I arrived in Odessa for the month of August for two reasons. Firstly for work experience, and secondly, in an effort to familiarise myself with my own heritage, intrinsically linked to the city’s past. As the grandson of an Odessa native, I have long been fed tales of its past glories, legends and pluralism, and of my own accord strived to learn more about these. My time in Odessa reconsolidated my appreciation for the smells of the Privoz market, the magnificent confines of the Opera House which once hosted the likes of Rachmaninov and Pavlova in their pomp, as well as the famous warmth of Odessians and their embellished Russian, to mention a few.
It has been nearly a quarter of a century since my last relatives in Odessa emigrated. The ensuing void has made it all the more convenient for me to romanticise about Odessa Mama, as do undeniably many of its former inhabitants. Together with my family, among them a few returning Odessians, I visited the city three years ago for the first time. I felt overwhelmed throughout, seeing the sights with those who had neighboured them decades earlier. The visit did nothing to deter me from continuing to idealise about Odessa, and gladly so.
There was though a certain element of my past in Odessa, if I were to appropriate my ancestors’ own, which above all brought me back. As a Jew, it is impossible for me to discount the emotional significance that the Shoah entails. Previously, as I now realise, my interpretation of it was largely consigned to the death camps; the Auschwitz paradigm remains the foremost representation of the Holocaust narrative, familiar to most of us who have not properly delved into it. Little had I then suspected that my own family could have been perhaps touched by the wider Nazi-inspired destruction of European Jewry in southern Ukraine. Nor that it were not necessarily the Nazis themselves who could have been capable of such acts.
Before World War II Odessa was one of the great Jewish cities of Europe, nearly half of its population made up of Jews, many of them outstanding public and cultural luminaries. In the summer of 1941 Romania, allied with Nazi Germany, joined the invasion of the Soviet Union. As a reward for its involvement in the campaign, Hitler gifted the Antonescu dictatorship the lands between the Dniester and Bug rivers; these were grouped into an administrative territory named Transnistria and governed from Odessa. Among the most egregious of deeds of the Romanian occupation was its destruction of the Jewish population of Odessa. While many of the city’s Jews had successfully been evacuated by the time of the siege of Odessa, those who remained suffered a fate not dissimilar to that in Nazi-controlled areas. At least 100,000 Jews in the Odessa region perished during the Romanian occupation between late 1941 and early 1944, in mass shootings and death marches to concentration camps across Transnistria where mortality rates and conditions suggested nothing other than a concerted effort at their extermination. Odessa was a changed city at the war’s end, bereft of many of the people integral to the place’s uniqueness.
Two years ago I spoke to my grandfather and we touched upon the subject of the war. I was acutely aware that as an infant he had been evacuated from Odessa weeks prior to the siege of the city. The hardship he encountered in the depths of Siberia, the torturous journey there and back, are seared in my mind. Up until this very conversation, however, I was unaware that not everyone in his immediate family had been evacuated. His grandparents, his mother’s parents, aged and unable to make the arduous trip, remained in Odessa. Upon my grandfather’s return at the war’s end in 1945 they were nowhere to be seen. And these were the relatives who had stayed that he was at least still aware of.
Ever since that conversation, I maintained an intermittent interest in the matter, glimpsing through Yad Vashem’s archival databases in the faint hope of coming across a relevant name or two, using all but a few details still fresh from my grandfather’s memory. But in December of last year, while browsing through the Atlas of the Holocaust as part of a course in ethnic cleansing and genocide in twentieth-century Europe, I came across a series of maps illustrating the massacres of Jews in Odessa and the surrounding region in 1941. The city-wide pogroms, the death roads to concentration camps; I could now see for myself the dimensions of it all, partly fathoming them.
My interest resumed. For months I researched the topic of the lesser-known deportations of Romanian Roma to Transnistria, who similarly experienced extermination and death in the Odessa region, often alongside Jews. With the help of my brother, if not more so engaged with the research, we were able to trace the death certificates on Yad Vashem for several relatives from my grandfathers’ paternal lineage. I latterly found a valid justification for spending time in Odessa over the summer, an internship.
I arrived in Odessa at the end of July, armed with a few names and addresses, unclear of the actual purpose of my research but determined to discover something. With a few days on hand before beginning work, I set about touring sites of Jewish “significance” and speaking to people here and there. At the Museum of the History of Odessa Jews, a curator confirmed my suspicions that the Romanian administrators had poorly documented the names and details of their victims at the time of the massacres and deportations, especially in late 1941, nor that much of the available Romanian-language documentation had been adequately assessed by local researchers. He added that those included thus far in databases of victims’ names such as Yad Vashem’s, were likely the only ones which have been found. He passed on a few contact details for further consultation and research.
The following Sunday I went for a walk around Odessa, seeing sites of importance at the height of the massacres and deportations of 1941 and 1942. I visited Aleksandrovskii Prospekt, where I had read 400 Jews were swiftly hung in revenge for the bombing of the Romanian military headquarters. I made my way to Prohorovskii Skver’, the only memorial site for the victims of the Shoah in Odessa, boasting a commemorative sculpture by Zurab Tsereteli and its own alley of “Righteous among the Nations.” On the opposite end of the square, a memorial states that the death marches of tens of thousands to the Bogdanovka camp in December 1941 started from this point. It also suggested that the death road led to other places in the Odessa and Nikolaev regions where high numbers of Jews perished, among these Dal’nik and Berezovka. I thereafter ventured further into Moldavanka, the neighbourhood of my grandfather and his family. His street, there were he lived prior to and after the war, was directly perpendicular to what would have been the very same death road, the house a matter of yards away.
Minutes earlier at Prokohorovskii Skver’ I suddenly began to weep. I felt a raw and unfathomable emotion tearing inside. I now no longer wanted to hypothesise about what could have happened to my great-great-grandparents; were they caught up in the massacres in the first weeks of the city’s occupation, did they survive to make the marches to the concentration camps, did they perish there? Did where they lived have any bearing on their eventual fate, were they swept up in the round-ups and marches parting from Moldavanka? I did not want to speculate any more, nor did I want to know any more. Doing so felt futile. The number of years and generations since it all bore little meaning. The truth, if it were at all improbably hidden in a surviving or even existing archival record, was best not known; even now.
For the rest of the month I dragged my feet. I never wrote to the relevant individuals at the municipal archival registry nor the regional interior ministry. I watched a play at the Jewish theatre about emigration from Odessa in the 1970s, tinged with a little irony and sadness. Towards the end of my sojourn I started counting the days until my departure.
I felt oppressed in a city which bore little resemblance to that which I had fantasised, read and heard about, as far as I could see for myself. In most cases, when speaking to locals and casually remarking that I had roots in Odessa, this observation was overwhelmingly greeted with indifference. Odessa felt empty without those loved ones who made what it came to signify for me, but they were and had long been absent here. There were few markers of their previous presence here, as if to help me reconcile with the fact that this was a changed city.
Upon arriving in Odessa, and leaving it, I was asked if I had been here before. I did not know how to answer. I was here, attempting to revive a past link with the city, or better said re-establish one for my personal relevance, but found it was now relatively gone. This is not so much a reflection of my disappointment, but of an inability to come to terms with the way things have become.
A week or so after leaving Odessa I visited Treblinka. Whereas in Treblinka few tangible reminders or markers remain of its countless victims, lost among the whispers of the enveloping forest surroundings, the memory of many of Odessa’s pre-war Jews has been drowned out in the urban tapestry developed in the past decades. While time stands still in Treblinka, it long ago moved on in Odessa, I realise.
Perhaps in the coming weeks and months I will find the strength to write to those contacts I acquired, but far from Odessa. The distance will quell the emotions I had there. What my brother and I are trying to achieve is still not fully understandable to me, but if it were to bring a certainty or clarification, that may be appreciated. Of what sort it may be is less clear, however.