BIROBIDZHAN, Russia, Jan 12 (Reuters) — Zion was never meant to be this cold. There is snow in every direction the eye can see, coating forests, rivers, steppe and distant hills.
Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region, founded as a socialist Jewish homeland in 1934, is larger than Belgium and lies in the far east of Siberia, skirting China's border. The crumbling apartment blocks of the main town of Birobidzhan look like an old, forgotten dream.
Seven decades ago thousands of Soviet Jews flooded into the area, some fired with enthusiasm to build a new society in the resource-rich region, others merely hungry and looking for a chance to improve their living conditions.
Fira Kofman was among the early settlers. She arrived in 1936, straight out of technical college 9,000 km (5,600 miles) and eight time zones away in the Belarussian capital Minsk.
"The first Jewish settlers lived in tents," she said. ``When they arrived the only people here were a few hunters and fishermen."
"At first building was very hard," said Kofman, who still works every day as the guide in a museum describing the construction of Birobidzhan.
"We had almost no tools and did everything by hand, but we wanted to come to a new place and build, despite the taiga, the swamps, and the tough conditions. We knew what to expect, but we were young," she said.
The harsh environment -- warm muggy summers and sub-zero winters -- discouraged many early settlers who went back to European Russia and Ukraine. But enough of them stayed on, building a community with Yiddish-language schools, a theatre and a newspaper.
Despite Birobidzhan's huge distance from Moscow, it was not remote enough to shelter from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's purges during the late 1930s when most local leaders were shot.
Stalin's obsessive belief that Jewish doctors were plotting to murder him delivered a further blow to the region's Jewish identity in 1948 and 1949 when all Jewish schools were shut down, the library was ransacked and Yiddish books were burnt.
There are no figures available on how many of the region's current 210,000-strong population are Jewish, but most estimates put the number at only four percent.
The most obvious non-Russian presence in the town is a group of itinerant Chinese traders hawking their goods in the market.
But the deputy regional governor, Valery Gurevich, denies the region is no longer Jewish.
"Almost all of the population is Jewish, they just don't know it," he said in an interview in the local government building on Lenin Square.
To this day a large statue still dominates the square, portraying the founder of the Soviet Union in heroic pose, cap firmly clutched in hand.
"There were many mixed marriages and, of course, a lot of anti-Semitism, so many people did not write down that they were Jewish in their (internal) passports," he said.
This meant that later generations had no idea of their Jewish roots.
Many of those who clung to their Jewishness in spite of the difficulties seized the opportunity of emigrating to Israel when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and travel restrictions were lifted.
Gurevich said the regional government was now trying to stem the flow.
"People go because they have a better standard of living there. And of course we mind -- we're doing everything to keep people here," he said, adding that the region was hoping to discover oil under its southern marshes.
Travellers on the vast trans-Siberian railway, which links Moscow with the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok, look twice when the train pulls into Birobidzhan station. A neon sign displays the town's name in Yiddish in large green letters.
All official signs are in Russian and Yiddish and one of the two local newspapers, the Birobidzhaner Shtern, is still published partly in Yiddish.
Its editor, Ina Dmitrienko, said only about a fifth of the 5,000 people who buy the paper could read the Yiddish page.
"I hope that figure will grow over time because many children are going to the Jewish state schools," she said. When she joined the paper 10 years ago as a reporter, the whole paper was written in Yiddish.
Although many of the Shtern's writers died in Stalin's work camps, the paper was never shut down because, like all Soviet newspapers, it was an official organ of the Communist Party. Its masthead still carries a small Soviet badge.
Dmitrienko, whose parents arrived from Russia's second city of St Petersburg -- then known as Leningrad -- in 1932, said reports of the region's demise had been exaggerated.
"The prospect of there being no Jews left here just doesn't threaten us any more. Look, 50 years ago everything was lost. Fifty years ago they closed the last Jewish school," she said.
"But in the last 10 years, since the time of perestroika, Jewish culture has started to revive.
"They said, look the last Jew will die on the newspaper's staff and it will close. Well, we won't close, and we've just taken on two young girls with good Yiddish."
The town now boasts several state-run schools that teach Yiddish, as well as an Anglo-Yiddish faculty at its higher education college, a Yiddish school for religious instruction and a kindergarten.
The kindergarten looks like any Russian school except the children all greet teachers with "shalom."
"We try to teach the children about Jewish culture, though we have children of all nationalities here," said teacher Svetlana Nikolnova.
The five to seven year-olds spend two lessons a week learning to speak Yiddish, as well as being taught Jewish songs, dance and traditions.
Nikolnova said the kindergarten, set up seven years ago, had relied on donations from Jewish organisations outside Russia to stock its bookshelves, which include such titles as "Fun with Jewish stencils" and tapes of Jewish music.
One class of six year-olds gathered around their teacher who asked them what they remembered about the festival of Hanukkah, which the kindergarten recently celebrated.
The children thrust their hands in the air and said, in Russian, that Hanukkah was the festival of lights.
But, as if to emphasise the precarious Jewishness of this frozen Zion, of the eight children in the classroom, only one of them was actually Jewish.