Six Jews lived in the Turkish fortress town of Khadzhibey when the Russian army captured it in 1789. After these areas became part of Russia, the community began to grow rapidly. In 1795, 246 Jews inhabited the town, by then renamed to Odessa; most of them originated from Volhynia, Podolia, and Lithuania. The community founded the brotherhood of Chevra Kadisha and a school. An official kehilla was established in 1798 and a synagogue was erected in the town. The first rabbi of Odessa was I. Rabinovich (died in 1815). Circa 1800, a Jewish hospital with six beds was opened.
The Jewish population in Odessa developed rapidly in the first half of the 19th century. In 1835, the number of Jews increased to ca. 12,000 (20% of the total population) and in 1855 – to 17,000 (21.7%). The population grew due to the mass influx of Jews from Russia, Germany, and Galicia. The newcomers from the latter region called themselves “Broders” as many of them came from Brody in the Lviv land.
During this period, Jews mainly earned their living from grain trade. Many of them were small merchants, intermediaries between landowners and exporters, agents of local and foreign (mainly Greek) companies. Many Jews were brokers employed on the grain exchange; they also dealt with weighing and loading goods. Others were engaged in crafts and trade in small industrial goods and food.
Large number of newcomers from Germany and Galicia fostered the early spread of the Haskalah in Odessa. In 1826, in response to a petition signed by 66 people, a general school was opened in the town; its curriculum included subjects related to Jewish religion and culture. Apart from the Russian language teacher, the entire teaching staff was composed of Jews from Germany and Austria; the principal was B. Shtern (1798–1853). In 1834, the school had 400 students, and in 1835, a branch for girls was opened. Jews were also educated in state-run educational institutions. In 1853, there were 52 Jewish students at the Secondary School No. 2. In 1840, the first Choral Synagogue in Russia was opened (called the Brodsky Synagogue) with N. Blumental as its cantor.
Compared to other cities in the Pale of Settlement, Odessa had a high number of Jewish representatives of the so-called free professions. In 1855, 12 physicians, six notaries, and four lawyers resided in the city. They remained on good terms with the Russian intelligentsia and received patronage from the municipal authorities. Vorontsov and Stroganov were the only governors in the Pale of Settlement to make efforts to improve the situation of the Jewish population. A special patron of the Jews was Pirogov, an outstanding Russian surgeon who was the guardian of the Odessa School District in the years 1856–1858. In 1858, the Odesskyi vestnik newspaper was taken over by the representatives of the intelligentsia close to Pirogov. The newspaper was friendly to Jews, making its columns available to Jewish writers and journalists.
In the 1860s and 1870s, Odessa was still the main centre of the Haskalah in Russia, and later also of the early Zionist movement. In May 1860, the first Jewish magazine in Russian – Rassvyet – was published in the town. It was later discontinued and replaced with the Sion periodical, published from July 1861 to April 1862 and edited by Yehuda Leib Pinsker, Dr E. Soloveitchik (died 1875), and Natan Bernstein (1836–1891). Both publications promoted Progressive ideas and led the fight against anti-Semitism in the Russian press. Another Russian-Jewish publication was the Dyehn (“Day”) newspaper, which came out from May 1869 to June 1871. Its high quality was assured by its editorial staff: A. Landau, M. Morgulis, and I. Orszański. In the years 1860–1871, a weekly in Hebrew called HaMelitz and its supplement in Yiddish called Kol Mewasser (since 1864) were printed in Odessa.
Odessa was the first city in Russia where Jews became victims of pogroms. They were mainly perpetrated by local Greeks and sailors from Greek ships. The anti-Jewish riots were the result of the economic and commercial competition between the Greek and Jewish population. The pogrom in 1821 was preceded by rumours of the participation of Jews in the murder of Patriarch George V in Constantinople. Two Jews were killed during the pogrom in 1859. Three days had to pass before the military quashed the unrest.
Subsequent pogroms took place in 1871, 1881 and 1886. Unlike the previous ones, they were perpetrated by crowds of Russians and Ukrainians. The authorities did not intervene. The pogrom in 1871, with Greek aggressors joined by representatives of other nations, exerted a huge influence on Jewish attitudes in Odessa and Russia; many started to doubt that it would ever be possible for Jews to integrate with the rest of the society. During the pogrom in 1881, Jewish self-defence, consisting mainly of students, tried to protect the community; the authorities arrested 150 of its members.
Pogroms and anti-Semitism largely affected the local population and its attitudes. One of the most visible outcomes of the anti-Jewish incidents was the rise of Zionism. In 1882, the headquarters of the Bilu organisation were transferred from Kharkiv to Odessa. Hovevei Zion groups were active in the town, with the leadership of the movement (including its head, Yehuda Leib Pinsker) moving to Odessa in December 1884. In the years 1889–1893, the town was also the seat of the leadership of the Bne-Moshe Lodge, headed by Ahad Ha’am. Odessa was home to the only Zionist organisation registered in Russia – the Odessa Committee, or the Association for the Assistance to Jews in Syria and Palestine.
Odessa was a vibrant centre of Hebrew literature. Some of its most prominent authors were Ahad Ha’am, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Meir Dizengoff (delegate from Odessa to the Fifth and Sixth Zionist Congress), Alter Druyanow, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. In the years 1892–1896, the Ha-Parades volumes were published. In 1901, Bialik, Ben-Zion, and Rawnicki founded the “Moria” publishing house, which printed books in Hebrew. In 1905–1916, the “Kadima” Zionist publishing house published books in Russian.
Odessa was a sui generis “gate to Zion” for everyone migrating from Russia to Palestine. The Odessa Committee founded the Rehovot and Hadera agricultural settlements in Eretz Israel. In 1902, a branch of Poale Zion was established in the town; it started to publish its own Russian-language magazine, titled Syonistskaya rabochaya hronika, in 1904. Most of the party’s members lived in Odessa, which was also home to the Central Committee of Poale Zion.
In 1855, the following educational institutions operated in Odessa: two male state Jewish schools, one female school, 51 cheders, a Talmud-Torah school, a boarding school for girls, and several private schools. The development of Jewish education was greatly influenced by the activities of the German rabbi, S. Szwabacher (1820–1888), who was the city’s rabbi in the years 1860–1887.
In 1863, 128 Jews studied in Odessa’s secondary schools. The number of Jewish students increased even more in the 1870s and 1880s. The situation changed after the introduction of percentage quotas in 1887. In the period 1887–1891, the number of Jews in high schools of the Odessa School District decreased by 48%. In 1910, 560 Jews were attending schools with percentage quotas. However, some of the profiled schools accepted Jews without limitations. In 1910, 285 Jews (59.5%) studied at the Imperial Musical High School; at the Imperial Fine Arts High School – ca. 300 (60%). In 1886, Jews constituted 30.7% of all students of the Faculty of Medicine at the Novorossiya University, and 41.2% at the Faculty of Law.
The percentage quotas were only temporarily abolished in the period of 1905–1907. In response to their introduction, Jewish social organisations founded several of their own high schools: the Iglitsky secondary school for boys, which had 400 pupils in 1910; five private high schools for girls (1,309 students in total); a school of commerce (opened in 1888; however, a 40% quota was introduced in 1895). When it comes to vocational schools, the best was the “Work” founded in 1864. In 1910, it was attended by 212 students. The curricula of Jewish schools followed the programme of the Ministry of Education. Additionally, they offered classes in the history of Jews, the Hebrew language, and the Bible. In 1910, the Odessa branch of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE – Obshchestva dlia Rasprostraneniia Prosveshcheniia Mezhdu Evreiami v Rossii) – chaired by G. Weinstein since 1891 – financed 13 primary schools and four evening schools. They were attended by ca. 2,000 students.
Although the local community was secular, Jewish Odessa boasted an active religious life. Ordinary and reformed cheders were operating in the town; in 1910, ca. 5,000 children and adolescents attended 200 cheders, and 630 pupils attended three Talmud-Torah schools. In 1905, Rabbi Chaim Chernowitz (1870–1949) founded a yeshiva in Odessa. In 1906, it was transformed into the Higher School of Judaism, where all subjects, including the Bible and the Talmud, were studied using the scientific method adopted in the majority of rabbinical seminaries in Central and Eastern Europe. In 1911, the yeshiva returned to its original traditional character.
At the turn of the 20th century, seven synagogues operated in Odessa, including the Main Synagogue, the Brodsky Synagogue, the New Synagogue, the Craftsmen’s Synagogue, and the Yavneh Synagogue; there were also 49 other houses of prayer. The last rabbi chosen by the Jews was Ch. Gurland, holding the post in the years 1888–1890. After his death, the authorities did not agree to elections, and from 1902 the candidates were selected regardless of the preferences of the Jewish community. In 1909, the Brodsky Synagogue was the first one in Russia to be furnished with pipe organ.
There were various Jewish charities active in Odessa, including a hospital which became a model medical facility at the end of the 19th century, as well as the Society for Mutual Assistance of Jewish Sellers from the city of Odessa, which had one of the largest libraries in the south of Russia. There were also two orphanages, the Society for the Care for Poor and Neglected Jewish Children, and the Society of Sanatorium Vacations. The town had branches of the Craft Workers’ Association, the Jewish Society for Health Protection, and other Jewish social organisations.
At the turn of the 20th century, Odessa became a large centre of Yiddish literature. Some of the most prominent Yiddish authors were Simon Dubnow, Josif Klauzner, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Simon Frug, and many others. In 1910, E. Levinsky founded Gut morgn, the first daily in Yiddish. As of 1911, the Shalom Aleichem newspaper started to be published. A Jewish theatre staging plays in Yiddish was founded in 1908; its artistic director was P. Hirschbein.
There were various Jewish political parties and social associations operating in the city: Zionists, territorialists, Jewish socialists, moderate activists associated with the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews. Most of the Jewish community representatives, except for the extreme socialists, united in 1905, forming the Odessa branch of the Union for the Attainment of Full Rights for the Jewish People of Russia.
The bloodiest pogrom in the history of Odessa took place on 18–20 October 1905. A total of 400 Jews lost their lives, and 50,000 were left without a roof over their heads. Jewish self-defence and student militia units tried to put a stop to the carnage instigated by the authorities. Their efforts were initially effective, but on the following day the army “intervened,” at times resorting to the use of artillery. Fifty members of self-defence were killed. Among the perpetrators of the pogrom was undoubtedly the governor of Odessa, Dmitri Neidhardt, who had prevented the Jewish delegation from stopping the massacre and then let himself lose control over his subordinate forces.
After the pogrom, the situation in Odessa was very tense. The authorities imposed martial law, which remained in force until autumn 1909. Nevertheless, the nationalist Union of the Russian Nation almost completely dominated the city. Armed gangs of “Black Hundreds” beat and harassed the Jews. On 10–11 June 1906, the situation became particularly serious, a new pogrom could have commenced at any moment.
The difficult situation of the Jews in Odessa exacerbated the disparities in the ranks of the Union for the Attainment of Full Rights for the Jewish People of Russia. During the elections to the Second Duma, the cadets proposed Osip Pergament (1868–1909), a baptised Jew, as their candidate. He was supported by Jewish liberals, but his candidacy also met with opposition from representatives of many movements, from leftist socialists to Zionists. Despite the protests, Pergament was elected to the Second and Third State Duma. After his death, another Jew, A. Brodsky (born 1862), was elected to the parliament from the cadet list, but he eventually resigned after being pressured by General Tolmachov.
According to the 1897 census, there were as many as 138,935 Jews in Odessa, constituting 34.4% of the total population. They earned their living from trade and crafts. They were the leading force in the local grain trade. In 1910, 46 out of all 55 companies dealing with grain exports belonged to Jews. They also held an important position in retail trade. In 1910, 56% of stalls in Odessa were Jewish-owned. Jews were also door-to-door and itinerant tradesmen and constituted 56% of all of the town’s craftsmen. All 59 tailor shops in the city were Jewish. However, very few Jews worked as labourers, except for the loaders in the harbour. In 1910, Jews owned 155 factories and industrial plants in Odessa (43%), as well as seven out of the 10 local banks. Some of the wealthiest Jewish families in the town were: Efrusiov, Brodsky, and Rafalovich (most of the members of this family converted to Orthodox Christianity in the 19th century). Nonetheless, the economic situation of most Jews was difficult. According to the 1897 census, only 2,000 Jews were classified as affluent. The living conditions of the poorest strata of the population deteriorated even more after the pogroms. This fostered the development of a large criminal underbelly which came to be a characteristic feature of the Odessa Jewish community, with most crooks inhabiting the legendary district of Moldavanka.
During World War I, the number of Odessa Jews increased even more due to the influx of refugees. The local branch of the Committee for Aid to Victims of War provided help to those in need.
Numerous restrictions imposed on the Jewish population were lifted after the February Revolution of 1917, which was conducive to the revival of the Jewish social life. In 1918, elections to the community board were held; the Zionists won 35 seats, the Bund – 26. The Zionists published a number of periodicals, including the Russian-language Yevreiskaya mysl weekly (1917–January 1920), the Palestina journal (1917–1918), and the Molodaya Yudeya biweekly. The Bund published two weeklies, the Rabochyi ponedelnik (1918) and the Nash Golos. Poale Zion published the Svobodnyi put newspaper, and the Socialist Jewish Workers’ Party – the Rabochaya mysl. There were also many magazines in Yiddish. In 1917–1920, Odessa was the most important centre of Hebrew book printing in Russia. Out of all 188 Hebrew-language publications issued in the Russian territories, 109 were printed in Odessa.
In 1917, the Maccabi Jewish Sports Association was established in Odessa. The very same year, the Tarbut society opened a Hebrew high school in the town. The Hazomir Jewish Music Society gave concerts under the direction of P. Minakovsky. The “Mizrachi” film company was in operation, producing documentaries, such as Jewish Life in America and Jewish Life in Palestine. Several feature films were produced: Cantonists, The Beilis Affair, A Bloody Joke.
Odessa was one of the most important centres of the HeHalutz movement. In 1918, a one-year school of gardening and horticulture was established, preparing its students for working the fields. Most of its graduates later left for Palestine. Odessa also became a transit point on the route of Jews travelling to the British Mandate from distant territories of Russia. In 1919, the “Ruslan” steamer sailed from Odessa to Jaffa with 630 settlers aboard.
The on-going civil war in Russia naturally had its impact on the local life in Odessa. Some of the military units, such as the Volunteer Army of General Denikin, demonstrated anti-Semitic attitudes. Jews were also attacked by members of various rouge gangs stirring up trouble around the country. In order to protect the community, the Jewish Combat Unit was established. Existing until spring 1920, with many well-armed members, it prevented any further pogroms.
Many Jews supported the Bolsheviks. The head of the Odessa Military-Revolutionary Committee (1918) and the Odessa People’s Commissars Council (1919) was Vladimir Yudovsky (1880–1949). An important role was also played by Jan Gamarnik (1894–1937) from Zhytomyr, chairman of the Governorate Committee of the Communist Party (1920–1923).
In 1920, Odessa had ca. 190,000 Jewish inhabitants. The number decreased to 153,194 (36.4%) in 1926, when some of the war refugees returned to their hometowns. In 1939, 180,000 inhabitants of the town were Jewish (29.8% of the total population). Jews followed their established career paths and maintained leading positions in the traditionally Jewish areas of economic life. In the 1920s, during the period of New Economic Policy (NEP), Jews constituted the majority of commercial employees, 90% of the Tailors’ Union members, 67% of the Printers’ Union members, 48% of urban service workers (including drivers and electricians), and 40% of the members of the Association of Free Professionals. However, thousands Jews also worked in heavy industry enterprises, where there had hardly been any Jewish workers before the revolution. At the same time, thousands were unemployed.
Along with the final establishment of the Soviet rule, the publishing and cultural activities in Hebrew ceased, and Zionism started to be persecuted. In the 1920s, many Jews were arrested for Zionist activity, and Zionist students were expelled from the university. During this period, HeHalutz groups continued to operate in Odessa, often in conspiracy. In 1923, there were 17 HeHalutz organisations in the Odessa Governorate with a total 350–400 members, and there was also the “Kadima” agricultural venture. In the early 1930s, as a result of mass arrests, the activities of HeHalutz in Odessa, as in the entire Soviet Union, discontinued. In the 1920s, all large synagogues were closed down, including the Brodsky Synagogue, which in 1925 was converted into a Jewish dayroom; there were still several small synagogues operating on the outskirts of the city.
Almost until the end of the 1930s, Odessa was a major centre of Yiddish culture in the USSR. The Jewish language was used as the predominant language in many state offices. There were even militia posts and district courts where Yiddish was the official language. Many Jewish schools operated in the city; in 1926, they were attended by 22% of all Odessa’s pupils. The Department of Yiddish Studies was opened at the university, there were also Jewish pedagogical technical schools, libraries, the Jewish Soviet Party School and the Mendele Mocher Sforim Museum. Several periodicals were published in Yiddish. In the early 1930s, the Kharkiv Jewish State Theatre performed in Odessa for a part of the season. In 1935, the Odessa Jewish Theatre was founded. In 1935–1941 and 1945–1948, its artistic director was E. Lojter. However, from the mid-1930s, the Yiddish cultural institutions started to be gradually liquidated.
The lives and works of many Russian writers and poets, mainly belonging to the so-called Southwestern School, are related to Odessa. This group included: Isaac Babel, Eduard Bagricki, and Vera Inber. Many prominent musicians were born in Odessa and studied music in that city. Piotr Stolarski’s violin school (187–-1944) was known throughout the world, becoming a milestone in the 20th century’s musical art. Stolarski’s students were: Boris Goldstein (1922–1987), Yelizaveta Gilels (1919–2008), David Oistrakh (1908–1974).
The defence of Odessa against the Germans and their allies was held from 5 August to 16 October 1941. Even before the fall of the city, 40–45% of the Jews had left, both civilians and soldiers of the Red Army. On the other hand, thousands of Jews came to the town from Bessarabia, Tiraspol, Ovidiopol, and other localities. When the Germans and Romanians entered the city on 16 October 1941, it was still inhabited by 100,000 Jews.
On 16–18 October 1941, the German Einsatzgruppen and the Romanian Operational Echelon murdered several thousand Jews. All men aged 18–50 were registered and most of them were arrested.
On 22 October 1941, a Soviet bomb with a delayed ignition (deliberately left behind by NKVD sappers) exploded in the Romanian headquarters, killing 67 people, including the commander of the Odessa region, Gen. Ion Glogojanu. In response, the occupants – Einsatzgruppen and the Romanians – immediately murdered about 5,000 people, mostly Jews. Mass executions, combined with dragging people out of their apartments, took place on Marazlievskaya Street, at the Great Fontana, Slobodka, Moldavanka, Blizhiye and Dalniye Melnitsy. Ca. 400 people were hanged on Alexandrovsky Avenue. Others were rushed down the road to Lustdorf, to the former artillery depots, where they were shot or burned to death. Altogether,
22,000–28,000 people were murdered in the operations carried out by Romanians and Germans in the first period of the occupation.
On 23 October 1941, the occupation authorities ordered all Jews to gather in the village of Dalnik on the following day. Ca. 5,000 people arrived to the site. A group of fifty Jews was rushed by the Romanians to the antitank ditch, where they were all killed by Lieutenant Colonel Nicolae Deleanu, commander of the 10th Machine Gun Battalion. The others were locked in four barracks that had been previously sprinkled with petrol. The victims were shot to death, killed by grenades or burnt alive. The Jews who came to Dalnik later were told that they received “forgiveness.” After a few days, having been registered by the police, they were allowed to return to their homes, which by then had already been occupied or plundered. As a result of all these events, Odessa lost about 10% of its population in the first week of the occupation.
In the beginning of November 1941, Germans began mass deportations of Jews from the city to Domanivka Raion, Odessa Oblast. Most were rushed on foot, in groups of 2,000–5,000 people. The destination was the Bogdanovka sovkhoz, specialising in breeding pigs; many Jews perished on the way. In mid-December 1941, there were as many as 55,000 Jews in Bogdanovka (some of them from outside Odessa). From 20 December 1941 to 15 January 1942, all Jews staying in Bogdanovka were shot by Einsatzgruppen, Romanian soldiers, Ukrainian policemen and German colonists. Thousands of Jews were murdered in other towns of the Domanivka Raion.
In November–December 1941, Germans issued various decrees targeting the Jewry remaining in the city. All men aged between 18 and 50 were ordered to appear at the prison; all valuables were to be registered; the Jewish population was obliged to wear the Star of David.
On 7 December 1941, the occupiers declared Odessa the capital of Transnistria. It was to be “cleansed” of Jews (Judenrein). On 10 January 1942, the Romanian authorities ordered the creation of a ghetto in Slobodka, a distant suburb of Odessa. The ghetto was extremely overcrowded, with many people living under the open sky; the disastrous living conditions resulted in high mortality rate. From 14 January to 20 February 1942, Jews started to be transported to Berezivka Raion, Odessa Oblast. Germans packed them into unheated trains that would stop and stand in the fields for hours. Many Jews died in the carriages. Once arrived to Berezivka, the Jews were arranged into groups and rushed on foot to the villages of Sirotskoye, Domanivka, and Bogdanovka. Many victims did not reach their destination, dying of hunger and cold on the way. Mass executions were carried out by units made up of Romanian soldiers and German colonists. In Domanivka and other sites, Jews were placed in half-demolished, roofless houses. Those who were sick and impaired were led by Germans to two ruined stables at the edge of the village of Domanivka, where they died of starvation.
The situation in the ghetto in Domanivka and other towns in the region did not change until 1943, when Jews began to receive help from Jewish organisations in Romania. Ca. 600 prisoners lived to see the liberation. Several hundred Jews also survived the occupation in Odessa itself. Many of them had fake documents, went into hiding or were helped by Russians and Ukrainians. Jews formed a significant part of the resistance movement, using the local – in the literal sense – underground network stretching under the city.
The total number of Odessa Jews who became victims of occupation and extermination amounted to ca. 99,000–115,000.
After the end of the war and the return of the evacuees, Odessa once again became one of the largest Jewish centres in the Soviet Union. In 1959, according to the official census, the city was inhabited by 106,700 Jews (16% of the total population); however, in reality the number was much larger. In 1970, there were 117,223 Jews in all towns of the oblast, 10,763 of whom declared Yiddish as their mother tongue.
In the years 1944–1947, the local radio broadcast programmes in Yiddish. In 1945, the Jewish Theatre of Odessa returned from Tashkent. However, in 1948, an anti-Semitic campaign began. The remains of Jewish culture were attacked, many Jews were laid off from work, and some were arrested. In the 1950s and 1960s, Odessa newspapers repeatedly wrote about the need to close the only remaining synagogue in the city. In the 1970s and 1980s, several Jewish activists were imprisoned, most prominently Raisa Palatnik (1937–1995).
As of the end of the 1960s, many Jews applied for a permit to leave the country. In 1968–1978, 17,370 Jews left the city – 3,940 to Israel, and 13,431 to the United States and other countries.
During the perestroika period (from the mid-1980s), Jewish social and cultural life in Odessa began to revive. In 1990, the Odessa Society of Jewish Culture was founded and started to cooperate with the Jewish Cultural Association of Moldova. They jointly published the Nash Golos newspaper, mainly in Russian, but with some articles written in Yiddish. Nevertheless, the community continued to shrink as a result of emigration to Israel, the United States and other countries. In 1989, 9,603 Jews departed, in 1990 – 6,806.
Emigration, most often to Israel, did not cease at the turn of the 21st century. Nevertheless, there are two Jewish communities, a school, a yeshiva and a kosher shop in the city today. According to the latest detailed data from 2001, there were 12,400 Jews living in Odessa, constituting 1.2% of the total population.
- Odessa, Yevreiskaya Elektronnaya Entsiklopedya [online:] https://jewishencyclopedia.ru/?mode=article&id=13047 [Accessed: 16 Mar 2018].