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Looking for Jewish Happiness

//Svetlana Pakhomova//

Many films based on Jewish material were shot in the Soviet Union In the 1920s and 1930s. Some of them did not survive, others were not successful as widely as they could. Other films suffered from all sorts of technical, dramatic and other imperfections. But there was a picture that proved to be extremely popular at the time of its release, not only among the Jewish audience, but also far beyond its borders. The music was composed by the 30s main film composer - Isaac Dunayevsky. Songs from the film were broadcast on the radio, sung in parks and at homes, released on records, and were reprinted as sheet music. “Happiness seekers” directed by Vladimir Korsh-Sablin 1936 is considered to be the most successful pre-war film about Jews made in the USSR.


Plot: The old Dvoira’s family returns to the Soviet Union from abroad on a steamer: the initiators of the move - son Leva and younger daughter Roza; the eldest daughter Basya with her husband Pinya, who is the least sure of the successful outcome of their Soviet voyage. The Dvoira’s family meets Nathan, the chairman of the Jewish collective farm “Roite Feld” on the train to the Far East,. He agitates the Dvoira’s family to settle on his collective farm, because, according to him, most of the Jews from abroad go there. But the family decides to finally go to Reitefeld only after Pini's consent. While still on the train, he heard the collective farmer Katz had found a huge gold nugget. Pinya makes a life-changing decision for the whole family, finding out that Nathan's collective farm is located near the place where Katz discovered the gold. Almost all family members are actively involved in working life. The only thing that disturbs the old Dvoira’s peace is the aroused love between the beautiful Rosa and the Russian fisherman Korney. Yeah, also Pinya... Taking time off from collective farm obligations, he was disappearing into the taiga looking for golden sand. One day his efforts will be crowned with success, but the passion for individual enrichment will be unambiguously debunked in this exemplary Soviet film.

The second half of the 30s in Soviet cinema is held under the slogan of the fight against internal and external enemies. Even in lyrical comedies, heroes casually catch spies and bring pests to light. It's amazing how Veniamin Zuskin, who played the role of Pini, with the help of Dunayevsky's music, manages to soften the image of not so much a pest as a touching sleazy, a total loser and dreamer, whom one wants to pity more than punish.

Footage from the film with the characters*

“Jewish settlers were drawn to Birobidzhan from many regions of the Soviet Union, from abroad, in 1928 to the Far East, to the wide expanses of the rich taiga, to the Amur’ banks.”

Korsh-Sablin's film opens with this capacious title. Literally in one sentence, the viewer is informed about the sad situation of the Jews outside the Soviet Union. One of the passengers on a steamer bound for the Soviet Union reads a newspaper in German, which hints to the viewer, that he left Germany in connection with the rise of anti-Semitism. The Soviet screen repeatedly referred to the German situation In the 1930s, illustrating the thesis of Jewish discrimination in Europe. The other part of the steamer's passengers, apparently, are sailing from America, where they lost their jobs and their usual life with the onset of the Great Depression.

The international economic crisis and Hitler’s rise to power in Germany are the real problems of that time, however, the film uses the world political situation for ideological purposes for sure. The feeling of deprivation and restlessness of Europe and America Jews is strengthened by a drawn-out song in Yiddish, which is sung by a lonely female voice. We do not see the girl who sings this song, but we see despair and hope in the eyes of the Jewish passengers listening to it on a deck.

Video fragment with the song*

Birobidzhan is a Jewish national-territorial entity in the south of the Russian Far East. The Central Executive Committee of the USSR assigned to KomZETOM (Committee on Land Management of Jewish Workers under the Presidium of the Council of Nationalities of CEC of the USSR) in 1928, the Birsko-Bidzhansky district of the Far Eastern Territory of the RSFSR. The Biro-Bidzhansky national region was formed two years later. On May 7, 1934, the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR (CEC of the USSR) decided to transform the Birobidzhan Jewish National Region into the Jewish Autonomous Region. That’s how the history of the Soviet analogue of Zionism began controversial, which was essentially advertised by the film "Happiness Seekers".

Map from the book “Birsko-Bidzhansky district of the Far Eastern Territory: the works of the 1927 expedition.” The Land Arrangement Committee of Working Jews under the Presidium of Nationalities of the USSR Central Executive Committee (komzet); ed. prof. W. R. Williams. -Moscow: EMES Printing House, 1928. Issue. 1: Preliminary summary report of the expedition / prof. B. L. Brook; (preface ed. by V.R. Williams]. 1928. 116 p.


Music: Director Vladimir Korsh-Sablin was the person who first invited Dunayevsky to work in the cinema industry on the film "First Platoon". By 1936, he was already an accomplished film composer. Isaak Osipovich used his childhood memories of Jewish tunes for "Happiness Seekers" as well as post-revolutionary Jewish folklore.

The next Jewish melody that sounds in the film is "The Lamentation of Israel", which is played on the clarinet by a wandering musician performed by Emil Gal. Tal played a lot in the 20s and early 30s. He appeared in the films of Kozintsev and Trauberg, Ermler, Donskoy, Dubson, and even in the famous Vasilyev’s “Chapaev”.

The most amazing story related to the music from the film concerns the famous "Jewish Komsomolec", "Birobidzhan Fishman Song" or simply "Fishman song”. Dynamic, bright, groovy composition is performed several times in the film and always in Yiddish, but after the film release it was re-recorded with Russian text, which was not yet ready at the time of filming. It was in the Russian version that “Fishman song” was played on the radio, performed at concerts and released in print. And a quote from it “More deeds, less words!” knows even those who have never watched the Korsh-Sablin film.

"A family"

Photos from RGALI*

By the end of the 1930s, with the beginning of the "Great Terror" and the conclusion of the Non-Aggression Pact between the USSR and Germany, the problems of Jewish colonization of Birobidzhan began to fade into the background. The flow of migrants to the JAO practically ceased, and KomZET and OZET, supporting the project all these years, were liquidated along with their leaders. Not many things looked as unattainable at that time as the dream of Birobidzhan Zion.

However, it was in 1938-1939 exactly at this dramatic moment, that one of the script authors of the for Happiness Seekers wrote the libretto for an opera based on the film called The “Family” in Leningrad. Taking as a basis their joint script with Grigory Kobets, Johann Zeltser sets new accents, changes the names and characters of a number of characters, and from some of them even gets rid of, but the main thing is that he refuses to resurrect Levka, who was attacked by Pinya in the film in the heat of battle for the gold he washed up.

The old Dvoira’s two daughters, here renamed as Khana - Rosa and Basya, merge into one Bluma, who is weighed down by an unhappy marriage with the Jew Nachman and is cheating on him with the Cossack Sergei. Seltzer stops very detailedly on traditional Jewish society marriage practices, of which Bluma became a victim. Her union with the shopkeeper's son Nachman is presented as a good deal that promised a poorless life for the whole family. Such traditions are directly opposed to the ethnic and cultural "melting pot" of the Soviet country, where there is a complete overcoming of national differences. The only one desperately clinging to the old life ghosts is Bluma's rejected husband Nachman. He owns the most frank and speckled with the notes tirades censor:

The Nation scattered around the world.

We want to revive Jewry in the taiga.

Among swamps, among animals.

We hit the edge of the world ...

Here they thought paradise for the Jews.

We are now far from Palestine ,

Than there in the town, in a foreign land.

Fatherland, goodbye

All lies, deceit.

Not allowed to live

And luckily the doors are closed…

Nachman imagines himself a prophet who, having received the only thing he needs from Birobidzhan - gold, dreams of leading the people to the land of their ancestors, "to the great Zion"! Birobidzhan, in the logic of Nachman and others like him, turns out to be only a transit point on the way to the real homeland - Palestine.

The fate of the film and its creators:

Photo by Korsh-Sablin, Mikhoels, Zuskin*

Photos credits here, here and here

The Korsh-Sablin film was no longer shown in 1939 after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Just exactly when Zeltser's libretto for the opera based on the film was ready. On September 27, 1940, the opera was banned from staging. And could a production come out at that moment in which Zionist and religious motives sounded so frankly, and Jewish triumphed over the Soviet in the finale?

Johann Zeltser died in 1941 on the battleship “Marat” sunk by German aircraft. The second screenwriter of Seekers of Happiness, Grigory Kobets, who dreamed of making a sequel to “Happiness Seekers”, received 10 years in the GULAG according to the sentence of the OSO under the NKVD of the USSR in 1942.

The film's consultant was the great Jewish actor of the Moscow SJT (State Jewish Theatre), Solomon Mikhoels. It was exactly him, who brought the traditions of the Jewish theater into the picture, combining humor and musicality. Mikhoels was killed in 1948 in Minsk by employees of the USSR Ministry of State Security. In the case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Veniamin Zuskin, who replaced Mikhoels as head of the SJT, played the role of Pinya in the “Happiness Seekers”, was arrested, in the same year. He was shot on August 12, 1952, along with other defendants in the JAC case.

"Happiness Seekers" was shown in the 60s, but they no longer aroused much spectator interest. Viewers and researchers discovered the film in a new way, only in the 90s. Time has washed away the propaganda husk, leaving the "gold" of Jewish theatrical and musical traditions, unforgettable Yiddish songs and touching hopes of the people of that time for their own happiness!

Frame from the movie*

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