The radical "second life" of Vihjalmur Stefansson [American Committee for the Settlement of Jews in Birobidjan]
Srebrnik, Henry F.
Ambijan's literature stressed the need to select settlers who would need to be strong and healthy in order to adapt to Birobidzhan's climate and engage in physical labour. Stefansson disagreed; his own experiences in growing up on the frontier and afterwards working with people in the severe conditions of the Arctic had taught him that 'good health and bodily strength, while desirable, are secondary. The chief thing is mental attitude....What you need for Birobidjan, then, is not the Show moreAmbijan's literature stressed the need to select settlers who would need to be strong and healthy in order to adapt to Birobidzhan's climate and engage in physical labour. Stefansson disagreed; his own experiences in growing up on the frontier and afterwards working with people in the severe conditions of the Arctic had taught him that 'good health and bodily strength, while desirable, are secondary. The chief thing is mental attitude....What you need for Birobidjan, then, is not the physiologically hardy but the psychologically adaptable,' people whose courage could not be broken. He urged [William W. Cohen] to select families 'who want to go, who think they are going to like it when they get there, and who expect to succeed.' Cohen, impressed with the advice, invited Stefansson to his home on Central Park West to meet privately with a group of men interested in the project and also asked him to speak to an audience of 'about 300 or 40() persons' at a forthcoming meeting; Ambijan wanted them to 'understand that the problems of weather in Birobidjan, or, rather climate, can be easily answered by an expert' (Stefansson Correspondence, MSS 196, Box 40, 1936). Stefansson had found his role with Ambijan. Ambijan was particularly active in the 1941-45 period, when the Soviet Union and the United States were allied in the war against Germany. In November 1941, Stefansson spoke at a dinner for Victor Fediushine, the Soviet consul general in New York. Max Levin, chair of Ambijan's Board of Directors, afterwards congratulated him on his 'splendid address' (Stefansson Correspondence, MSS 196, Box 56, 1941). Birobidzhan was 'a sound contribution to the rehabilitation of eastern and central European Jewry,' wrote Stefansson in 1944. 'The policy of the Soviet Union, to make all racial and national minorities equal in practice as well as in theory, has given them a unity that has been one of the chief sources of their war strength....On its tenth anniversary, Birobidjan is already a land of fulfilled promise' (Stefansson, 1944: 1). Stefansson had been retained by the U.S. Office of Naval Research in 1946 to compile and publish a 20-volume Encyclopedia Arctica, which would have demonstrated Soviet superiority in the development of the Arctic. But he had not reckoned with the growing anti-Russian feeling in the country. 'Exposes' of Stefansson began to appear in the press. In August 1951, he was denounced as a Communist before a Senate Internal Security subcommittee by Louis Budenz, a Communist-turned-Catholic (New York Times, 24 August 1951:B). Stefansson denied the charge, but soon thereafter, his work on the encyclopedia was terminated without explanation. No doubt the Navy had become uneasy about a man who continued to hold membership in Communist front organizations and who even, on occasion, had been known to contact the Soviet embassy (Hunt, 1986:257-258). The Stefanssons moved to Hanover, New Hampshire in December 1951, transferring their ever-growing library on the Arctic to Dartmouth College. Perhaps Stefansson himself had by then had some second thoughts about Ambijan, for his posthumously published autobiography (Stefansson, 1964) made no mention of his work on its behalf. Nor, for that matter, did his otherwise very complete obituary in the New York Times (27 August 1962: 1, 23). Show less