The Jewish Heart Longs for Odessa
Since the Ukrainian-Russian crisis broke out earlier this year, I have often thought about Odessa on the Black Sea, which some refer to as “Little Paris.” Even though it has been in and out of the news in recent days, the city is, as the great Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel put it: “the most charming …of the Russian Empire.”
Babel, a native son, also wrote that it was a city in which an individual could “live free and easy,” because of the Jews who made up nearly half the population. In his words, the town was “The Star of Exile.”
I guess I fell in love with Odessa for two reasons: I am the son of an Odessa momma, and I feel at home in seaside cities. You may love it or dislike it, but no other city in Russia resembles Odessa, this cosmopolitan Ukrainian town.
Odessa remains at the heart of Russian culture. One need to go no further than Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, (1799-1837). “And so I lived a while in Odessa,” wrote Pushkin.
Ironically Russians and Ukrainians often laugh about this city, which was founded on the site of a 15th century Tartar settlement. “It’s the way they speak the language,” say the critics, referring to their intonation and funny stories.
All my life I had an idea that I would go to Odessa, Ukraine, formerly part of the former Soviet Union. After all, my family came from this city on the Black Sea and as a travel writer, it certainly is a tourist attraction. So when the time came to research the city for my historical novel, “Klara’s Journey,” (Marion Street Press), I flew there with great anticipation and excitement. I was not disappointed.
To really feel the charm of Odessa, I walk the city streets and admire the buildings designed in neo-classic architectural style, including the still-standing, attractive, yellow-and-white local mansions, many of which display a Mediterranean theme.
As I walk about the city, I note that approximately a million people, nearly 60% Ukrainian and 30% ethnic Russians, occupy this transport hub. I move along Primorsky Blvd. to Nikolaevsky Blvd. to inhale the “spicy aroma of the acacias” hanging over the city’s busy harbor as well as the famous 240 Odessa steps. Incidentally, the number of steps have been reduced to 192 and a street now separates them from the port.
At the top of the steps stands the statue of the Duc de Richelieu clad in a Roman toga. He is the French émigré who, two hundred years ago, served as governor of Odessa. Now the “stone duke” points at all those arriving to his beloved city.
So I saunter along frantic Deribasovskaya Street, full of pedestrians; then to majestic and sleepy Pushkin St. 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.
Odessa is considered one of the most important cities in recent Jewish history. Some of the greatest Jewish writers and personalities of the 20th century hailed and/or lived in this port and other towns in the Ukraine. Besides Babel, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky, Mendele Mokher Seforim, Sholom Aleichem, Joseph Trumpeldor, Ahad HaAm, Meir Dizengoff, and David Oistreich.
Odessa also was also “a city of the enlightenment,” and one of the largest centers of the Zionist movement, a city from which thousands of Jews began their journey to the Land of Israel, including David Ben-Gurion. In short, Russian Jewry stood in awe of Odessa.
But the past always haunts the Jewish people: the pogroms, the anti-Semitism that still exists in Ukraine, Russia and throughout Europe. Nearly 100,000 Odessa Jews were slaughtered by Germans and Romanians during World War II.
Today Odessa, which before the fall of Communism contained about 70,000 Jews, now reports only about 30,000 Jews, approximately three percent of the population.
Some Jews support the Ukrainian government and some back Russia. But the bulk of the Odessa Jews, for now “lie low,” and, according to news reports, no one is panicking. Many have decided to stay, though aliyah from all Ukraine has reached between 500 and 1,000 in 2014.
Jewish visitors will find the city boasts at least a dozen synagogues and prayer houses, a Jewish museum, a number of Jewish organizations, and a JCC. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is also present. Since the early 1990s, it has aided Odessa’s Jews through its Hesed Center, and is continuing to provide assistance to elderly and homebound Jews during the crisis.
Undoubtedly Odessa will heal its wounds and tourists will return as usual. Until then, many will remember her as a city of “sun, sea and love.” As one travel agent put it, “It’s Odessa for God’s sake.”
Ben G. Frank, journalist, travel writer, is the author of the just-published “Klara’s Journey, A Novel,”(Marion Street Press) and “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond,” (Globe Pequot Press); Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com, Twitter @bengfran