Odessa; Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King. W.W. Norton, 2018, paper.

Odessa has a colorful history. Presently it is the third largest city in Ukraine, located on the northwest shore of the Black Sea. As part of the Russian Empire, it was known for its massive grain exports, challenging the European trade in American wheat. The city was a counterpoise to the two largest cities of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Its Jewish citizens had been a boon to the growing city in the nineteenth-century, engaged in handicrafts of all kinds and the Black Sea trade. However, many of the professions had Jewish quotas.

Though it had a large Jewish population, it had never attracted a culture of the learned shtetl and well-spoken rabbis. Odessa became instead an important center of modernizing Judaism. And an important refuge for many different Balkan nationalities: Bulgarians, Albanians, Greeks, and Romanians. King quotes the census from that time: 39% were Russian speaking, 36% Jews mostly German or Yiddish speaking, and 17% Ukrainian. Speaking to its secular learnedness, there were six bookstores in the city.

One of the early “dreamers” of Odessa was Armand duc de Richelieu. He was a proponent of the French Enlightenment whom Czar Catharine II brought to this growing city to give it some culture and design. Catherine also encouraged the settlement of Mennonites from Germany on farms in the “New Russia,” the agricultural areas that surround Odessa.

Odessa participated in the Russian Civil War mainly on the side of the Bolsheviks and the Red Army. Sadly the Bolsheviks proved no less brutal than the Imperial Armies. [Sadly the public monuments, heroes from the Russian “occupation,” are now mostly removed from the City’s many parks and squares.]

King speaks of “Jewish neighborhoods” in this city of many nationalities. But at some point he begins to talk instead of the Jewish ghetto. Odessa is often called a “hero city,” even though Odessa; Genius and Death in a City of Dreams suggests that it proved to be deadly to its Jewish refugees.

Many of those “heroes” later migrated to the U.S. and particularly to the Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach sections of Brooklyn. Mostly thought of as Jewish, the new Brooklynites were drawn from the various ethnic groups of Odessa, especially Russians. King notes that the Brighton Beach Music Hall hung on to Yiddish language productions longer than did Odessa.

Many of its good German farmers – Mennonites – eventually found their way to the wheat-growing areas of the Midwest and returned to farming. It would be interesting to know from what Russian seaport the Russian Mennonites left for the New World. Odessa?

Its large Jewish population has both enriched the city but also brought the city and region great tragedy. Odessa was the site of numerous pogroms. Some 33,000 Jews were massacred in Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev in September 1941. This was followed by the murder of more than 50,000 Jews in October 1941, committed by German and Romanian troops. The NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) in Kiev and earlier the headquarters of the German occupation in Odessa was leveled by a huge explosion. Retaliation followed.

Charles King frequently uses the category “thugs” to describe the mixture of seamen, runaway serfs, poor Italian middlemen, and an underworld of “self-confident thieves” found on Odessa’s port-side. It took only a spark to fire up a world of violence.

Odessa and surrounding rural areas were jointly occupied by Germans and Romanians during WWII. The latter were especially brutal.

The good citizens of Odessa are happier these days. Happy that they are no longer part of the Russian State, preferring their new national identity – Ukrainian. Dozens of statues of Lenin and other Russian notables are coming down. Even though they are part of a memory bank that Odessan’s treasure. Sadly that collective memory is missing much of the Jewish component that King has reconstructed for us.

A note to film buffs. Odessa is famous for a long flight of stone steps leading from the old city on the high bank above the Black Sea down to its shoreline and port facilities. One of the most famous sequences in cinema history is of a baby carriage tumbling down those steps toward the Sea.

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