Walking in My Family’s Footsteps: Odessa, a city important in Jewish history

Walking in My Family’s Footsteps: Odessa, a city important in Jewish history

Odessa’s Opera House is a famous and much-loved landmark.
(Photo by Michael Geller/JDC)
Odessa’s Opera House is a famous and much-loved landmark. (Photo by Michael Geller/JDC)

Since the Ukrainian-Russian crisis broke out last year, I have often thought of Odessa.

You may love it or dislike it, but no other city in Russia resembles Odessa, this cosmopolitan city in the Ukraine that some refer to as “Little Paris.”

It has been in and out of the news due to the conflict over Crimea. There have been deaths, demonstrations and fighting between those supporting Ukraine and those backing Russia and separatists. Yet, the city is, as the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel put it, “the most charming … of the Russian Empire.”

Babel, a native son, also wrote that the port was a city in which an individual can “live free and easy,” because the Jews make up nearly half the population. In his words, the town was “the star of exile.”

Odessa remains at the heart of Russian culture. One need go no further than Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). “And so I lived a while in Odessa,” wrote Pushkin.

All my life I had an idea that I would be going to Odessa, part of Ukraine since 1954 and formerly part of the former Soviet Union. My family came from this city on the Black Sea, and it certainly is a tourist attraction. When the time came to research the city for my historical novel, “Klara’s Journey,” based on a story of my aunt and her sisters, including my mother, Sonya, who lived on Proharovskaya Street in Odessa and later settled in Pittsburgh, I flew there with great anticipation and excitement.

To feel the charm of Odessa, I walk the city streets and admire the buildings designed in Neoclassic architectural style, including the still-standing, yellow-and-white local mansions, many of which display a Mediterranean theme.

And I note that about a million people, 62 percent Ukrainian and about 30 percent ethnic Russians, occupy this transport hub. I move along Primorsky Boulevard to Nikolaevsky Boulevard to inhale the spicy aroma of the acacias hanging over the city’s busy harbor as well as the famous 240 Odessa Steps, which were reduced to 192.

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, 200 years ago, served as governor of Odessa. Now, the stone duke points at all those arriving to his beloved city.

I head along Deribasovskaya Street, through crowded seas of pedestrians. 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. The city is home to the renowned Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater and 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 from and/or lived in this port and other towns in the Ukraine. Among them: Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky, Mendele Mocher Seforim, Sholem Aleichem, Joseph Trumpeldor, Ahad Ha’am, Leon Pinsker, Menachem Mendel Ussishkin and Meir Dizengoff.

Odessa also was a city of the enlightenment and one of the largest centers of the Zionist movement, a city from which thousands of Jews, including David Ben-Gurion, began their journey to Israel. The past always haunts the Jewish people: the pogroms, the anti-Semitism that exists in Ukraine, Russia and throughout Europe. Nearly 100,000 Odessa Jews were slaughtered by Germans and Romanians during World War II.

Odessa, which before the fall of communism was home to some 70,000 Jews, now has 30,000 Jews, approximately 3 percent of the overall population.

Some Jews support the Ukrainian government and some back Russia in the current conflict that has been going on for about a year and a half. Recent weeks have seen fresh attempts to resolve the conflict; a weak truce is holding. But the bulk of the Odessa Jews lie low for now. According to news reports, no one is panicking. Many have decided to stay, though aliyah from all Ukraine amounted to 1,971 individuals in the first quarter of 2015 compared with 625 in the first three months of 2014 — a 215 percent leap.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has aided Odessa’s Jews through its Hesed Center since the early 1990s and is continuing to provide assistance to elderly and homeless.

Odessa boasts an active Jewish community that sponsors a dozen synagogues and prayer houses, a Jewish museum, a number of organizations and the Beit Grand Jewish Community Center, which opened in 2008. The three-story building at 77/79 Nezhinskaya St. was officially dedicated in 2010 by the JDC and the Odessa Jewish community. Housed here are Hesed, a kindergarten and Hillel as well as an extensive library, community gym and a theater hall.

The Migdal JCC, at 46a Malaya Arnautskaya St., operates more than 100 programs in various areas of Jewish life for different ages, including the Mazel Tov Center for Young Families. It is the home of the first Jewish library to open in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union and boasts a collection of more than 10,000 books. JDC is Migdal’s primary sponsor.

Three religious communities function in Odessa. The Chabad Central Synagogue of Odessa during Soviet times was used as a warehouse by the KGB. Standing tall is the renovated Great Synagogue of Odessa, now called the Main Synagogue of Odessa and located on Yevreyskaya Street (which means “Jewish Street”); during Soviet times, this house of worship was made into a sports facility. Each of these synagogues maintains a religious Jewish school. ORT sponsors a more secular Jewish school.

A Reform movement functions in Odessa. The group holds activities and programs, including a Sunday school, at Nina Onilova Street, 16.

Undoubtedly, Odessa will heal its wounds, and more tourists will flock there. Until then, many will remember her as a city of sun, sea and love.

Ben G. Frank is the author of “Klara’s Journey,” “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” and “A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.”