The city of my ancestors’ dreams

A CITY WITH A COLORFUL HISTORY SECOND TO NONE

There are 10,000 cities on Planet Earth (defined as urban centers with a population of 50,000 or greater). But the names of only a relative handful come readily to mind. The biggest ones, of course: Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, New York, Mexico City, and perhaps a couple of dozen others. Some are memorable for other reasons: Geneva, Venice, Berkeley, Salzburg. Odessa falls into that second category. It’s not large as cities go, with a population of only about 1.2 million. But this is a city with an outsized reputation.

ODESSA: GENIUS AND DEATH IN A CITY OF DREAMS BY CHARLES KING (2011) 337 PAGES ★★★★★

Placing Odessa in its geographical context is essential to understanding the history Charles King relates in this fascinating book. Image: Britannica

A STORIED AND TRAGIC HISTORY

In his treatment of Odessa’s epic history, King traces the antecedents of the modern city from the era of the Tatars and Genghis Khan. He follows the site’s transformation from a tiny village on the shore of the Black Sea into a bustling, planned town during the reign of Catherine the Great and her successors, and later into the fourth largest city of Imperial Russia during the 19th century. Its population topped 400,000 by the beginning of the 20th century. But the focus of this book is the history of the city’s Jews, who constituted as many as one-third of its inhabitants by the year 1900. And their fate reflected the rise of virulent antisemitism and its genocidal expression in the Holocaust that followed. It’s no surprise that Odessa won a National Jewish Book Award.

THE ROOTS OF ANTISEMITISM

In the 1870s and 80s, Odessa became “the site of the first large-scale pogroms in modern Russian history.” But why? And why then? King offers a partial explanation. “Jews did not dominate economic life overall, given the city’s reliance on shipping and agricultural output, areas in which Christian proprietors and producers still held pride of place. But their role tended to be public, prominent, and precisely in those spheres where they and Odessa’s newer immigrants were in most direct contact. Given state-imposed restrictions on landownership and access to particular professions, Jews were naturally concentrated in the roles still open to them by law and convention.”

AN ECONOMIC EXPLANATION?

“By the beginning of the 1880s,” King writes, “Jews accounted for two-thirds of the city’s registered merchants and traders, nearly three-fourths of the innkeepers and proprietors of public houses, and two-thirds of veterinarians and pharmacists. By contrast, Christians made up over 80 percent of he city’s workers, including some three-fourths of the workforce employed in Jewish factories.” And it was those workers, egged on by antisemitic Orthodox priests and officials and protected by the police, who perpetrated the recurrent rampages through Jewish shops and homes. In King’s view, envy, frustration, and anger over the unfairness of life as well as religious motives and official encouragement nurtured the roots of antisemitism.

This still shot from Sergei Eisenstein’s classic 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin, has served as the iconic image of Odessa. In reality, the events depicted here purporting to represent the 1905 Revolution never happened. Despite later acclaim, the film did poorly at the box office, since many Soviet people thought it was a documentary, and they were sick of the civil war that had ended only a few years earlier. Image: ObjectsInFilm

THE HOLOCAUST IN ODESSA

When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941, Odessa’s population stood at roughly 600,000, of whom some 180,000, or 30 percent, were Jews. According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, “At least half of the city’s Jewish population had fled Odessa before Axis troops surrounded the city. Between 80,000 and 90,000 Jews remained in Odessa after the Romanian occupation.” Because it was not the Germans but their Romanian allies who laid siege to the city and later subjugated it. And by the time the Soviet Army liberated Odessa in April 1944, the Jews were all either dead or imprisoned in concentration camps.

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