Founded in 1794 on land conquered from the Turks on the site of the Black Sea fortress town of Khadzhibei, Odessa received its name the following year. Within a few decades it was already a sizable city and soon commanded an international reputation as the preeminent Russian grain-exporting center. However, it would retain the aura of a new place: transitory, irreverent, neither cosmopolitan nor urbane.
Boulevard Liestnitsa (now Potemkin Stairway), Odessa, nineteenth century. (Slavic and Baltic Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
Odessa slid into second-rank economic standing in the late imperial period. Marginalized geographically and never prominent as an industrial center, the city languished during the Soviet period. Nonetheless, even in economic decline, it exerted a sustained and far-reaching impact, both domestically and abroad, on music (classical and popular, especially jazz), film, theater (especially comedy), and—until the consolidation of Stalinism in the early 1930s—journalism and fiction. In terms of Jewish history, Odessa was arguably most important in the late imperial period, when it was home to many of Jewry’s most prominent nationalist writers and intellectuals.
Odessa “rose like a mushroom after rain,” as an early writer observed. Its population increased from 4,573 (including 3,182 men) in 1799 to 25,000–30,000 in 1813; totals reached 80,000–90,000 by 1851. It then tripled in size between 1862 and 1892, when its numbers stood at 404,000. By 1892, the city’s 124,511 Jews formed the second-largest group in terms of size and were nearly as numerous as those listed as Russians. From the beginning, Odessa was a multinational city, with substantial numbers of Armenians, Turks, Tatars, Poles, Greeks, and Jews, as well as some French and English.
Under the leadership of a series of energetic, tolerant, and economically progressive administrators (some of whom were foreign-born), Odessa’s economic foundations were established and its port facilities improved. Thanks to its status as a free port (which it retained until 1859), it attracted wealthy foreign merchants and exporters. Its first major cultural institutions were established during the first two decades of the city’s existence, and included an impressive municipal theater whose stage was modeled after that of the Paris Opéra. Full advantage was taken of the beautiful shoreline and other natural wonders. A wide boulevard stood at the edge of the promontory overlooking the Black Sea. In the city center, streets were well laid out and lined with acacias.
Only a handful of Jews lived in Khadzhibei; the oldest extant local headstone dates to 1770. By 1794, though, the community had a synagogue (subsidized by local authorities), a burial society, a Talmud Torah, a hekdesh (hospice for the poor), and a kehilah (organized Jewish community structure). Within a few years of the city’s founding, Jews (who numbered 135 in 1797) had been elected to municipal office, setting a pattern—unusual in Russia—that would continue until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Commercial enterprise was encouraged from the outset; indeed, the city may well have been named Odessa to stimulate the settlement of mercantile Greeks.
Négociants et marchands Israélites (Jewish Traders and Merchants). Denis Auguste Marie Raffet. Print depicting Jewish merchants in Odessa, from Voyage dans la Russie by Anatole Demidoff (Paris: Ernest Bourdin, 1840). (Gross Family Collection)
In the next decade, Jews represented the fastest-growing commercial group in the city. Greeks and Italians owned the bulk of the real estate and, until mid-century, dominated the grain trade. By 1851, however, of the 5,466 individuals engaged in trade, 2,907 (53.2%) were Jews (by then, 17,000 Jews lived in the city). Following the Crimean War and its disruptive impact on Black Sea trade, Jews achieved primacy in grain export; by 1875, more than 60 percent of the city’s commercial firms were in Jewish hands. By the early twentieth century, 89 percent of the grain export from Odessa was controlled by Jewish-owned firms, with Jews owning half of the city’s factories and 888 of its 1,410 smaller workshops.
At the core of Odessa Jewry’s commercial and cultural elite in the 1820s were emigrants from Galicia—mostly from Brody—who first opened branch offices and then moved to Odessa, working mainly as middlemen in the grain trade. Some emerged as leading grain exporters. About 300 Galician Jewish families settled in Odessa in the 1820s and 1830s; the Rafalovichs and Efrusis, as well as a small cluster of other families of Galician origin, eventually represented the apex of local commercial life. Galicians soon assumed communal leadership, overseeing local synagogue life and launching the city’s first modern Jewish school. Its director, Betsal’el Stern (appointed in 1829), and many of its first teachers were followers of the Galician Haskalah. Traditional Jews exerted only limited influence: “Seven miles around Odessa burn the fires of Hell,” a saying widely used among Russian Jews, may well have originated as early as the 1820s.
Beginning with the establishment in 1826 of a modern Jewish school for boys, with one for girls following in 1835, and the subsequent consolidation of modernized synagogues in the 1840s and thereafter, Odessa Jewry was recognized as an important center of Russian Jewish institutional innovation; by the 1860s, it was agreed that there was no more influential center within the empire. Odessa was among the first Jewish communities in Russia where synagogue reform was a matter of communal consensus, not debate. Though the interplay of economic, social, and cultural modernization was not altogether unusual in Russian Jewish life, the impact of such forces in Odessa was immeasurably greater than in other cities. The presence of influential Haskalah institutions (schools, synagogues, newspapers and journals, clubs, and, by 1867, the largest branch of the Society for the Promotion of Culture [or Enlightenment] among the Jews of Russia [known by its initials in Russian as the OPE] outside Saint Petersburg) provided substantial ideological buttressing.
Moshe Shertok (second from left), later Moshe Sharett, the second prime minister of the State of Israel, with his parents and sister, Odessa, 1890s. (Beth Hatefutsoth, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv)
In the 1860s, Odessa became the empire’s center for Jewish periodical publication. Razsvet, Sion, and Den’ appeared in Russian-language editions between 1860 and 1871; Ha-Melits and Kol mevaser were issued in Hebrew and Yiddish in the same period. By the late 1860s, major Jewish book publishers opened for business, promoting maskilic books.
Some 2,500 students had graduated from Odessa’s modern Jewish school by 1852. By 1877, at one of the city’s commercial high schools 77.9 percent of students were Jewish; in other schools in the city the number was as high as 71.6 percent, with such rates not infrequently found highest in girls’ schools. As early as the late 1850s, a second generation of Russian-speaking Jews—among them budding writers and physicians—had emerged.
By mid-century, Odessa began to attract some of Russia’s most ambitious Jewish writers in several languages: Hebrew (Simḥah Pinsker, Perets Smolenskin, Eliyah Werbel), French (Joachim Tarnopol), and Russian Jewish (Osip Rabinovich, Menashe Morgulis, Il’ia Orshanskii). Local Jewish-born intellectuals included Mark Wahltuch, who in 1855 published the first Italian translation of Pushkin. Another was Maria Saker, a longtime resident and one of the most innovative liberal Jewish educators in Russia; in 1869 she became the first woman to have her work published in the Russian Jewish press. Yiddish writer Yisroel Aksenfeld, author of Dos shterntikhl (The Headband; 1861), lived in the city from 1824 to 1864. The Yiddish literary luminary Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (who wrote under the name Mendele Moykher-Sforim) lived there for most of his adult life. Yiddish theater was first consolidated in Odessa, with Avrom Goldfadn, a leading pioneer, settling there in 1858 after some years spent in Romania. The Yiddish actor Yankl Adler was born in 1870 into an Odessa grain merchant’s family. Local cabarets staged Yiddish plays. Odessa’s lively bars and public halls influenced the creation and diffusion of klezmer music.
Odessa was a singularly musical place, with its theater and, later, its opera house perhaps its most revered cultural institutions. From the city’s earliest years, Jews made their presence known as devotees of music as well as musicians. Already in the 1830s and 1840s, Jews were attending the theater in large numbers. Local violin teachers attracted many Jewish students early in the century; for example, the careers of Mischa Elman and David Oistrakh were launched there. Cantorial music thrived in this atmosphere, and Odessa’s cantors—notably Pinḥas Minkowski in the years just prior to the revolution—were among the most famous in Russia.
Yiddish writers (left to right) Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), Alter Druyanow, Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Ravnitski, Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, and Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz, Odessa, ca. 1910. (Beit Bialik, Tel Aviv)
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Odessa lost its Jewish press to Saint Petersburg. In addition, many Jewish university students left to attend higher institutions abroad, as a result of quotas introduced under Alexander III. Notwithstanding these losses, the city’s stature as a Jewish intellectual hub was strengthened in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1897, Odessa boasted the second largest Jewish population (after Warsaw) in the empire, numbering 139,984, or 34.6 percent of the city’s total population. Its modern Jewish schools as well as its literary and philanthropic associations attracted maskilim from smaller towns. By late century, it was the home of Ahad Ha-Am, Mosheh Leib Lilienblum, Simon Dubnow, Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Elḥanan Leib Lewinsky, and Yehoshu‘a Ravnitski. However, in Odessa the Enlightenment belief that the prime task was to invigorate Judaism with European norms was viewed—not infrequently by more acculturated, Russified local Jews—as tepid, even passé. Resentment at the hands of local, secularly educated Jews was a key ingredient in the making of the cultural nationalist agendas for which these intellectuals—dubbed “the sages of Odessa”—became best known.
Jewish communal institutional life in Odessa was rich and varied. Wealth, prominence in municipal affairs, geographical distance from traditional Jewish centers, and (eventually) a long history of institutional innovation created a receptive atmosphere. Odessa’s local Talmud Torah (headed for many years by Mendele Moykher-Sforim) was widely lauded. The Jewish hospital (which served non-Jews as well) occupied four city blocks by the turn of the century. The local Jewish clerks’ association boasted one of the finest lending libraries in the Pale of Settlement (its holdings in Hebrew and Yiddish were cataloged by Ahad Ha-Am and Dubnow).
The Odessa branch of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among Jews had between 1,000 and 1,500 members by the turn of the century; its debates concerning prerequisites for modern Jewish culture helped recast the agenda of Russian Jewish life. The artisanal school, Trud, praised throughout the empire, was a model of cutting-edge, technical education. The local club Beseda, started in 1863, was widely viewed as an exemplar for middle-class Jewish conviviality and intellectual discussion.
Activists of He-Ḥaluts, the Zionist pioneering movement, Odessa, 1923. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
Until his death in 1891, the Odessa Committee of Ḥoveve Tsiyon, the nerve center of Russian Zionism, was headed by Leon (Lev) Pinsker, local physician and author of Autoemancipation. Beginning in 1905, it was in the hands of Avraham Menaḥem Mendel Ussishkin. Odessa’s central role in Zionism was consolidated, in part, because it was the main port of exit to the Ottoman Empire and consequently served as the departure point for many Jewish immigrants to Palestine.
Jews held a prominent place among Odessa’s free professionals, especially its doctors. In 1881, half of those who practiced medicine in Odessa—including dentists, midwives, and pharmacists—were Jewish. The city’s Jews also had a major voice in the local Russian press. By the 1890s, two of Odessa’s three dailies were owned by Jews. All three liberal newspapers—Odesskie novosti (by far the most popular among Jewish readers and others), Odesskii listok, and Uzhnoe obozrenie—were staffed by Jewish writers, including the young Vladimir Jabotinsky. Despite the prominence of Jewish nationalists such as Ahad Ha-Am, most members of the local Jewish intelligentsia were acculturated, skeptical of Jewish nationalism, and liberal (or, in some instances, politically radical) in their inclinations. Perhaps the best-known local liberal Jewish voice in the late imperial period was the Cadet leader Osip Pergament. Still, the assimilationist profile of the Jewish community, including its best educated and youngest, should not be exaggerated. In 1911–1912, a mere 34.5 percent of the city’s Jewish students said Russian rather than Yiddish was spoken in their parents’ homes; only 16.1 percent said they had no interest in Jewish matters; and 40.6 percent claimed a good knowledge of Hebrew.
Despite Odessa’s (not wholly undeserved) reputation for comfort, there were numerous poor in this port city. About one-third of the city’s Jews at the turn of the twentieth century registered for Passover relief. Although constituting more than one-third of the city’s population in 1881, Jews owned barely one-eighth of the homes. The Jewish poor were concentrated in the Moldavanka district near the port, an area of unpaved streets that was popularized in the early 1920s in Isaac Babel’s Odessa stories. By the turn of the century, some 26,000 store clerks, including women, worked in Odessa—many of them Jews and nearly all poorly paid. Jews were prominently represented among the city’s underworld. As of 1908, 30 of the 36 licensed brothels in Kherson province—most of them in Odessa—were owned by Jews.
Cantor Pinḥas Minkowski (back row, sixth from right) and the boys’ choir in the Brody synagogue, Odessa, ca. 1910. (YIVO)
Immigrants, both Jewish and non-Jewish, poured into the city in increasingly large numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and found jobs in its numerous workshops and at the port. Odessa was viewed—not without justification—by the government as a center for the smuggling of radical literature; censorship in this remote part of the empire tended to be lax, with illegal literature more accessible. The presence of a large, rootless population with a disproportionate number of men without families, widespread poverty, and the circulation of an ample supply of illegal literature contributed to the growth of political radicalism. Jewish students were prominent in local populist circles in the 1870s, with the Trud school emerging by the 1890s as a magnet for radical politics. The Odessa Committee of the Social Democratic Workers Party, founded in 1894, was made up mostly of Jewish artisans and workers. Concurrent with Odessa’s economic downturn in the late nineteenth century were increases in political tensions and ethnic strife.
Interethnic disagreements frequently erupted in violence. Tension, especially between Greeks and Jews, periodically escalated into pitched battles (in 1821, 1859, and 1871), typically during Easter, a by-product of religious suspicion, nationalist sentiment among Greeks, and competition between the groups in the local grain trade. The 1871 incident, which lasted for three days, was later seen as a precursor to the far more widespread pogroms of 1881. The latter, part of a wave of attacks against Jews in some 200 localities in the southern provinces of the Pale of Settlement, was mostly thwarted in Odessa by local authorities, but the devastating wave of pogroms of 1905 led to the murder of 300 Jews in Odessa, including more than 50 members of Jewish self-defense groups. Tens of thousands of Jews were left homeless.
Jewish self-defense unit during the Russian Civil War, Odessa, 1918. This unit was better organized and had a larger arsenal than most such groups, most of whom did not have uniforms or machine guns. (YIVO)
During the revolution and the civil war, Odessa did not experience widespread violence comparable to that which convulsed much of Ukraine. The city passed back and forth nine times between Russian “Whites,” Ukrainian nationalists, the French, and Communists. Soviet control was consolidated in 1920. Soon Jewish schools, synagogues, and other religious groups, including nearly all non-Bolshevik cultural institutions, were closed. The Evsektsiia and Komsomol waged vigorous campaigns against recalcitrant Hebraists (Bialik and many other leading writers who wrote in Hebrew left Odessa, with official permission, in 1921), as well as against persistent ritual customs such as circumcision.
Between 1917 and 1919—an exceptionally fertile period for Hebrew-language publications in Russia—Odessa had produced 60 percent of all Hebrew books published in Russia and Ukraine. This situation changed rapidly. As of 1923, there were a total of 12 officially sanctioned Yiddish-language schools in Odessa (none in Hebrew). A Jewish vocational school continued to function throughout the 1920s; and despite widespread unemployment, most of the city’s Jews remained concentrated in their standard prerevolution occupations. The city’s many first-rate Jewish libraries were combined into one, the Mendele Moykher-Sforim library. A museum by that name, which opened in Odessa in 1924, closed in 1933. One Yiddish-language newspaper appeared three or four times a week in Odessa as of 1935. As late as 1940, Sha’ul Borovoi, perhaps the last active Jewish historian of Russia, continued laboring in Odessa on an ever-shrinking range of acceptable Jewish scholarly topics; he lived for another four decades, consigning the remainder of Jewish scholarly work to his personal papers.
In 1925, Odessa’s Brody Synagogue was turned into the Rosa Luxemburg Workers Club. This and other workers’ clubs in the 1920s became a focal point for Jewish camaraderie and socialist propaganda. Yiddish theater continued to exist in the city in the 1930s. The city’s Jewish population as of 1939 numbered approximately 180,000.
Toolmaking course at the Agro-Joint Evrabmol trade school, Odessa, USSR, 1934. Evrabmol is a Russian acronym for Jewish Working Youth. (YIVO)
By the 1930s, the city’s Jewish educational system had disappeared, and Jews had lost prominent positions in the city’s bureaucracy. With the exception of the local Yiddish theater, nearly all visible Jewish communal life ceased. Beginning in the mid-1920s and continuing until World War II, most of what had been a variegated, institutionally rich, highly innovative local prerevolutionary Jewish culture was increasingly reduced. Nonetheless, an especially vibrant use of language set Odessa and its Jews apart. A medley of Ukrainian, Russian, and especially Yiddish resonated on the city streets and—as was widely commented upon at the time—in the literary work of Isaac Babel and the songs of Leonid Utesov (L. I. Vaisbein). Both incorporated the mythology of Odessa—its underworld types, debaucheries, and vitality—into their work. Il’ia Il’f and Evgenii Petrov, also from Odessa, drew on this vein of sardonic humor for their popular comic novels Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev (Twelve Chairs; 1928), and Zolotoi telenok (The Little Golden Calf; 1931).
Following a siege lasting two months, on 17 October 1941 the Romanians and Germans occupied Odessa, which was officially declared part of Romanian Transnistria. Jews were immediately registered separately, with some 8,000 slaughtered during the few first days. Many Jews had fled the city during the siege; there were between 80,000 and 90,000 Jews residing there at the time it was invaded. By war’s end, only 5,000 remained alive.
Less than two weeks after the Romanian occupation, approximately 19,000 Jews were burned to death in a square beside the harbor. Thousands were transported to nearby camps in Berezovka, Domanevka, and Bogdanovka. As of late 1941, only 30,000 Jews remained in two ghettos in Odessa; by February 1942 nearly all had been deported and killed. In 1943, just 54 Jews were listed as residing legally in Odessa. Soviet troops recaptured the city on 10 April 1944. Statistics on the city’s immediate postwar population are imprecise, but as many as 180,000 Jews were living in Odessa—the vast majority recent arrivals—as of the late 1950s. In 1970, the Jewish population was officially listed as 116,087, representing 13 percent of the total.
Postwar Odessa was known for its particularly blatant forms of antisemitism, which many claimed was more prevalent than in other large cities in the Soviet Union. As of the mid-1950s, the baking of Passover matzot was expressly forbidden in Odessa and a handful of other cities. The anti-Zionist campaign of the 1960s was singularly vicious, involving trials of accused Zionists and attacks against Israeli diplomats in the local press. In 2000, out of a total population of 1.1 million, approximately 40,000 Jews lived in Odessa—some claim the number was considerably higher—with an equal number having immigrated, beginning in the 1970s, to the United States (most visibly to the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, New York) and to Israel. In the 1990s, with the help of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), as well as considerable local initiative, new Jewish organizations were established, including schools, libraries, synagogues, two newspapers, a People’s University (with some 100 students), and extensive welfare projects for the elderly and needy. The city continues to inspire contemporary Russian-language fiction about its Jewish life, instilling a lingering nostalgia among its former residents.