Think
March 2020

My Day in Odessa

Exploring the Past & Present Culture of Jews in Ukraine

By Anna Romenenko

“It is hard to overestimate the contribution of Odessa Jews to the world Jewish history. Walking through the streets of any Israeli city you will find that many of them are named after famous Zionists, Jewish writers, historians or political activists, who come from Odessa.”

I read these words in the Migdal-Shorashim Museum, dedicated to Jews and the Jewish culture which at one time was ubiquitous in Ukraine. It was a revelation to me, as I wandered the streets of Odessa, how much my country had given, and been given, to and by the proliferation and decimation of Jewish culture in the area.

After the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, with his Jewish heritage, the media discussed the loyalty of Ukrainian society to Jews and how their life could change. I heard and read a lot in the media about this culture, but I wanted to learn more about the history of Ukrainian Jews and see how they live now. Since Odessa has always been the center of Jewish culture in Ukraine, I went there.

Odessa, on the Black Sea coast, is home to the largest seaport in the country and is famous for its Jewish culture. The history of the Jews of Odessa begins even before the founding of the city itself. According to historical sources, Jews settled in the Turkish fortress Hadzhibey, located on the territory of the future Odessa, from the middle of the 18th century. In 1794 (the year Odessa was founded), the Jewish population made up ten percent of all inhabitants and the institutions necessary for a Jewish life were coming into focus.

At the beginning of the 19th century, during the time of “port-free” and the prosperity of Odessa, more and more Jews, including the Hasidim, led by Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria, settled here. At that time, the city held 7 synagogues and 45 houses of worship, 2 large, citywide Jewish charitable institutions, 89 educational institutions and 200 cheders (primary schools), and 5 significant Jewish professional mutual aid societies. In 1886, the future spiritual leader of the Bnei Moshe society and one of the founders of the Zionist movement, Ahad-Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg), an outstanding publicist, writer, and thinker, who had a great influence on the work of the poet Haim-Nachman, settled in Odessa. He was joined by other early proponents of the movement including M. Lilienblum and Pinsker along with world known Zionist leaders V. Jabotinsky, M. Usyshkin, M. Dizengoff and others, who all spent their days in Odessa.

Professor Steven J. Zipperstein considered the Odessa Jewish community the “most modern in the Pale of Settlement,” the most “cultivated” in Europe, and the most fully reflecting the experience of Jews in Ukraine in those days. Several Jewish newspapers and magazines were published here, in which many well-known journalists, writers, and historians collaborated. For instance, writers like H. Bialik and S. Chernihovsky made their homes in Odessa and Mendele Mocher Sforim, one of the founders of modern Yiddish literature, moved to the city in 1881 and worked there as a writer until 1917. In fact, by the end of the 19th century, Jews made up about 35% of the city’s population, and in the 1900-1910s, Odessa became the third largest city in the world in terms of Jewish population (after New York and Warsaw). Now, however, with a population of 1 million inhabitants, just over 13 thousand Jews remain.

To immerse myself in the Jewish culture of Odessa, after getting off the train, I went to the Jewish quarter and asked if someone could offer me a room for a one-night stay. Quickly, one married couple, Rosa and Ivan, offered, with pleasure, to let me stay in their house, which was located not far from the synagogue, in an authentic Odessa courtyard. Since I only had a day, I started my study of Jewish Odessa immediately. Listening to the advice of my hosts, I went straight to the Migdal-Shorashim Museum, which explores the History of Odessa Jews.

Despite its small size, the Migdal-Shorashim Museum, which opened in 2002, is one of the most respected in Ukraine. For me though, particular charm is given by the fact that the museum is located in an apartment. Thus, you completely feel this unique atmosphere, the feeling of immersion in another reality, another time. Eight exhibition halls/rooms demonstrate different aspects of the Jewish diaspora of the city. The museum contains about 14,000 items (documents, photographs, books, newspapers, postcards, religious and household items, musical instruments, works of art, etc.), most of which are “family foundations,” personal belongings of Odessa families, donated to the museum. This leads to the non-linear nature of the exposition: family stories connect different historical periods and geographical spaces. Among the donors are ordinary residents of Odessa, including those who now live abroad but keep their love for their native city, as well as many famous cultural figures and collectors.

I decided to continue my education at the Jewish Cultural Center located in the next building. The “Beit Grand,” as it is known, has many interesting things, including one you won’t find anywhere else in Ukraine – Krav Maga. Krav Maga is an Israeli Special Forces combat system that is only taught here. The Center also has its own theatre, drawing studios, rhythms, language studies, and exhibitions. Every week, moviegoers gather to discuss relevant films. A recent topic included the Hollywood tragicomedy Everything Is Illuminated, which starred Elijah Wood and was shot in Odessa with Ukrainian actors.

The grounds of the cultural center is also home to the Chabad-Or Avner Jewish Day School. “Not a single student in our school has moved to Hogwarts!” One of the teachers told me. “Because it is better with us!” In fact, this is part of a complete educational complex, consisting of kindergartens and schools located in different areas of the city. In addition, the prestigious South Ukrainian Jewish University “Chabad-Odessa” is part of the system and offers free studies to Jewish students.

When I was full of spiritual food, I needed a snack. I wanted to try some Jewish cuisine and for advice, I went back to the property owner who had guided me so well earlier. “You can try Jewish classical cuisine only at our place,” Rosa replied and asked me to stay for lunch. Hummus, Muhammara surrounded by chunks of fresh pita, and gefilte fish – all of which I tried for the first time and was very pleased. Moreover, the hospitality of the people and their stories about life, especially about the Holocaust, left a mark in my memory. It so happened that Ivan’s parents were victims of the Holocaust, so this topic was especially painful for them.

I decided, in memory of the victims of fascism, to go to the Odessa Holocaust Museum. I understood the importance of visiting this place, to see with my own eyes the documents of that terrible era, and to hear the stories of those who survived the Nazi occupation. On October 17, 1941, four thousand Jews were hanged and a week later, on October 23, came the “Black Day” of “Jewish Odessa” – the mass destruction of about one hundred thousand civilians. In total, more than a quarter million Jews from Odessa ghetto of Slobodka and its surroundings were exterminated. Interestingly, all of this occurred while Ukraine was under Romanian control.

The museum is located next to Prokhorovsky Square, from where this terrible “road of death,” to the camps began. In the center of the square, there is a monument to these victims of the Holocaust created by sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. A little further away, a modest memorial sign containing names and a grove of trees has been planted to honor the righteous who contributed to the hiding and rescue of Odessa Jews.

It was getting dark and the museums were closing, but my walk around Odessa did not end. Further, along the Jewish quarter, I decided to go to the Synagogue. For me, a person unfamiliar with Jewish culture, the scale and architecture of the building was impressive. The large and solid two-story building and the stained-glass windows, located on either side of the aron kodesh, depicting the symbols of the 12 tribes of Israel, was breathtaking.

In the evening, a home-made Jewish dinner was waiting for me. In the morning, I would leave and I understood that one day to get around and get to know all the sights is not enough. Nevertheless, for myself, after such a journey, Odessa opened for me anew. Turns out, Odessa owes the Jewish people. Much that the Odessa Jews did, were done for the first time in Ukraine. In healthcare, the first vaccine against plague and cholera and the first ambulance station were created by Jews. Jews created the Odessa language, Odessa cuisine, Odessa literature, and many Odessa traditions.

A note at the Migdal-Shorashim Museum summed it up for me: Despite the fact that Odessa’s Jewish population continued to dwindle, reduced down to 20% from the 1950-80s, the overall influence of Odessa’s Jewish community on developments in science, arts, and the overall culture of the city is immeasurable. Starting with the 1960s, we can observe the growth of the Jewish resistance movement in Odessa, otherwise known as the struggle of the refusniks. Alongside these events in the city, and the later developments of perestroika, Jewish migration out of the USSR and the simultaneous rebirth and revival of the Jewish community, the 1990s period in post-Soviet Odessa was defined.

Hence, as the owners of the apartment said, the Odessa cunning, unique intonations, sometimes-irrepressible frugality, and the ability to succeed… are all thanks to the Jews. In addition, it seemed to me that the Jews also had the quality to survive in any conditions, under any regimes, supporting each other in every way – this quality needs to be learned by everyone.

I was invited to come and stay again, for a longer time. Ivan and Rosa promised to take me to Jewish historical places outside Odessa and really want to introduce me to their son. I will definitely return. If nothing else, I learned I have much more to learn.

Jewish Cultural center of Odessa.

The Holocaust memorial in Prokhorovska Park, Odessa.

Migdal-Shorashim Museum sign.

Display of artifacts of Jewish life in Odessa at the Migdal-Shorashim Museum.

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