ODESSA, Ukraine – You may love it or dislike it, but no other city in Russia
resembles Odessa. I guess I fell in love with Odessa for two reasons: my mother
is from Odessa, and I feel at home in cities by the sea.
(1894-1940), native son and the city’s most famous writer, called it, ”the most
charming city of the Russian Empire.” He claimed it was a city in which one
could “live free and easy,” because of the Jews who make up nearly half its
population. In Babel’s words, the town was “The Star of Exile.”
to really feel the charm of Odessa, I walk the city streets and admire its
buildings, designed in neo-classic architectural style, including the
attractive, yellowand- white local mansions, many of which display a
I move along Primorsky Blvd. to Nikolaevsky Blvd. to
inhale the “spicy aroma of the acacias” hanging over the city’s busy Black Sea
harbor and the Primorsky Stairs.
At the top of the steps stands the
statue of the Duc de Richelieu clad in a Roman toga. Armand Emmanuel du Plessis,
5th Duke of Richelieu, a French émigré, served as governor of Odessa from 1803
to 1814. Now the “stone duke” points at all those arriving to his beloved
I saunter along frantic Deribasovskaya St., full of pedestrians,
move on to majestic and sleepy Pushkin St., whose stately yellowand- white homes
were occupied by grain traders and finally make it to pretentious Catherine St.,
with its old-fashioned houses. In Catherine Square, the city has erected the
towering statue of Catherine the Great where once stood the Soviet-style
monument to the sailors of the Potemkin. And yes, the gold-trimmed Opera House
and the green parks.
GENERALLY, ODESSANS got along with each other, but
The city’s Jews suffered pogroms in 1821, 1859, 1871, 1881,
and 1905 when a wave of strikes broke out in Russia. On June 14, 1905, the
police, supplying vodka to Cossacks and the anti-Semitic gangs of the Black
Hundreds, joined in the massacre of Jews. In this outbreak, about 500 Jews were
killed, thousands of families injured and hundreds of businesses
On June 15, 1905, officials put the city under martial law.
The Russian battleship Potemkin, the pride of the Black Sea Fleet, had sailed
into Odessa’s port with the rebellious red flag flying. The crew had mutinied,
throwing some of their officers overboard and locking the rest in the brig. Huge
crowds gathered near the waterfront.
The leader of the mutiny, Gregory
Vakulinchuk, had been shot in the struggle and his body was laid at the foot of
the Primorsky Stairs. (Following the Soviet revolution, the stairs were named
the Potemkin Stairs in honor of this rebellion, but after Ukrainian
independence, they were renamed).
As fighting continued on land, about
2,000 persons were killed by police. The sailors bombarded the city, but the
range-finding was inaccurate. The crew ceased the attack and steamed out to sea,
eventually scuttling the battleship in Constanta, Romania.
was made famous by the silent 1925 propaganda film directed by Sergei
Eisenstein, whose German Jewish family had baptized him.
“AND SO, I lived
a while in Odessa,” wrote Aleksandr Pushkin, considered Russia’s greatest
Several monuments to Pushkin appear in Odessa. One is a bronze bust
on Primorsky Blvd. in front of the City Duma (Council). But I admired Pushkin’s
statue on Pushkin St. where his figure is located right smack in the middle of
the sidewalk and has him sporting a top hat and cane.
Berlin defined Odessa as an “un-Russian Russian town.” Jewish writers were
immersed in Russian and Jewish literature so that by the turn of the 20th
century, Odessa became a major center of secular Jewish life in which literature
played a key role. Famous names of writers and thinkers such as Leon Pinsker,
Mendele Mokher Seforim, Sholom Aleichem, Ahad Ha’am, Menachem Mendel Ussishkin,
Leon Pinsker, Meir Dizengoff, Saul Tchernichowsky, Joseph Trumpeldor, David
Frischmann, Simon Frug, Joseph Klauzner and many others, are all associated with
If you walk to 17 Rishelyevskaya St., you can see a memorial
tablet on the façade of a private house, not open to the public. The plaque
honors Isaac Babel. He was one of the greatest prose writers in the first
decades of the Soviet Union and indeed of the 20th century.
Babel has the
distinction of being the first Jewish writer to enter Russian literature as a
His collection of short stories, Red Cavalry, which
discuss his 1920 ride in the ranks of the Cossack horsemen on the side of the
Bolsheviks, is a must read for anyone seeking a better understanding of Russia
in the terrible Civil War years of 1918-1922. A son of the ghetto, Babel became
a literary success as a result of the publication of his Odessa Stories. At
their core, the stories describe the life of Jewish gangsters, especially mob
boss Benya Kirk. Babel was shot by the Soviets on January 26, 1940. He was 45.
In 1954, however, during the post-Stalin thaw, he was
Another famous native of Odessa, who later made Tel Aviv
his home, was Chaim Nachman Bialik, who settled in Israel in 1924 and is
considered the most influential Hebrew poet of modern times. Bialik lived at 9
Malaya Arnautskaya St., and as with the former homes of many other Jewish
writers, his house today is occupied, but he is honored with a memorial tablet
on the outside.
From his desk in Odessa, Bialik wrote In the City of
Slaughter, a poem depicting the horrors of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, but also
expressing shame that the Jews had not resisted their attackers.
had a tremendous influence on Russian-Jewish youth and inspired young people to
form selfdefense groups.
I pass by the apartment building of Zionist
leader and author Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist
Movement and mentor of prime minister Menachem Begin. Jabotinsky was born at 33
Bazarnaya St., and lived also at 91 Novoselsky St. A memorial plaque adorns one
of his residences at 1 Yevreyskaya St.
“I’ll probably never get to see
Odessa again,” Jabotinsky wrote.
“It’s a pity, because I love the
OVER A hundred years ago, Jews from this port made their way to
Palestine. Odessa, certainly a Zionist city, became known as the Gate of Zion.
Thousands of Jews from all over Europe, including David Ben-Gurion, began their
journey to the Land of Israel from here.
Today Odessa, which before the
fall of Communism contained 70,000 Jews, is home to about 30,000, out of a
Nearly 100,000 Odessan Jews were slaughtered by
Germans and Romanians during World War II.
In one instance, 19,000 Jews
were herded into a square, doused with gasoline and burned to
Odessa today boasts a very active Jewish community. Beit Grand JCC
was opened in 2008. The threestory building at 77/79 Nezhinskaya St. was
officially dedicated in 2010 by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the
Odessa Jewish Community. The building houses the Hesed Sha’arey Tzion Welfare
organization, the Anavim kindergarten, Hillel and the Odessa Regional
Association of Ghetto and Concentration Camp Survivors, as well as an extensive
library, community gym and a theater hall.
Migdal JCC, at 46a Malaya
Arnautskaya St., operates over 100 programs in various areas of Jewish life for
different ages, including The Mazel Tov Center for Young Families. The first
Jewish library to open in Ukraine since the fall of the USSR, with a collection
of over 10,000 books, is also housed here.
JDC is Migdal’s primary
Nearby is the Museum of History of Odessa Jews, Migdal
Shorashim, which is open to city residents and last year celebrated its 10th
Three religious communities function in Odessa. Chabad-
Lubavitch Rabbi Avraham Wolff, the chief rabbi of Odessa, is the spiritual
leader of the city’s Central Synagogue. During Soviet times, the synagogue was
used as a warehouse by the KGB.
The renovated former Great Synagogue of
Odessa is now called the Main Synagogue of Odessa. Located on Yevreyskaya St.,
which means “Jewish Street,” this house of worship during Soviet times was made
into a sports facility. Rabbi Shlomo Baksht is spiritual leader.
the above synagogues maintains religious Jewish schools, while ORT sponsors a
secular Jewish school.
The Reform movement also functions in Odessa. The
group holds its activities and programs, including a Sunday School, at Nina
Onilova St. 16. Its spiritual leader is Vladimir Torchinsky.
the Jewish community of Odessa is here to stay. As Jabotinsky wrote: “I was in
love with Rome and it lasted a long time, but even that passed. Odessa’s
a different matter, it hasn’t ever passed and it won’t.”
Ben G. Frank,
journalist, travel writer, is the author of the just-published The Scattered
Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe