Jewish World: Odessa Remnanats

A dilapidated archive tells the story of a once thriving Jewish community.

An almost 100-year-old photo of the reporter’s great-grandmother, Rivka Barshah, found in the Odessa state archive (photo credit: JULIE MASIS)
An almost 100-year-old photo of the reporter’s great-grandmother, Rivka Barshah, found in the Odessa state archive
(photo credit: JULIE MASIS)
A BLOCK away from Odessa’s Jewish Street stands a gray building with windows that reach several stories high.
Something about it gave me the impression that it must be a synagogue. But on the gate hangs a sign – State Archives of Odessa Region, open to visitors between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The archive keeps more than two million documents with the oldest dating back to 1796.
A few years ago, an engineer checked the building and found that it could collapse at any moment.
“So we asked him, ‘Will we at least have the time to run outside?’” relates the deputy director of the archive, Liliya Bilousova, as we sit in her office and she offers me a cup of tea and some chocolates. “He said, ‘No.’” She pauses to allow me to imagine the ceiling falling down.
Indeed, in 2003, a part of the structure separated, she tells The Jerusalem Report.
Now, huge wooden supports prop the building up. Cracks run along the walls, and strips of paper are taped across them.
If the paper rips, the archive workers know that the wall is moving again.
“What can we do?” Bilousova says.
“Close down and go home? We were closed for three years but they asked us to reopen because so many people wanted to visit the archive.”
This Odessa archive was originally a synagogue, erected almost 150 years ago. It was one of 63 Jewish religious institutions that were active in Odessa at the end of the 19th century, when Jews made up nearly 40 percent of the city’s population. There were so many synagogues that almost every trade and every region had its own house of worship.
This one was known as the Brodska synagogue, because it was built by migrants from the city of Brody, in the Austrian empire (the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, lived in Brody for some time).
The Brodska synagogue was considered progressive because it was the first shul in the Russian Empire to have an organ and a choir, according to Bilousova.
After the Communist revolution, Jewish workers urged the government to close the synagogue. “We have several documents about the closing of the Brodska synagogue,” Bilousova says. “Jewish Communists wrote letters asking to close the synagogue, and the government’s response for two years was that it is an architectural monument.”
After the synagogue finally closed in 1925, it became a Jewish shoemakers’ club, she said. “There were all kinds of clubs in those days. I think there were a lot of shoemakers.”
Under the Romanian occupation during World War II – when 300,000 Odessa Jews were deported to a ghetto, of whom only 1,200 returned – an archive was established inside the synagogue. The Soviets continued using the building as an archive, building a five-story structure for storage inside the original building.
“They shouldn’t have built it,” Bilousova explains. “The archive is heavy and the building wasn’t designed for it.”
According to Ukrainian law, the synagogue must be returned to the Jewish community, Bilousova says. And that was the plan until the conflict with Russia began last year. The Ukrainian government had promised to move the archive to one of the unused buildings of the Defense Ministry. But, once the war began, the military building was needed and the intention to move the archive was abandoned, Bilousova says.
Odessa’s history is also Jewish history, so the Odessa archive is also a Jewish archive.
Bilousova shows me notebooks from 1886, their pages filled with cursive Russian that is hard to decipher for someone who isn’t used to 19th century handwriting.
“Let’s see what we have here,” she says, as she opens the notebook entitled, “Births, Rabbinate, the City of Odessa.”
Here is the date, the name of the baby, and the name of the father and mother, as well as the father’s social standing and the name of the person who performed the circumcision, she points out.
There is also a notebook entitled, “For recording deceased Jews in the city of Odessa, 1886,” which, in addition to the age of the person who died, also notes the cause of death. There is also the book of marriages, where the ages of the bride and groom are written, and the book of divorces, in which the reason for dissolving the marriage is usually explained as “based on mutual consent.”
BEFORE THE revolution, the Russian empire required rabbis and priests to keep birth, death, marriage and divorce statistics, but afterwards all these books were moved into the state archive. Today, the Odessa archive keeps the books handwritten by the rabbis from 1875 to 1912. The Odessa Jewish community’s records from 1835 to 1875 were lost during WWII. The archive also has information on the Holocaust in the Odessa region, including the ghettos in areas that were under Romanian occupation.
Most of these documents are available only in paper form. To look at a file, a visitor must fill out a form and return the following day. The documents are kept in an unheated storage space where temperatures can fall to freezing in the winter, according to Bilousova. This is a step forward from 20 years ago, when researchers ‒ and especially foreign researchers – were not given free access to the archive.
Seven years ago, the archive began digitizing its books after receiving some free scanners from a genealogical society in the United States, but the work ended when the machines broke down, Bilousova notes, adding that the documents cannot handle the wear and tear of people looking through them.
The Brodska synagogue isn’t the only one in Odessa that has practically collapsed from lack of maintenance.
In 1992, the last remaining active synagogue in Odessa (originally built as a synagogue for dock workers) was in dire need of repair. But, according to local legend, when the rabbi requested the mayor to supply another building for the Jewish community, the mayor reportedly replied, “You already wear a kippa. Why don’t you just put a helmet on your head instead,” according to Kira Verkhovsky, the chairwoman of Migdal, a Jewish community center that offers dance, music and art classes for children and adults. The center is located inside the old kosher butchers’ synagogue [some synagogues were known according to the dominant trade members who attended]. When the rabbi was on vacation, the dock workers’ synagogue collapsed, and by pure luck no one was killed, Verkhovsky tells The Report.
That’s when the government gave the Jews of Odessa another old synagogue, which had been known as the tailors’ synagogue because it was involved in donating clothes to the needy. That synagogue, built in 1893, was later used as a Jewish workers’ club and storage space, but by 1992, the roof had caved in and all the windows were broken. Still, prayers started right away in the building while it was still being renovated, according to Boleslav Kapulkin, the spokesman for Chabad in Odessa.
Today, the synagogue, which is run by Chabad, welcomes hundreds of Jews on holidays, publishes a newspaper, runs Jewish schools in five neighborhoods of the city, and even has a Jewish orphanage.
The orphanage shelters 40 boys and girls, including children from wartorn eastern Ukraine. Other children lost their parents to drug use, and some even came from a family where the father murdered their mother, an orphanage worker said. Chabad also has a free cafeteria.
With the recent devaluation of the Ukrainian currency (the exchange rate has fallen from eight hryvnia to a US dollar in 2014 to 22 hryvnia to a dollar today) – many Odessa residents are struggling. After a recent lunch at Chabad, for example, one middle-aged woman gathered the remains of the meal and slipped everything quietly into plastic bags to bring home.
In addition to Chabad, there is a second Orthodox congregation in Odessa, housed inside a 19th century synagogue that was used as a gymnasium during Soviet times.
That synagogue serves the Lithuanian community.
MANY PEOPLE believe that after the fall of the Soviet Union, practically all of Odessa’s Jews emigrated. Yet, Kapulkin estimates the Jewish population in the city at between 30,000 and 40,000. That compares to the 1980s when there were 120,000 Jews in Odessa. Some of the remaining Jews never left the city – whether because of attachment to elderly parents or the love for their motherland.
Quite a few others returned after emigrating and a third group, Kapulkin tells The Report, are people who only recently discovered that they are Jewish.
“Many people hid their Jewishness before.
The Lubavitcher rebbe said there were 12 million Jews (in the USSR), but officially there were only two million.
The lost 10 million keep appearing,” Kapulkin says. “People come from Russian or Ukrainian families, but they bring documents from which we see that their grandma or great-grandma was Jewish.”
Odessa’s Jewish community, he says, is the second largest in Ukraine – after Kiev – and one of the largest in the former Soviet Union. This is so despite the fact that the war with Russia has started a new wave of immigration to Israel.
What will be the fate of the Brodska synagogue? Several organizations – including a reform synagogue from Kiev and Chabad – are interested in taking over the building, but others are skeptical whether the old synagogue will ever be fixed.
“Who is going to have the money to renovate that building?” Verkhovsky asks, as she smokes a cigarette in her unheated office – an old synagogue that was used by the KGB before it was returned to the Jewish community. Given the condition of the building, renovations could cost as much as $15 million.
“I know what will happen,” she says.
“The building will collapse and they’ll build a new synagogue.”
How I found my great-grandmother
WHILE VISITING Odessa, I decided to look up my great-grandmother who died in childbirth in the 1930s, when my grandmother was a schoolgirl. All I knew about her was her name, and that she was a doctor who lived in Odessa.
Amazingly, an archive worker helped me scan through the files of the Odessa Medical Institute to find a document with my great-grandmother’s name – R.L. Barshah.
The next day, I held in my hands a cardboard folder from August 1917.
On the cover, my great-grandmother’s name was handwritten in pre-revolutionary Russian script: Rivka Barshah.
Inside was my great-grandmother’s birth certificate from 1895, stamped by a rabbi in a Ukrainian town that none of us had ever heard of; three photographs of her as a schoolgirl and her transcript, and a college application she wrote almost 100 years ago.
My grandmother was blown away when she received my email with the photographs of her mother she had never seen what her mother looked like as a young woman.