Before the War
The Cosmopolitan Jewish City
Odessa was once a multicultural city populated by Jews, Romanians, Russians, and Ukrainians. Today it is a bustling city in the modern state of Ukraine, but the multiculturalism has long since passed.
Jewish life in Odessa was as old as the city itself. The population was the second most numerous by the time of Romanian/Nazi occupation in 1941. The Jewish population had a long history of economic success – especially by the mid 1800’s – Jews had a vibrant economic and cultural impact on Odessa and the surrounding areas. In 1851 there were 5,466 individuals engaged in trade, 2,907 (53.2%) were Jews (by then, 17,000 Jews lived in the city). To understand anti-Semitic feelings in Odessa, one needs to look back much further than one would in a German city. The Crimean War had created a vacuum in certain industries where the Greek shipping giants had once been prominent, and jews flocked to fill it. From the mid-1850s til the early 20th centruy we see the Jewish Golden Age in the city. By the early 1900s, 89 percent of the grain export from Odessa was controlled by Jewish-owned firms, with Jews owning half of the city’s factories and 888 of its 1,410 smaller workshops.
Many Jews were emigrating from Galicia, with a numerous portion of them from Brody (hence the most important synagogue in the city was the Brodsky Synagogue.) The Jews withstood the Communist revolution and transitioned into it as most Eastern European cities did – some for it, some against it, and a little bit of violence.
Jewish Traders and Merchants. A painting from 1840. (above)
Cantor Pinḥas Minkowski (back row, sixth from right) and the boys’ choir in the Brodsky synagogue, Odessa, ca. 1910 (Below)
The city had almost 200,000 Jews living there during the summer of 1941. Following a 2-month siege, the Romanians and Germans took the city on October 16, 1941. There had been a large Russian evacuation that included many Jews. This left the Jewish population at the time of occupation by the Romanians and Nazis, at only about 90,000 in the city proper. On October 16 the forces officially took the city, but 7 days later on the 23rd a delayed Soviet bomb detonated in the new Axis-headquarters. This began one of the largest massacres of Jews during the Second World War – estimates of over 25,000 killed in the following days and over 35,000 deported. At the Russian re-capture of the city they took a census: just 49 Jews lived in the city at the time.
Jewish people were immediately rounded up following the explosion of the Soviet bomb. Jews were equated with Communism to such a degree of conflation that the words were almost always used in tandem. In the initial days of the pogrom almost 8,000 Jewish intellectuals were murdered. Following that, another 17,000 were killed and 35,000 were deported to camps that would later be sent to German concentration camps. One witness says that many women and children were locked in warehouses and burned alive. Image to the left shows Jews being rounded up for registration. Two images below show dead Jews after initial terrors.