Odessa: The Star of Exile

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.

Odessa370 (photo credit: courtesy )
(photo credit: courtesy )
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.
Isaac Babel, (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.”
And so, 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 Mediterranean theme.
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 city.
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 not always.
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 destroyed.
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.
The incident 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 poet.
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.
Historian Isaiah 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 Odessa.
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 Russian writer.
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 “rehabilitated.”
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.
The poem 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 place.”
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 million residents.
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 death.
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 sponsor.
Nearby is the Museum of History of Odessa Jews, Migdal Shorashim, which is open to city residents and last year celebrated its 10th anniversary.
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.
Each of 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.
Undoubtedly, 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 Pequot Press).