelrod, born in Molodechno, Belorussia, studied at the Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops (the Vkhutemas-Vkhtein), the center of avant-garde artistic activity in Moscow. Its teachers included Vladimir Favorsky and Alexander Rodchenko; Axelrod himself taught drawing there. When, as part of the first Five-Year Plan (July 1930), it was decided to create an artistic record of the achievements of agricultural collectivization, Axelrod was named to head the team sent to the Jewish farming colonies in Crimea. The Axelrod team included the artists Lidia Zholtkevich, Mikhail Gorshman, and Lev Zevin.


In 1930/31 Axelrod created the series “In the Steppes,” comprising dozens of works in watercolor and gouache, sketches, and drawings. Some of these were exhibited in Moscow in 1931. Axelrod was also a book illustrator, graphic artist, and theater designer. His work includes the series “The German Occupation” (1941–1944), “The Ghetto” (1964–1969), and “Remembering Old Minsk” (1968). Axelrod’s work can be found in public and private collections in Russia and in Israel.