Odessa, the city and the Black Sea it sits on, have been imprinted on me in a mixture of romance and terror for as long as I can remember.
My great-grandfather died in the Odessa pogrom in 1905. My great-grandmother escaped with her children – including my grandmother – on a ship they thought was heading to America . Family lore has it that it took them some time to realize they had indeed landed in Glasgow.
Today, another generation of refugees is fleeing terror, this time from war and occupation.
It’s especially painful for me to watch when there are so many echoes in a city that became familiar to me just before the pandemic. I visited Odessa in November 2019 in search of my roots, but discovered so much more.
What drives so many of us to find our roots, whether through ancient patterns in our DNA or walking the streets of a city that was once marked with the footprints of ancestors to find the the very house in which they lived?
For me, it was a desire for continuity and completeness in a life framed by migrant experiences over three generations, from the Jewish settlement area in Russia, to the Gorbals of Glasgow, to Australia.
What could be left after the tsarist pogroms, Stalin and Hitler? Well, it was worth discovering.
A city with artists and crooks
Odessa is a Russian-speaking city of about one million inhabitants. There was not much there until the 19th century when Catherine the Great, to consolidate her victory over the Turks on the Black Sea, encouraged the construction of a hot water port to ship grain from the vast Ukrainian fields.
Like Shanghai to the East, the city grew rapidly and people flocked in from all over the world. Cereals were exported and Asian goods imported for transport across Europe, particularly to Britain. Greek traders dominated at first, but Jews came in their tens of thousands because to facilitate development, Catherine relaxed restrictions on Jewish occupations and land ownership. Jews were even allowed to participate in the governance of the municipality.
The limestone to build the city came from specially dug tunnels under the streets and it is said that there are at least 2000 kilometers of these modern catacombs, which became hideouts for war supporters and are no doubt in the process of being destroyed. be prepared for guerrilla warfare.
Odesans built banks, opulent apartments, parks, wide boulevards, churches, synagogues and even an opera house to rival Milan and Vienna. Artists flourish in the city. David Oistrakh, the world famous violinist, was born and educated in Odessa. Writers like Pushkin and Isaac Babel lived in the city, and several founders of the State of Israel grew up there. Trotsky went to school and was even imprisoned later in Odessa.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Odesa was colorful, giving life, like any other port and border town, to swindlers and crooks. Odessa restaurants in the 1800s served everything from coq au vin to gefilte fish – and still did before Putin’s war. His nightclubs were even more exotic.
A Jewish revival
At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 30% of the city was Jewish. Even before World War II, there were still 180,000 Jews.
Stalin extracted about half of them to relative safety because he needed their essential skills. Of the rest, only a few hundred survived Hitler’s Romanian brigades and the Einstatzgruppe SS.
Since then, there has been a Jewish revival. About 5% of the city claim to be Jewish. There are kosher restaurants, there were direct flights from Tel Aviv, and the best hotel in town, the Bristol, is owned by Israelis. Over breakfast at Le Bristol, downing my blintzes, gefilte fish and Russian sweet and sour rye and turning my palate into my grandmother’s kitchen, I realized, looking around in the dining room eat, that I was not the only one looking for roots in Odessa. The place was full of other Jews on the same mission.
Although Odessa is in Ukraine, it is a Russian city. They speak Russian and as a tourist one of the first things you notice is that almost all the signs are in Cyrillic without any condescension for visitors. So when you walked past a restaurant and looked at the menu, you had no idea what was on offer.
In November 2019, it was easy to forget that Ukraine was, already then, a country at war and it was common knowledge that the city was full of Russian agents. The Ukrainian secret service also had a large presence, headquartered in a large building in the city center.
We wanted to rent a car to go to the countryside for an authentic shtetl experience (small Jewish village, think Fiddler on the Roof) but we were told unequivocally that it was not a good idea and despite Donbass and Crimea relatively far away, our safety could not have been guaranteed.
From history to sandbags
Our guide was used for root seekers frustrated because the original cemeteries have disappeared and the records are spotty, even if you knew what the non-Anglicized version of your surname was.
She delayed the gratification, however, by first showing how Jewish the town was. A CBD street is called Hebraica. The old synagogues have survived, as has the Greek church where one of the first pogroms began in 1871. Nearby was the courtyard where Babel lived which had a Trabant parked to one side, used as a storage container.
A mandatory stop was the Potemkin Steps leading from the city plateau to the port. Eisenstein made them famous in his 1920s film about the 1905 mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. At the top is a statue of the Duke of Richelieu, prefect of Odessa in the first decade of the 19th century, which helped the growth of the city. (That was sandbags last week).
The catacombs were amazing, especially because we consider these tunnels to be ancient when they only date from the 19th century. Ironically, a tiny fragment of them has been donated to an underground museum commemorating Soviet partisans who fought the Nazis and generals who became Heroes of the Soviet Union.
For Jewish visitors, you didn’t go to Odessa to gaze at the Black Sea, even if you tried to squint at Crimea in the distance. The interest was on the ground behind you.
Near the foot of the harbor steps are former slums where penniless Jews once lived. The fact that my family had enough money to pay for the escape tickets almost certainly meant that they came from a somewhat more affluent and sometimes infamous neighborhood called Moldovanka, on the outskirts of town. But having figured that out, our guide still intended to show us other things first – including a chance encounter with then-mayor oligarch Gennady Trukhanov, protected by his bodyguards.
The Odessa Book Market is in a park in the center of a boulevard and was worth a visit for two reasons. The first was that the coffee was good and the second was that for decades the book market was just a front for a major illegal money changer. In fact, they still changed money for you if you liked to play roulette with your hard earned money.
The remaining Jewish cemetery was abandoned after the war, but it contained the memorial to the 1905 pogrom in which my great-grandfather died. The neglect added to a sense of loss.
Finally we arrived at the Moldovanka and it took my breath away.
The first was the Holocaust memorial on the street where thousands of Jews marched to the ghetto and their deaths.
Then the Moldovanka itself. I had the overwhelming feeling of having been there before. I have since shown some streetscape photographs of Moldovanka to friends and asked them where they think I took the photos. They all say the same thing: Glasgow. Amazingly, the Moldovanka was made up of the same apartment blocks that filled the Gorbals where my family landed in Glasgow.
They had fled the pogroms. They had scratched every kopek for the tickets. They had crossed strange seas and, unbeknownst to them, had been dumped in Glasgow because the Jewish quota for America had been reached.
Only to find that Glasgow felt like home.
I didn’t need to find the exact house or door.
I had seen what I had to do.