To sum up the exotic history of the Black Sea port of Odessa, Charles King, in “Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams” (Norton: $27.95), describes “a city that had been scouted by a Neapolitan mercenary, named by a Russian empress, governed by her one-eyed secret husband, built by two exiled French noblemen, modernized by a Cambridge-educated count, and celebrated by his wife’s Russian lover.” The Yiddish phrase Lebn vi Got in Odes! (“Live like God in Odessa!”), according to King, “could be a blessing, a curse, or a jab at the puffed-up pretensions of city folk.”
But there is even more to discover and ponder in “Odessa.” One-third of the population was Jewish on the eve of World War II, and Odessa displayed “a veneer of Russian culture laid over a Yiddish, Greek and Italian core.” Odessa contributed to the waves of Jewish emigration that reached the shores of America — the Kirsch family among them — and King points out that their influence can be traced to “the borscht-belt banquet halls of the Catskills and Brighton Beach.” But Odessa itself was destined to suffer along with the rest of the Soviet Union under the boot of Nazi Germany and its allies.
“It’s hard to know when you find yourself in the middle of history,” observes King, who points out that Odessa was both a starting place and a gathering place for movers and shakers in arts and letters as well as war and revolution. Potemkin and Pushkin, Trotsky and Jabotinsky, Sholem Aleichem and Simon Dubnow, Anna Akhmatova and Isaac Babel, even John Paul Jones and Mark Twain figure in the tales that King tells.
King argues, for example, that Odessa inspired the hard-edged Jewish nationalism that Vladimir Jabotinsky introduced into the Zionist movement: “If every other group in Odessa had sooner or later found their highest cultural expression in nationalism and independence,” explains King, a professor at Georgetown University, “why should the Jews be any different?” And he points out that today, at the Jabotinsky Institute in Tel Aviv, the narrator of a biographical film about its namesake announces: “Everything begins in Odessa.”
Perhaps the most surprising chapter in “Odessa” is the account of the terrible fate that befell the Jewish community at the hands of the Romanian allies of Nazi Germany, “one of the least-known episodes of the Holocaust.” Some 220,000 Jewish victims were murdered in the ghettos and concentrations camps in the Romanian zone of occupation. “Responsibility for the Holocaust in Odessa and Transnistria rested squarely with Romania,” writes King. “[A]s brown leaves floated down to empty pavements in the autumn of 1941, the basic task that the occupiers had set themselves seemed obvious: they had come to get rid of the people the Romanians called jidani and whom Odessans knew in everyday Russian as zhidy — that is, the yids.”
Only a third of the pre-war population of Odessa remained in the city at the end of World War II. “Former partisans became bandits,” reports King, “visiting on the restored Soviet authorities the same kind of raids they had inflicted on the Romanians.” For “the most fine-grained assessments” of the death toll, King consults the affidavits collected by Soviet investigators: “[F]or example, we knew that sixteen people were removed from 74-76 Pushkin Street at tomes point during the war, including members of families identified as the Leidermans, Likermans, Kotliars, Shvartsmans, Kogans, Figelmans, Ashkenazis, and Katzes, among others.”
Odessa was among the first four Soviet cities to be awarded the title of Gorod-Geroi, or “hero city,” at the end of World War II. But never again would Odessa serve as the site of a lively and accomplished Jewish community of the kind that King describes in such rich detail in “Odessa.” Significantly, King closes his book with a visit to Brooklyn: “‘In Odessa you can smell Europe,’ Pushkin once wrote. In Brighton Beach, you can smell Odessa…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.”
Of necessity, the saga is shadowed by the tragic fate of the original Odessa as King describes how Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein wondered after the war what had become of “the hundreds of extras in Battleship Potemkin, the men and women he had sent racing up and down the Odessa steps with a few shouts through his megaphone.” Above all, Eisenstein was haunted by what had become of “the film’s most famous actor — the baby in the carriage that bounces down the bloody staircase,” the single most famous scene in his immortal film.
“Where is he – or she?” mused the director. “I do not know whether it was a boy or a girl…. Did he defend Odessa, as a young man? Or was she driven abroad into slavery? Does he now rejoice that Odessa is a liberated and resurrected town? Or is he lying in a mass grave, somewhere far away?