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The Odessa File

Massacre on Potemkin Steps, Eisenstein.

Undoubtedly the most searing image of the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea is Sergei Eisenstein's reconstruction of a bloody massacre on its famed "Potemkin Steps" in his epic silent film, Battleship Potemkin (1925). In many ways, that formidable staircase, reaching upward from the ocean's edge to the plateau on which the Russian seaport arose in the 19th century, is a perfect symbol of its dizzying history, evoking both the heights of its original promise and the depths of its horrific 20th-century downfalls—of which none was more brutal than the one meted out to its Jews.  

Relevant Links
The Jews of Odessa  Steven J. Zipperstein, Stanford University Press. An indispensable cultural history, from the founding of the city to 1881.

Both Odessa's rise and Odessa's peripety are, indeed, closely intertwined with the modern history of the Jews, as Charles King is at pains to document in his superb new study, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams. Indeed, the publication of King's book, at the precise moment when today's Arab world is experiencing its own paroxysms of "liberation," is an uncanny coincidence, offering as it does a powerful morality tale about the perils of getting too naively caught up in the excitement of revolutionary turmoil.

Odessa was founded in 1794, a monument to Catherine the Great's success in defeating the Ottomans and extending the borders of her empire to the Black Sea. In the ensuing decades, as King recounts in his aptly titled first section, "City of Dreams," its rate of growth was as unparalleled as were the freedoms it extended to a diverse population of Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Rumanians, and Jews. In vividly conveying the spirit of adventure that animated these groups, King pays particular attention to the Jews, who sought in Odessa both the unique economic opportunities afforded by a boom port and its promise of freedom from, simultaneously, Russian oppression and the airlessness of life under the thumb of rabbinic authority in the Pale of Settlement.  

The rapidity of Jewish demographic growth in Odessa was utterly without precedent.  From the six Jews upon whom the victorious Russians stumbled when they walked into this sleepy coastal town in 1794, the numbers had grown by the mid-19th century to almost a third of the city's total population, then at a quarter-million. By the turn of the 20th century, Jews owned 90 percent of the town's grain-trading firms, Odessa's main source of revenue. Concisely summing up these golden years of growth, wealth, and relative freedom, King writes:

Jews emerged as the critical middlemen in Odessa's commerce, linking up with peasants, farmers, and herders in the interior and forming an essential bridge to the large export concerns in the port city. Through their energy and social networks, Odessa became something that none of its earlier founders . . . could have imagined: the preeminent port in the Yiddish-speaking world.

Arguably, the greatest attraction for the Jews flooding into Odessa's early experiment in multiculturalism was precisely the absence of a Jewish history there, an advantage compounded by the absence of encrusted religious institutions of the kind prevailing in the Russian interior. "Enlighteners" (maskilim) from Galicia, mostly from the city of Brody, arrived in large numbers, establishing  synagogues, schools, and communal organizations that represented their modernizing values—even as they made the name of Odessa infamous among traditional Jews elsewhere. Two divergent Yiddish expressions capture the bliss felt by the one party and the bitterness felt by the other: leben vi Got in Odess (to live like God in Odessa) and zibn mayl arum Odess brent dos gehenem (the fires of hell burn for seven miles around Odessa).

Irresistible both to Jewish merchants and to Jewish freethinkers, Odessa offered other, shadier charms as well. Where there are sailors, there are those who in Yiddish became known as Odesseh levonehs, literally Odessa moons, which is to say, prostitutes.  According to municipal statistics from 1911, over 90 percent of the city's 43 legally-licensed brothels were owned by Jews, to say nothing of the many illegal ones that flourished in the heavily Rumanian-Jewish slum district of Moldovenka (named for the Moldavan origins of its inhabitants).

But far exceeding these tawdry aspects of Odessa's legendary raucousness were the aesthetic and intellectual achievements of the city's Jews. The Brody Synagogue became not only a uniquely decorous place of Jewish worship, where talking during services was prohibited (!), but a laboratory of innovative cantorial musicianship (hazzanut). A magnificent repertoire, inaugurated by the legendary Nissan Blumenthal and his choir, and perpetuated by his successor Pinchas Minkowsky, would play a major (if now largely forgotten) role in molding modern cantorial style.

As its reputation for cosmopolitanism spread, Odessa attracted some of the leading Jewish intellectuals of the day. Some stayed only for a while, imbibing the Paris-inspired café environment and hobnobbing with the literary elite; others made it their home for many years. Among the latter were Alexander Tsederbaum, founding editor of Hamelitz, the first and arguably the finest modern Hebrew journal, and Shiye Mordkhe Lifshitz, who helped establish Kol Mevasser, the first modern Yiddish literary periodical. The latter's greatest contribution may have been to convince a rising Hebrew literary star to "switch sides" and try his hand at Yiddish prose. Under the pen name of  Mendele Moykher Sforim (Mendele the Book-Peddler), the former Sholem Yaakov Abramovich would earn the moniker of the grandfather of modern Yiddish literature. Another longtime Odessa resident, Sholem Aleykhem, became that literature's most popular author.

As for Hebrew writers who spent time in Odessa, the list includes, among many others, Moshe Leib Lilienblum, the Zionist essayist and pioneer of Hebrew autobiography; the towering poet Haim Nahman Bialik; and Ahad Haam, the great Hebrew stylist and father of cultural Zionism. In addition, Odessa was a center of Jewish Russification, home to three leading Jewish journals in the Russian language. Simon Dubnow, the dean of Russian Jewish historiography, lived in Odessa for many years. Among Jewish political luminaries, one must mention above all two Odessa natives: Leo Pinsker, who wrote Autoemancipation (1882), the first published manifesto of political Zionism, and founded the first Zionist organization, Hibat Zion, and Vladimir (Zeev) Jabotinsky, the extravagantly talented writer, political activist, and founder of Revisionist Zionism. The list goes on.  

King does an especially fine job of explaining how Jabotinsky's Odessa upbringing was formative in the subsequent development not only of his literary career but of his political ideas. Indeed, what ignited Jabotinsky's true political genius was, tragically enough, the ugly turn of Odessa from a "city of dreams" into a cauldron of lethal anti-Semitism at the turn of the 20th century. In 1881-2, a wave of pogroms throughout Russia had spared Odessa's Jews—the authorities had prevented a single fatality. But their protective embrace, seeming confirmation of Odessa's unique promise of peaceful integration, turned out to be illusory. In 1905, at the end of a subsequent wave of mob violence that had begun in Kishinev two years earlier, more than 300 Odessan Jews fell victim to what King calls "the deadliest and the most notorious pogrom in Russian history"—at least to that point.

"How," King asks plaintively, "could a city generally satisfied with its easy cosmopolitanism fall so speedily into communal chaos?" It was the question asked by Jabotinsky in his novel The Five, the question that would in turn give rise to his "particular way of thinking about [Jewish] nationality." To the maturing Jabotinsky, that national identity necessarily comprised the three dimensions of "exclusion [by others], self awareness, and pride in one's own peculiarities." This unique mixture, King mordantly observes, "was both the antithesis and the product of everything Odessa, Jabotinsky's native city, claimed to be."

Much worse was to come. In the aftermath of World War I, massive dislocation and then mass murder decimated Odessa's Jews. Before the remnant had time to draw breath, these horrors were succeeded by the fallout from the Bolshevik revolution. That fallout took the form of, first, massacres by Ukrainians for the alleged crime of being Bolsheviks and, next, the systematic erasure of Jewish history and suppression of Jewish religion by the Soviets. Among the facts erased was the mass murder of some 200,000 Odessan Jews during the Holocaust, leaving all of 52 still alive at war's end.  

Which brings us back to Eisenstein and his movie, commissioned by the Soviet regime to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the failed 1905 socialist revolution. The massacre the film records on that famous staircase did not, however, occur there or in that way. Rather, it represents, in King's mordant phrase, "a heroic act of misremembering." For the only massacre that took place in Odessa that year was not of its socialist revolutionaries but of its Jews. "When later filmgoers saw the staircase in Battleship Potemkin," King concludes, "they were not looking at history but past it, into the realm of creative and usable myth."

In helping to reverse the distortions and erasures of Odessa's Jewish history, King has done a great service, not only in setting right the past but also, however inadvertently, in assisting us soberly and cautiously to assess the liberations and revolutions of the present. 

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.

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Gerry Kane on March 5, 2011 at 8:56 am (Reply)
Thank you for presenting Prof. Nadler's columns on a regular basis. I find, that unlike so many other professors who profess to have an interest in Yiddish culture he is one of the few who reaches out to a larger audience. He draws you in to his artcles and reviews and makes you want to find out more.

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