Author Charles King provides a virtual tour of the subject of his latest book, the Black Sea port town of Odessa.
In my new book, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, I show how a city that was home to one of the largest and most famous Jewish communities in Europe ended up destroying itself during World War II. (Read Timothy Snyder's Odessa review for the WQ here.) It’s a story that, until now, has been largely buried in dusty government archives half a world away. But it is a story that lives on in Odessa’s worldwide diaspora of Jews, Russians, and Ukrainians and such places as the “Little Odessa” of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Here are a few images that hint at Odessa’s complicated history.
To understand the tragedy of the 1940s, you have to go back into Odessa’s history. At the beginning of the 20th century, Odessa was the Russian empire’s most important commercial port. People made immense fortunes from shipping and the wheat trade. The city’s vibrant local culture—woven from its mixed Russian, Jewish, Italian, and Greek heritage—made it a legend not just in Russia but around the world.
Two people created the most memorable images of this remarkable city: Isaac Babel (left) and Sergei Eisenstein (right). Babel, the great Russian-Jewish writer, crafted artful stories about Odessa’s underworld, a realm of criminal hucksters, corrupt cops, and political agitators. Babel himself fell victim to the attacks on writers and artists organized by Joseph Stalin. But his vision of Odessa’s culture—secretive and suspicious but also multicultural—determined the way that generations of Odessans and outsiders thought about the city.
In addition to Babel, there was Sergei Eisenstein, who directed the 1925 feature film Battleship Potemkin. The film encapsulated Odessa’s long history of rebellion and disorder, but it put a new gloss on it. In Eisenstein’s version, Odessa was the birthplace of the Russian revolution. A naval mutiny in 1905 paved the way for the coming of the Bolsheviks. Eisenstein’s scene of a baby carriage bumping down Odessa’s long outdoor staircase in the midst of an army assault is still the most copied scene in film history (have a look at Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables).
When World War II started, Odessa found itself on the frontlines. Located in the western Soviet Union, it was one of the first cities attacked by Hitler’s forces when they invaded Stalin’s territory in the summer of 1941. With a population that was then one-third Jewish, Odessa also became a locus for the Nazi policy of eliminating Europe’s Jews. But there was a twist: Odessa was occupied not by Nazi Germany but by its ally, Romania. Hitler allowed Romanian forces to enter the city and transform it into the capital of a new province called Transnistria. A portrait of Ion Antonescu, who ruled Romania during the war, occupied a prime place in the Odessa chambers of Transnistria's governor, Gheorghe Alexianu, pictured at his desk.
Alexianu (pictured far right), a former professor, took charge of wartime Odessa. His task was not only to rebuild the city, which had been severely damaged during the siege of 1941, but also to eliminate the tens of thousands of Jews who were still living there. Under his leadership, Jews were rounded up, confined to ghettos, and then deported to camps elsewhere in Transnistria.
In all, more than 200,000 Jews perished in areas controlled by Romania.
But the Romanians didn’t do this alone. In the archives, you can find hundreds of pages of letters sent by average Odessans to the occupation authorities. The smell of old tobacco wafts up from the onion-skin writing paper. The ink has bled through to the other side, and the pages are torn and crinkled along the edges. They look like old love letters from the front of some war, wisps of the past that might crumble in your hands or blow away in a stiff wind. But they’re letters of denunciation: of neighbors by neighbors, of bosses by employees, of principals by schoolteachers. Some are the work of paid agents who scoured the city for news of hidden Jews. When I read through these files a year ago for research for my book, I had to stop to take a deep breath every few lines. It was shocking to see a multicultural city implode right before my eyes, through words that floated up from Odessa’s darkest days.
The war led to the elimination of Odessa’s Jewish community. At the beginning of the war there were around 200,000 Jews in Odessa. Many of them escaped before the Romanian army entered the city in the fall of 1941. These families were evacuated by the Soviets to other parts of Ukraine, Russia, or as far afield as Central Asia, where they remained safely behind the front lines. But around 70,000 to 80,000 Jews either chose or were forced to remain behind. They were the targets of expulsion and execution over the next three years. When the Soviet army returned in the spring of 1944 (pictured above), they found 48 Jews left in the city—just 48 people out of a once-thriving community that numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
Jews returned to Odessa after the war, but the community never recovered its prewar vibrancy. Once they had the chance to leave the Soviet Union, many Jews—and other Odessans—sought new lives abroad. Beginning in the 1970s, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, became the epicenter of the worldwide Odessan diaspora. When you walk along Brighton Beach Avenue, you can get something of the feel of Odessa. The sea air, axle grease from the overhead railway, and various forms of fried dough and boiled cabbage give you a sense of how much the new “Little Odessa” has in common with its mother city.
Odessa itself is still a great place to visit. Many of the 19th century buildings and streets have been restored. These include the rotund, ornate opera house as well as the famous “Odessa steps” that lead from the city center down to the port. But you can’t help thinking about the bigger themes in Odessa’s history: how fragile social order can be, how a great city can sink to its knees in a time of war, and how violence is often a shockingly intimate affair.
Photo credits: Photo 5: from the State Archives of the Odessa Region; Photo 9: Brighton Beach by Axel Drainville via flickr; Photo 10: Odessa Opera House by Vanessa Bertozzi via flickr.