Death of a City

Charles King's book is a decent enough overview of the facts, but fails to bring the legends alive.

Odessa Jews (photo credit: Yevgeny Volokin/REUTERS)
Odessa Jews
(photo credit: Yevgeny Volokin/REUTERS)
I made the huge mistake of picking up Charles King’s Odessa immediately after rereading, in an unaccountable fit of nostalgic curiosity, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. For some reason I’d been wondering if Durrell’s lush, rapturous, bombastic, insanely romantic prose, which I had admired so much as a post-adolescent, could still hold any charms for me. Apparently I’m still quite the post-adolescent. At least, that’s what my reading of King’s book suggested. Odessa is a passably good book, and King’s writing style is perfectly acceptable. But I sorely missed the magic.
It is, of course, unfair, and perhaps even nonsensical, to compare these fictional and factual narratives, especially as one is an examination of love and the other an examination of history. Yet the two cities on which the books focus had so much in common that the comparisons kept leaping to mind. Both are port cities, both have been ruled by numerous imperial conquerors, both have engendered certain myths and mystiques, both historically have been wildly multi-ethnic and polyglot, both had significant Jewish populations that were key to each city’s economic growth, both harbored Zionist activities, both nurtured famous native Jewish sons.
Soon, however, the similarities pretty much are exhausted. The history of Alexandria stretches back even before the time of the ancient Macedonian conqueror who gave the city his name. Odessa, founded in 1794, is even younger than Washington, D.C. Alexandria has long been very much a part of the Islamic and Arabic world. Odessa has only briefly been an Ottoman outpost. Most notably, Alexandria is on the Mediterranean, a body of water with a vastly different cultural orientation than that of Odessa’s Black Sea.
Not incidentally, King, a professor of international affairs and government at Washington’s Georgetown University, had previously written a history of the Black Sea (as well as a history of the Caucasus and a study of Moldova). This suggests to me that he may have already used up his energies if not his sources when he turned to writing “Odessa.” Whatever the reason, the history is here, but not the sparkle one would hope for in a book about such a promising subject – especially one with an enticing, Durrell-like subtitle encompassing genius, death and dreams.
Overall, Odessa is such an uneven book as to suggest bipolarity. King is good on the founding of the city and on its early progressive administrators, Armand Richelieu (a French nobleman in the service of the czar and grand-nephew of the famed Cardinal Richelieu of the court of Louis XIII) and the Russian soldier-statesman Mikhail Vorontsov.
But the professor is merely workmanlike in his account of the long 19th-century conflict between the Russians and the Turks over control of the port that sat serendipitously near the commerce-hungry mouths of the Danube, Dniester, Dnieper and Bug rivers. He provides adequate potted histories of such noted figures as Pushkin, Trotsky, Babel and Jabotinsky, but seems more excited about Sergei Eisenstein’s classic if historically inaccurate film, “Battleship Potemkin,” which is set in Odessa.
And when it comes to the history of Odessa’s Jews, in which this reader was most interested, the book is yet again uneven. Odessa’s significant place in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, the Jewish press and the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement gets only dutiful summary, as does the prominent role Jews long had in the city’s feisty underworld. As for Odessa as a hotbed of Zionism, Simon Dubnow, Leon Pinsker and Chaim Bialik merit mention only in passing.
To be sure, King’s subject is Odessa and not Jewish Odessa. Jews, who eventually made up fully one-third of the city’s population, were more integrated into urban and community life there than they were anywhere else in Europe (Odessa never had a ghetto), formed formidable self-defense organizations and as agricultural commodities brokers in this free port were instrumental in feeding much of Europe and beyond. Yet despite all this, Jewish Odessa doesn’t seem to get the attention here that it deserves. (While the author certainly admires Odessa’s Jews, it is unclear if he is Jewish himself; in his acknowledgments he salutes the Mennonites on his mother’s side of the family.) King, however, is very informative on the persecution and slaughter of Jews. While one Yiddish aphorism held that Jews could “live like God in Odessa,” another suggested that “the fires of hell” burned around this center of secularism and cosmopolitanism. King points out that more Jews fell victim to the pogroms of 1905 in Odessa than anywhere else in Russia, and that under fascist Romanian occupation in World War II, the Romanians, along with their enthusiastic Ukrainian allies, hunted down and murdered Jews with fanatical zeal. To mention only one instance, some 28,000 Jews were machine-gunned to death by the German SS and their local proxies in the Berevovka ravine, the equivalent of Odessa’s own Babi Yar massacre.
The author also reports well on the obscene business of political denunciation. Drawing on recently opened Russian archives, King demonstrates how neighbors serially denounced Jews as revolutionaries to the czarists, as capitalists to the Bolsheviks, as communists to the fascists, as Russian patriots to the Ukrainians and so on. And, of course, once the Red Army had expelled the Romanians from Odessa, any surviving Jews were immediately rounded up as enemy collaborators (how else could those Jews have survived?).
A sizable number of Odessa’s Jews did in fact survive the war, largely by fleeing eastwards before the Romanian invasion or by going into hiding. But Odessa as a great center of Jewish life, indeed as Russia’s great southern port city, was finished. The war had reduced the docklands, the grain elevators, and even the opera house to smoldering ruins; King notes that even the trolley cars had been hauled off to Romania. With more than half of its population gone, the city never fully recovered anything like its glory days. Indeed, Odessa isn’t even Russia’s any more. While it is still full of Russian speakers and remains a favored beach resort for frost-bitten Muscovites, the city now belongs to Ukraine.
Post-war Jews got out of Odessa as soon as they could. By the 1970s Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood was already known as “Little Odessa.” Other Odessan Jews emigrated to Israel, to California and to other Western destinations. Although Odessa’s main synagogue has been refurbished and the city tries to attract Jewish tourists, no one apparently is quite sure how many Jews actually reside there today; estimates range from a few thousand to a few hundred, possibly even less.
All in all, rather like Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, Jewish Odessa has largely faded into myth. Charles King’s Odessa is a decent enough overview of the facts, but fails to bring the legends alive.