A Visit to Odessa

It started as a whimsical notion, a few years ago, when a couple of cousins and I began to speculate on what it would be like to visit Odessa to see what we could find of our family history there.  But then, as time went by, it became a serious idea.  Though the complexity of scheduling prevented us from finding a time that was good for everybody, at the very end of this past May, after closing out a week-long visit to Israel, my wife and I boarded a plane for Kiev along with my sister who lives in Jerusalem and, after joining up with another cousin and his wife at the Kiev airport, continued to Odessa.  It was, I had realized when thinking about the calendar as the trip approached, exactly 100 years since our family had left there for Canada.

Walking around Odessa the morning after we arrived, we immediately fell in love with the city. That was especially so for its central, seaside part, where we were staying – with its beautifully rehabbed early nineteenth century buildings; with the “Potemkin” steps (the steps!); with the overlook of the Black Sea and the port (though the unexpected, view-corrupting eyesore that a post-Soviet developer built out into the sea at the bottom of the steps was shocking); with its aura of a pleasure-providing resort; and with its incredible cultural traditions and wealth of astonishingly important historical Jewish connections.  But the family reasons which drew us there in the first place were a significant priority for the visit.  And we weren’t disappointed in that either.

Though we knew that our ancestors had left the region for good in 1913, toward the end of the vast wave of Jewish emigration from the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement, we did not have very much information about the family history there.  Furthermore, a number of the details that we had been made aware of by our mothers and an aunt didn’t necessarily connect.  Trying to reconcile the parts of the story that we brought with us, we came up with what has now established itself as the prevailing family narrative.

One of the things we had known was that the 1913 departure was not our forbearers’ first exodus from that region.  In 1906, following the pogroms of 1905, the family – consisting of our grandparents and four children of theirs, though not my mother, who had not yet been born – like many other Jews at that time, left for North America.  Their original point of departure was a town in the Odessa region called Berezovka.  They got as far as Nova Scotia and then, however, had to turn around because one of my uncles was diagnosed with an eye disease – a situation, I understand, not all that uncommon among the immigrant populations of the time.

Return they did, and our belief is that at that point they settled in Odessa proper, which is where my mother always said she had been born, an event which took place at the end of 1907.  My cousin’s mother and another aunt had talked about the time that they and our grandmother had been treated for typhus in the Odessa Jewish Hospital, and for that reason too it  made sense that they would have been living there at the time.  The hospital is referred to in a number of places by Isaac Babel, born in Odessa in 1894 and the author of several powerful stories about Jewish life there, many of them set in the Moldavanka neighborhood.  Aged and decrepit like so many of the Odessa buildings outside of the central city, the hospital is still extant, and we were able to see it and stand outside of it.

Our grandfather died in 1908, when my mother was just a few months old.  Family lore has it that he was a peddler during those brief Odessa years, and the conclusion we came up with during our visit was that, following his death, our grandmother, lacking a “bread winner,” and with five children to care for, one of them an infant and the oldest only eight years older, took her brood back to the town where she had lived previously with her husband.  His family was the one that came from there, and it’s where she now very likely had a support structure to turn to.  Furthermore, my cousin’s mother and another aunt – the oldest of the siblings – had talked about living in Berezovka as children, which would make sense in this scenario.  And the pieces continued to fit when, on our second day in Odessa, with those relatives’ sparse recollections to guide us and curious about what else we would find, we set off for the town along with our guide.

To say that the road to Berezovka that our van drove on once we got out of Odessa proper was worse than any other I have ever been on is to engage in drastic understatement.  Back in Chicago we joke about the potholes that develop on the Outer Drive and the expressways each winter.  But what we confronted here were far more than mere potholes.  They were deep ruts and incipient sinkholes just a couple of yards apart, all along what once, apparently, had been a paved two-lane highway.  Navigating this treacherous obstacle course involved veering from one side of the road to the other while hoping the gravel or dirt shoulders would hold when needed.  After slowing down to a crawl for much of the 90 kilometers from Odessa, we finally made it to our destination.

The Berezovka we saw was a town consisting mostly of old homes and small buildings, a great many of them clearly from the era when our family had lived there.  Replicating something we noticed during our drive, many of the homes had goats tethered or wandering nearby — goats like the one in a lithograph my mother loved by Todros Geller, a noted Chicago artist who had been born in another town in the Ukraine and as a teenager had studied art in Odessa before leaving for Canada.

What made the visit “work,” to our good fortune, was that our guide had established contact with a resident of the town born in 1937 named Isaac Greenberg who was able to take us to several sites and answer a number of our questions.  The first place he directed our driver to was the Holocaust memorial on the edge of town, haunting in its simplicity.  Having seen the few references to Berezovka in Charles King’s 2011 book Odessa:  Genius and Death in a City of Dreams – all of them Holocaust-connected – and having learned more from our guide, I already knew a bit about what had occurred in and around the town during the War.  But Mr. Greenberg and a woman we would spend some time with later that afternoon filled out the painful picture in a very personal way.

The German invasion of this part of the Soviet Union had brought with it Romanian troops and civilians, who became the occupiers.  Recognizing that Sevastopol, the Soviet naval base on the Black Sea in nearby Crimea, had far more military value than did Odessa, the Soviets had pulled out of the Odessa region.  In the case of Mr. Greenberg and his family in Berezovka, and a number of other Jewish families there and elsewhere in the region as well, the adult males were conscripted into the Red Army, while women and children were evacuated – in his case to Kazakhstan.  The remaining Jews – and there were plenty of them, since before the war Odessa was nearly 40 percent Jewish as were a number of these towns – were at the mercy of the Romanians, whose cruelty often rivaled that of the Nazis.

The horrors the region’s Jews faced are rendered in a memorial we saw the next day at a large square in Odessa’s Moldavanka neighborhood.  Though as Charles King observes the memorial makes Odessa’s non-Jews seem more helpful than most of them in fact were and gives the Romanians a free pass altogether, it still is moving in its way.  And standing as we were while looking at it on the site of what we were told was a wide-scale roundup of the city’s Jews where a “Death March” commenced, we read the memorial’s inscribed listing of  the towns toward which that march proceeded, the second of which was Berezovka.

Many Jews died before leaving and others did while traveling by foot or train en route to those destinations.  Most of the rest were murdered after they got there.  King cites supposed “rumors” circulating in Odessa in 1942 by escapees “about people being machine-gunned in a ravine at a place called  Berezovka” and then adds:  “We now know those rumors to have been true.  The escapees were reporting on one of the worst massacres to have taken place under Romania’s watch, the killing of about twenty-eight thousand Odessa Jews by SS units recruited from among the Volksdeutsche.”  As for the Jews of Berezovka itself, the Jewish Encyclopedia asserts that they “all perished during the German occupation in World War II.”

As much as the Jewish history of Berezovka, like that of other towns and cities in the region whose populations were heavily Jewish, is tied up with the pogroms of 1881 and 1905 and with ensuing Holocaust events, before the Shoah there was also a thriving Jewish communal life there. And our family, like others, was part of it.  Mr. Greenberg showed us a building that once housed a Jewish school, and he took us to a place where there once stood two synagogues.  One of them, after having become a movie theater in the post-war period, was now razed to the ground, and the other – though the building still stands – is now a well-appointed Baptist church.

It was in noticing the latter building that we had one of our most meaningful revelations.  My cousin’s mother, in recollecting her childhood, used to talk to my cousin about the family’s living in a house next to a courtyard and about looking up a nearby hill to see a red brick building.  And indeed, in  Berezovka today, small old homes from that era, with courtyards (though the very term makes them sound more elegant than they now are, and probably were then as well) still exist on a street that goes up a hill, at the top of which stands that very former synagogue, now with a red tile roof.  Why my aunt did not identify it as a synagogue who knows, plus we had no way of knowing whether the building itself was once made of red brick or whether it always had a red tile roof.  But we felt it was no stretch to conclude that we had visited the place where the family had lived and that we had seen the building on a hill that my aunt long remembered.

Mr. Greenberg also took us to a very large, hilly area on the edge of town which had once been the site of the Jewish cemetery.  We found hardly any gravestones  there – just a handful of them, on most of which the writing had worn down long ago, with almost all of them now knocked over.  (Our guide from Odessa said that it was her understanding that the worst desecration had occurred after the Soviet era.)  Within this weed-overgrown, devastated area, though, we did find, next to one another, gravestones with engraved dates clear enough to read, of three individuals, born in 1903, 1904, and 1907 respectively.  Given those dates, we imagined these were people with whom our aunts and uncles had very possibly played during their childhood years.

Before coming to Odessa, we had figured that the height of success would have been to find our grandfather’s grave and to say Kaddish for him there.  Once we arrived, put the dates together, and saw the conditions of the cemeteries we visited, we realized there was no way that could happen.  Assuming as we now did that he must have died in Odessa proper and been buried there, we did not believe that the burial site could be here in Berezovka.  Nor could it be in the existing Odessa Jewish cemetery which we saw on our way to Berezovka, with its impressive memorial to the victims of the 1905 pogrom, since that was not established until about a decade after our grandfather had died.

The most likely place he was buried, we concluded, was in the old Jewish cemetery written about by Babel in his Odessa Tales.  Though we made a stop there during our time in Odessa, there was nothing to be seen but a huge forested area planted by the Soviets after they razed the cemetery itself.  The only thing connected with that cemetery still left is a large cement structure that we were told was part of its entrance gate – kept intact by the Soviets as the site of the assassination of Communist heroes.  Still, it was there that my cousin and I decided to lay a couple of stones in our grandfather’s memory, assuming as we did that he had been buried somewhere in that former cemetery, and that this was the closest we were ever going to get to his grave. 

As for the Berezovka stop, it provided one more highlight, which came after we saw all of the relevant sites that we could with Mr. Greenberg.  To close out the visit we were taken to the home of a woman named Lydia who, we learned, had been a small child at the time of the Death March from Odessa.  As she and her family had walked past the people of Berezovka. the story goes, one of them snatched her from her mother’s arms and thus saved her from the ravages of the Nazis and their accomplices.  After the war, she was given to an orphanage, and though she never learned her family name, she regained and maintained her Jewish identify, such as she could through the Soviet era.  And now, she was enormously proud to tell us, she feels deeply tied to the Jewish people, keeping up with the news from Israel, where two of her four grandchildren live.

Drinking tea and eating cake in her small home’s all-purpose living room/dining room/kitchen, we felt like we were connecting ourselves with this town’s past.  And everything was capped off when, in answering a question as to whether she had ever heard Brickman, the family name, referred to in the town, she said she  recalled a conversation back in the mid-‘50s, when people were reminiscing about families that had emigrated from Berezovka in earlier years, and the Brickmans were indeed named as one of them.

The ride back from Berezovka was no easier than the one going there, but in this case we traveled with a sense of deep satisfaction that we had made the trip.  And as we had done in going the other direction, we admired the beauty of many of the fields we were driving through, fields of grain that once had made Odessa a major provider of wheat to all of Europe.  It was a view that, it occurred to us, was replicated in a way by the fields that the family must have seen when they at last arrived at their Canadian destination in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where my grandmother joined her older brother.  Along with another brother who immigrated there as well, those families started new lives that surely were not only better in many ways than what they had been experiencing in the Russian Empire, but that saved them from the fate which Jews in that region, and beyond it, were to suffer less than three decades later.

With a sense of “mission accomplished,” we had two-and-a-half more days to enjoy Odessa’s attractions.  That included going to the glorious opera house, where we saw ballet performances of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and “Rite of Spring”—a work which by chance had its famous premiere in Paris in 1913, the year our family departed for North America, on almost the exact same date when we viewed it.  Our time in Odessa also gave us the opportunity to savor cuisine we remembered from our youth.  Eating what the menu translated as “stuffed fish,” I thought of the line in a Babel story when, describing a Sabbath meal his grandmother had prepared, he talks of “gelfilte fish with horseradish sauce (for which it is worth becoming a Jew).”

We also learned more about Odessa as it was a century ago, when it was one of the great Jewish cities of the world where much of great importance to the Jewish people was percolating.  Taken on a tour of Jewish sites in Odessa, we saw homes where once lived writers – acknowledged by plaques – ranging from Babel to Chaim Nachman Bialik to Ahad Ha’am to Sholom Aleichem to Mendel Macher Sforim.  This also is where the early Zionist thinker Leo Pinsker lived and worked, and for a shorter time the Jewish historian Simon Dubnov.  Another native son, born there in 1880, was Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, who was a journalist and activist in Odessa before going on to become a major Zionist leader.  Jabotinsky’s The Five:  A Novel of Jewish Life in Turn-of-the-Century Odessa, published in 1936 and translated from Russian into English just in 2005, with its intimations of some of the  wellsprings of his Zionism, evocatively captures the “feel” of the city and its Jewish community as they were in those earlier years.  Reading it while I was in Odessa gave the book particular resonance.

Contemplating the strong Zionist component of Odessa’s Jewish community early in the twentieth century (the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, also hailed from there, as did still others) while standing alone one morning on the Black Sea shore where a key scene in The Five is set, I imagined the romantic pull there must have been for many of Odessa’s Jews back then.  They themselves could have stood on that shore, I thought, looked out on that body of water, and imagined themselves getting on a ship, sailing through the Dardanelles, making their way to the Mediterranean, and ultimately arriving at the port of Jaffa.

And what a world we live in today, it also struck me at that moment.  Just a handful of days before, I had been standing in Jaffa myself, looking at the Mediterranean and at Tel Aviv, now a vibrant metropolis in its own right.  There were a few Israelis who had departed Tel Aviv on the plane with us and who had also made the connecting flight to Odessa in Kiev, and we had gotten to know some of them while filling out forms and commiserating together late at night in the Odessa airport after discovering that our luggage and theirs had been left in Kiev.  (We finally got it nearly 24 hours later.)  We also saw them the following morning, standing with other Israelis at the top of the Potemkin steps and listening to a Hebrew-speaking tour guide describe dramatic events that had taken place there in 1905.  And then, as if to provide a symbolic frame for the visit, as my wife and I were sitting in a restaurant called Kompot and having a late breakfast on our final morning in Odessa, before we returned to Chicago and my sister returned to Jerusalem, we found ourselves next to two Israelis who had just arrived the night before, and immediately struck up a conversation.

The Jewish people have been fundamentally affected by key developments of these past 100 years.  The Soviet Union denied Jews the opportunity to live full-fledged Jewish lives; the Nazis and their allies destroyed Jewish life altogether; and the part of the world we had come to visit is no longer a center of gravity for the Jewish people.  Meanwhile, though, those Jews whose families survived the Shoah and who are now living in Odessa are rebuilding their Jewish identities, helped by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, whose “Chesed” program services Jews throughout the area – including, as we saw on a map in their headquarters, 17 of them in Berezovka.  At the same time, the State of Israel has come into being and, despite ongoing challenges, Jewish life is thriving in its two major contemporary locales, Israel and North America, thanks in great part to the impact of Jews who came from this area both earlier and again more recently.  And while no family’s story is altogether “typical,” the one whose experiences of a century ago my relatives and I traced during our visit to Odessa, and whose experiences of today we live daily, exemplifies much of what was, and what is.

About the Author
Michael Kotzin publishes widely on anti-Semitism and related issues. A collection of his writings from 1988 through 2013 entitled "On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World" is forthcoming.