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Brittle Odessa

Cosmopolitan yet barbarous, Jew-filled and Jew-free, remote but central—a new history explores the Black Sea port city’s many contradictions

Wesley Yang
February 24, 2011
Soviet tourism poster for Odessa.(Boston Public Library)
Soviet tourism poster for Odessa.(Boston Public Library)

How many ways can you say “They killed everybody”? Historians have measured with increasing meticulousness the degrees of eagerness or reticence, popular fervor or bureaucratic discipline, with which the various regions of Europe collaborated in the murder of their Jews during the Second World War. Sometimes they outstripped their Nazi occupiers in the zeal with which they killed. Sometimes they merely acquiesced in the roundup of every man, woman, and child of Jewish ancestry they could find. A few places defied or obstructed the machinery of death.

Odessa was not one of those places. No surprises here: The city had distinguished itself, in 1905, as the site of the deadliest pogrom in Russian history. Its inhabitants, as Charles King observes in his survey of that remarkable city’s wonderful, horrible life, also acquired the habit, under Soviet rule, of tattling to the secret police. After the Romanians and Germans rolled into town in 1941 and the Romanians set themselves up as the new bosses, the language you would use to denounce your real and imagined enemies changed (where once the Jewish merchant was a capitalist expropriator, now your Jewish neighbors were crypto-Communist subversives), but “the paranoia, the self-serving indictments, and the mania for unmasking, exposing, and rooting out potential enemies of the state,” remained the same.

King quotes a series of these denunciations, which document the demented projection that allowed victimizers to cast themselves as righteous victims. “I would like to bring to your attention,” wrote one Valery Tkachenko, “that in the basement of 13 Tiraspol Street a group of yids get together and discuss political issues, and they say that the Romanians and the Germans are drinking our blood by the glassful but that we will drink theirs by the bucketful.”

The destruction of the Jews of Odessa, and in the Romanian-occupied region of Transnistria of which it was a part, executed through “mass shootings with rifles and machines guns, immolation with blazing oil and gas, and the bombing of buildings packed with Jewish citizens,” wasn’t even one of the primary goals of the occupiers. The Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu refused Nazi orders to deport Romanian Jews to the concentration camps and killing factories of Poland and Lithuania. He did this even as his brutal campaign of counter-insurgent pacification in the formerly Russian lands he controlled erased the distinction between partisan and Jew, yielding “the largest wartime program of planned killing committed by a country other than Nazi Germany.”

To the victims of Romanian terror, these contrasting motives and means are a distinction without a difference. But it meant in practice that the scale of killing of Transnistrian Jews was “orders of magnitudes” smaller than in other parts of German-occupied Eastern Europe. Where 90 percent of the Jews in some areas of German occupation were killed, 40 percent of Jews under Romanian occupation died. But between the killing, expulsions, and those who fled in advance of the invasion, the Romanians left the city of Odessa, where one out of every three residents had been a Jew, entirely Judenrein. Soviet officials counted 48 Jews living there in 1944.

Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams traces the familiar trajectory whereby a “mixed and rambunctious city” situated on the periphery of the old world’s great multinational empires splinters into genocidal faction on its path to modernity. After a long detour into political extremism and massacre that left it free of its Jews, the city found itself stripped of its roiling diversity and aching for the memory of what its Jewish spirit, now long snuffed out, had meant. It is a carefully judicious work that indulges in nostalgia for the lost world even as it identifies the dark undercurrents that portended the loss of the delicate equilibrium once maintained by that “island of difference perched between sea and steppe,” that teetered “between genius and devastation.”

King waxes lyrical over the “golden thread that bound Odessa’s quilt-like population together,” in the 19th century, creating a special Odessan identity based on a shared marginality. In Odessa, one became “a progressive Jew as opposed to a traditionalist, a German farmer on the far-flung Eurasian steppe rather than the floodplains of Northern Europe, a free-holding peasant working one’s own land rather than toiling exclusively for a distant noble landlord; a Greek or Italian, clinging to the same seacoast once visited by ancient Aegean seaman and medieval Genoese merchants.”

The city prospered hugely as “the breadbasket for much of the Western world” but also played host to a demimonde seething with “criminality, disease, conspiracy, and revolution.” It was incubator to the maskilim, exponents of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, which eschewed the self-imposed insularity of traditional Jewish life, but also to the “culture of self-confident thievery” chronicled in Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales. The “preeminent port of the Yiddish speaking world” was home to “a special community of progressive, optimistic, and economically successful Jews,” who were never confined to a single neighborhood prior to the fascist occupation, but also to the machinations of one of the sons of the city’s Jewish middle class, Lev Bronstein, later known by his nom de guerre, Leon Trotsky, apostle of permanent class warfare.

The easily penetrated port, with its notoriously corrupt customs officials, was a congenial operating base for Greek, Italian, Russian, and Ukrainian nationalists, who taught an attentive Jewish journalist—Vladimir Jabotinsky—that “the veneers offered by assimilation, imperialism, and cosmopolitanism could not disguise the age-old yearning for nations to express their own unique genius.” Jabotinsky would become the champion of the “right wing, antisocialistic, militaristic, and uncompromising commitment to a Jewish homeland on both banks of the Jordan River.” Though Ben-Gurion reviled Jabotinsky as “Vladimir Hitler,” today his vision is part of the Israeli mainstream. “I learned how to be a Zionist from the gentiles,” he wrote.

When the Jews were free to leave post-Soviet Odessa, most of them did. They left behind a city that had, by means of popular movies and songs, become “an object of schmaltzy and melodic longing.” Decades of propagandistic history had effaced the collective memory of what the Romanians had done to the Jews, with the help of native Odessans. The exuberant, ribald Jewish heritage of that city was “celebrated mainly in code,” King writes, “in countless stories, novels, plays, films, jokes books, concerts, musicals and other ribaldries”—that evaded the fact that it “had been actively erased in the living memory of those who now sought to re-create it.”

Their survivors and descendants were elsewhere—in many cases, at the far end of the Q line in Brooklyn. King closes his book with a Proustian evocation of the “fishy sea air, a whiff of old cooking oil, the sweetness of overripe fruit, dark traces of motor oil and axle grease, the tang of dill and parsley, the alcoholic sting of cheap perfume, and the assertive revival of vintage sweat, all braided like a garland of garlic, silent as to source or cause,” that greets the olfactory apparatus of the visitor to Brighton Beach, also known as “Little Odessa by the Sea.”

Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.

Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.