There was a time when Odesa, a coastal city in Ukraine, was a bastion of Jewish culture. In the 19th century, it was home to the second-largest Jewish community in the world, behind only Warsaw. Until the Holocaust, a full third of its residents were Jews. It was a place where Jewish intellectuals, poets, artisans and musicians flourished.
While many now assume that the city’s Jewish heritage is a relic of the past, Odesa’s resilient Jewish community has withstood the onlsaught of Russian troops and is persevering amid Moscow’s nearly year-old invasion of Ukraine.
It’s generally assumed that Odesa’s remaining Jewish community mostly left during the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, marking the end of the city’s Jewish heritage. It’s a rational assumption to make, given that Ukraine’s last census, which was conducted in 2001, claimed that there were only 12,000 Jews left in Odesa.
However, local Jewish leaders strongly dispute this narrative and say that official statistics grossly undercount Odesan Jews. They claim that, prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year, the city’s Jewish community numbered closer to 50,000 – or 5% of the total population.
To back this claim, they cite the fact that the city’s main Jewish newspaper, Shomrei Shabbos, had a pre-invasion circulation of 20,000 households. As a household often has more than one inhabitant, and not all Jewish households were subscribed to the newspaper, it stands to reason that the number of actual Jews is much higher than the newspaper’s circulation numbers.
According to Avraham Wolff, chief rabbi of Odesa and southern Ukraine, local Jewish leaders imported 14 tons of matzah to distribute to local Jewish families during a recent Passover. As each family received 1 kilogram of matzah, this suggests that Odesa had, at the very least, 12,500 Jewish families.
Alexander Shatkhin, a local Ukrainian Jew with close connections to Chabad Odesa, rolled his eyes when asked about whether the 2001 census’s undercounting of Jews was rooted in antisemitism. Shatkhin dismissed the census as generally unprofessional, noting that it was conducted at a time when Ukraine was struggling with crippling corruption issues.
“No one was at our home, and no one asked us about our feelings about our nationality,” he said.
Whatever the exact size of Odesa’s Jewish community, it was evidently thriving before last year’s invasion. Local Jews manage their own schools, kindergartens, community centers and newspapers.
“A Jew can live in Odesa in a warm and embracing community – to have their first haircut, bar mitzvah and Jewish wedding; to celebrate all the Jewish holidays in the community, with holiday prayers and festival meals; to be buried properly in a Jewish cemetery,” said Wolff.
“A Jew can live in Odesa in a warm and embracing community – to have their first haircut, bar mitzvah and Jewish wedding; to celebrate all the Jewish holidays in the community, with holiday prayers and festival meals; to be buried properly in a Jewish cemetery.”Avraham Wolff
Shatkhin concurred with this sentiment and fondly reminisced about his boyhood years in an Odesan Jewish school. “A lot of people wanted to go to my school because it had high standards of education – maybe not high for a state like Germany, but we had a private school education.”
In 2008, Chabad Odesa even opened the first Jewish University in Ukraine, offering programs in a variety of fields (law, economics and the humanities). Upon graduation, students received a diploma from one of the institution’s partnering Ukrainian state universities.
Wolff explained that there are a number of reasons the bulk of Ukrainian Jews had stayed in Odesa, rather than emigrate to Israel.
“Some had great jobs. Some couldn’t leave because of their family circumstances, or were very connected to their parents’ burial places and felt that, if they left, they’d never be able to come back and visit these sites again. And there were some who were just patriotic,” said Wolff.
Shatkhin fell within the patriotic camp. Born and raised in Odesa, he visited Tel Aviv five times as a tourist and, enamored with the city, decided to move to Israel several years ago. After one year, he returned to Ukraine.
“Tel Aviv was a super place, but I understood that my homeland is Ukraine. Ukraine’s lifestyle and traditions, in Odesa and Kyiv, are closer to me on a mental level. This was the place I was born, where I lived, and I understand 100% that I want to live in Ukraine.”
THAT PREWAR Odesa’s Jews lived peacefully and happily might come as a shock to some. Despite the fact that Ukraine’s far Right has never won more than 5% of the national vote since 2014, Russia has invested billions of dollars into convincing the world that Ukraine is full of Nazis. Unfortunately, a significant number of foreigners still bought this narrative.
“Before the war, we laughed at this. We thought it was a joke. But now, it’s a very painful joke. It hurts. It’s impossible to say that Ukraine is full of Nazis. It’s wrong,” said Rabbi Wolff.
“The fact that we live there and continue to live here – that’s the best thing we can do against this propaganda.”
Like many other Ukrainian Jews, Wolff was quick to point out that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, and that 68% of Ukrainians voted for him while being fully aware of this fact. Wolff also emphasized that, in 2019, only two countries had both a Jewish president and prime minister: Ukraine and Israel.
The majority of the world’s Jewish intelligentsia seems to understand political Ukraine’s realities. Last February, just three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, over 300 academics specializing in Nazism and the Holocaust signed a public letter, published in The Jewish Journal, condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its attempts to denigrate Ukrainians as Nazis.
Wolff claims that, over the past 30 years, he hasn’t experienced any serious incidents of antisemitism. “Not a sliver – not from any of the neighbors and never from the government.”
Shatkhin felt similarly and called Ukraine “super safe” for Jews. Unlike Wolff, he felt that there had been some antisemitism in the 1990s due to vestiges of “Soviet thinking,” but hadn’t found antisemitism to be an issue since.
There was happiness – and then Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine shattered life for Odesa’s Jews. Warships blockaded the city, firing missiles that rocked the earth. Meanwhile, Moscow’s troops spilled into southern Ukraine from Crimea, racing westward across the Black Sea coast, their guns pointed toward Odesa.
“In the first week of the war, Russian ships stood in front of the city’s shores, there was a great panic and chaos, and people fled out of fear. Many crossed the border without knowing where they were headed,” said Wolff, who estimated that half of the city’s Jewish community left.
Some fled abroad, to Israel and Europe, while others sheltered in western Ukraine. Wolff temporarily left the city himself, working with some of his staff to shepherd a group of orphans to Germany. They stayed in a hotel arranged for them by a local rabbi – the hotel has since become a long-term shelter for Jewish refugees.
“I feel very bad because the war has broken all of our institutions. It has broken our whole world, which we built for 30 years. It has broken our schools, our kindergartens, our newspapers and everything. The whole community is broken now because of the war,” said Wolff.
Not only has the war scattered Jewish communities, it has also wounded Jewish physical heritage. In November, 111 Ukrainian Jewish leaders signed a public letter denouncing Russia’s destruction of Holocaust memorials, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine.
“Jews in the whole world, and the non-Jews, too, should feel horrible about the war crimes that are happening in Ukraine,” said Wolff.
Amid this sorrow, there is one small consolation: the exodus of Jewish refugees fleeing Russian occupation has created a miniature Jewish renaissance in Ukraine’s western regions.
Synagogues in major west Ukrainian cities, such as Lviv, have seen skyrocketing attendance and greater community solidarity. The development is a powerful rebuke of Russian propaganda, which argues that west Ukraine, and Lviv specifically, is a hotbed of fascism.
Ukrainian Jews are doing their best to rebuild their institutions, but the situation has been challenging. For example, Odesa’s Jewish schools, which served 1,000 children before the war, now have only 200 pupils.
“So long as there are still Jews in Odesa, we will continue to have our schools and nursing homes and everything else we had going on beforehand. We will serve them and won’t close the lights unless every Jew has left,” said Rabbi Wolff.
Last month, all across the country, Jews observed Hanukkah in darkness and under air raid sirens. The square where Odesa’s menorah is traditionally lit is located by the harbor, nested within a sensitive neighborhood that has been cordoned off for security purposes. Each night, the area must stay shrouded in impenetrable darkness.
Nonetheless, with the support of the mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, and the local military, Wolff was able to arrange a special lighting ceremony. Accompanied by a small group of Jewish leaders and local dignitaries, the rabbi and mayor lit the menorah together in the cold. It was the first time that any light had shone in the neighborhood since the war.
A product of freedom and exclusion
Russian Empress Catherine the Great founded Odesa by decree in 1794, hoping to establish a new gateway to Europe on the Black Sea.
As a free port with minimal taxation, the city quickly became a cosmopolitan trading hub – all kinds of ethnicities could be found there. As Russian poet Alexander Pushkin famously wrote in 1823, Odesa was a city where “the air is filled with all of Europe.”
The Jewish population swelled in particular – though this was partially because of antisemitic Russian policies which restricted Jewish habitation to the empire’s bleaker western regions, known as the Pale of Settlement. By forcibly concentrating Jews into a smaller region, these policies unintentionally supported the development of modern Jewish culture, particularly in urban areas.
Odesa’s Jewish heritage was thus simultaneously the product of freedom and exclusion – banned from the empire’s capitals, the community carved out its own success in the chaotic imperial fringes. At their height, the city’s Jewish institutions were among the best in the world.
Then the Holocaust decimated this.
Under a short-lived dictatorship, Romania allied with Nazi Germany and occupied the Odesa region, murdering 80% of the local Jewish population. However, compared to other occupied parts of Eastern Europe, the Jewish survival rate was relatively high because, once Hitler began losing the Eastern Front, the Romanians stopped deporting Jews to German death camps, preferring to use them as paid laborers.
Consequently, over 10% of Odesa was still Jewish after the war.
Though the Nazis had been defeated, the Soviet Union remained no friend to the Jews. The Russian Empire had been aggressively antisemitic for centuries, and these prejudices remained ingrained within Russian culture and, by extension, Soviet policies. For example, during the Stalinist era, Jewish scholars were removed from the sciences.
Jews were often vilified as “rootless cosmopolitans” whose loyalties lay with the West. These beliefs led to a ban on Jewish emigration, as it was thought that Jews, being traitorous by nature, would engage in sedition from abroad – thus they could not be permitted to leave.
Russia’s historical antisemitism was amplified by the Soviet anti-Western alliance with the Arab world. For example, when Israel won the Six Day War in 1967, defeating a coalition of Arab states, the Soviet state-controlled media responded by launching antisemitic propaganda campaigns.
When, in 1971, international pressure forced the Soviet Union to finally lift the ban on Jewish emigration, there was, predictably, a mass exodus of Soviet Jewry. The Soviets soon tried to stem the flow by imposing large fines and other penalties, such as the loss of Soviet citizenship, on would-be emigrants.
When the Soviet Union finally collapsed 20 years later, emigration policies were once again liberalized, and post-Soviet Jews, tired of economic stagnation and endemic hatred, again emigrated en masse.