Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Odesa, Ukraine

Odesa is the capital of the Odesa district, Ukraine. In the 19th century, it became the industrial and commercial center of southern Russia. In 1865 a university was founded. Odesa was an important center of the Russian revolutionary movement. Under the Soviet regime, it lost some of its importance. In October 1941 Odesa was occupied by the German and Romanian armies and was under Romanian military rule until its liberation in April 1944.

From the 1880s until the 1920s the Jewish community of Odesa was the second largest in the whole of Russia (after *Warsaw, the capital of Poland, then within czarist Russia) and it had considerable influence on the Jews of the country. The principal characteristics of this community, and responsible for its particular importance, were the rapid and constant growth of the Jewish population and its extensive participation in the economic development of the town, the outstanding "Western" character of its cultural life, and numerous communal institutions, especially educational and economic institutions, the social and political activity of the Jewish public, the mood of tension and struggle which was impressed on its history, and the Hebrew literary center which emerged there.

Beginnings of the Community

The Russians found six Jews when they took the fortress of Khadzhi-Bei in 1789; the oldest Jewish tombstone in the cemetery dates from 1793. Five Jews were among those who in 1794 received plots for the erection of houses and shops and the planting of gardens. The Gemilut Ḥesed Shel Emet society (ḥevra kaddisha) was founded in 1795. In 1796 Jews participated in the administration of the town. The kahal (community administration) was already in existence in 1798 when the first synagogue was built; the first rabbi to hold office, in 1809, was Isaac Rabinovich of Bendery.

Growth of the Jewish Population

There were 246 Jews (out of a total population of 2,349) in 1795, 6,950 (out of 41,700) in 1831, 51,378 (out of 193,513) in 1873, 138,935 (out of 403,815) in 1897. During the Soviet period, the Jewish population continued to grow: in 1926, 153,243 (of a total population of 420,862), and 200,981 in 1939 (out of 604,217). It was then the second largest Jewish population in Ukraine, after Kiev. After World War II 108,900 Jews lived in Odesa (12.1% of the total) in 1959, and 86,000 (8.4% of the total) in 1979.

Economic Status

From the start, the Jews of Odesa engaged in retail trade and crafts. Their representation in these occupations remained important. In 1910, 56% of the small shops were still owned by Jews; they also constituted 63% of the town's craftsmen. Jewish economy in Odesa was distinguished by the role played by Jews in the export of grain via the harbor, in wholesale trade, banking and industry, the large numbers of Jews engaged in the liberal professions, and the existence of a large Jewish proletariat in variegated employment.

During the first half of the 19th century, the participation of Jews in the grain export trade was limited to the purchase of grain in the villages and estates, and to brokerage and mediation in the capacity of subagents for the large export companies, which were Greek, Italian, and French. By 1838, Jews were well represented among the officials of the exchange, and as classifiers, sorters, weighers, and even loaders of grain. From the 1860s, however, Jewish enterprises won a predominant place in grain export and succeeded in supplanting the export companies of foreign merchants from their monopolist positions. During the early 1870s, the greater part of the grain exports was handled by Jews, and by 1910 over 80% of grain export companies were Jewish-owned, while Jews were responsible for almost 90% (89.2%) of grain exports. This success in Jewish trade was not only due to greater efficiency in the organization of purchases and rapidity in their expedition, but was also connected with the constant rise of grain prices and the decline of commercial profit rates, which resulted in a tremendous increase of the grain exports which passed through the port of Odesa.

Jews also held an important share of the wholesale trade; about one-half of the wholesale enterprises were owned by Jews in 1910. During the 1840s most of the bankers and moneychangers were Jews, and at the beginning of the 20th century, 70% of the banks of Odesa were administered by them. Among the industrialists, Jews formed 43%, but their manufactured products amounted only to 39%. In 1910, 70% of those engaged in medicine were Jews; about 56% of those engaged in law, and about 27% of those engaged in technical professions (engineers, architects, chemists, etc.). About two-thirds of the Jewish population were engaged in crafts and industry, in transportation and services, and in other categories of labor. More than one-half of these (about one-third of the Jewish population) belonged, from the social point of view to the proletariat – industrial workers, apprentices in workshops, and ordinary laborers. During the 1880s these formed a considerable part of the Jewish proletariat (about one-third), and their standard of living, as that of the poorer classes, was very low. With the progress of industrialization in Odesa, many of them were integrated in new enterprises and the number of unskilled workers decreased.

The October Revolution of 1917 brought a decline in the commercial status of Odesa as well as the process of socialization. While this affected the means of livelihood of the majority of Jews, much of their experience and skills were utilized in the new social and economic structure under different designations. In 1926 Jews formed the overwhelming majority of the commercial clerks (in government stores and cooperatives), about 90% of the members of the tailors' union, 67% of the members of the printing workers' union, about 53% of those employed in the timber industries, about 48% of the municipal workers (which also included drivers, electricians, etc.), and about 40% of the members of the free professionals' union. Thousands of Jewish workers found employment in heavy industry (metal industry, sugar refineries, shipbuilding), in which Jews had formerly been absent, and of which only 27% were members of the trade unions: during the same year, the Jews formed up to 64% of those engaged in the smaller private industries which occupied some of those thousands who had remained unemployed and had not been successfully integrated within the new economic regime.

Cultural Trends

From the cultural aspect, the Odesa community was the most "Western" in character in the *Pale of Settlement. Its population was gathered from all the regions of Russia and even from abroad (particularly from *Brody in Galicia and from Germany, during the 1820s–30s), and the throwing off of tradition became a quite familiar occurrence. This situation was expressed by a popular Jewish saying: "The fire of Hell burns around Odesa up to a distance of ten parasangs." The low standard of Torah learning within the community and the general ignorance and apathy of the Odesa Jews in their attitude to Judaism were depicted in popular witticisms as well as in literature (Y.T. *Lewinsky). Linguistic and cultural Russian assimilation encompassed widespread classes and thus formed a social basis for the community's role as an active and organized center for the spread of Russian education among the Jews of southern Russia. The social and economic position of the maskilim of Odesa (the "Brodyists") drew them closer to the authorities and enabled them to gain considerable influence within the community and the shaping of its institutions. Odesa was thus the first community in Russia to be directed by maskilim, who retained their control over its administration throughout its existence: the "Council of the Wealthy and Permanently Appointed Jews" and later the "Commission of the Twenty" (which also included the delegates of the synagogue officials), which was organized as an opposition to the leadership of the community after 1905.

Educational and Communal Institutions

The cultural character of the community was reflected in its educational institutions. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were still about 200 ḥadarim, attended by about 5,000 pupils, in Odesa; 97% of these pupils came from the masses of the poor, and the ḥadarim were generally not of high standing. At the same time, about 6,500 pupils (boys and girls) attended 40 Jewish elementary schools (of which three were talmudei torah and 13 of the *Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia) of public, governmental, or semipublic categories. The language of instruction in these schools was Russian, while Jewish subjects held an insignificant place or were hardly studied at all. Many Jewish pupils studied at the government municipal schools (in 1886, over 200 pupils – 8%) and government secondary schools (about 50% of the male and female pupils in 1910), about 2,500 pupils in private secondary schools, and about 700 pupils in Jewish vocational schools (for boys and girls); there were also many hundreds of Jewish students at the university (the maximum figure in 1906 was 746). In addition, Jews studied at the governmental college for music and arts (60%) and the advanced private professional colleges (for dentistry, midwifery, etc.). There were also numerous evening classes and courses for adults. Of the Jewish schools, noteworthy was the vocational school Trud ("Labor") which was founded in 1864 and was the best of its class, and the yeshivah (founded 1866) which after 1906, when it was headed by Rav Ẓa'ir (Ḥayyim *Tchernowitz) and its teachers included Ḥ.N. *Bialik and J. *Klausner, attracted excellent pupils and achieved fame.

The educational institutions of Odesa became examples and models for other communities from the foundation of the first Jewish public school (in 1826), in which an attempt was made to provide a general and modern Hebrew education (with modern literature as a subject of study) under the direction of Bezalel *Stern; it had considerable influence within the Haskalah movement of Russia. Other institutions which also served as models included the synagogue of the "Brodyists," where a choir and modern singing were introduced during the 1840s, and in 1901, an organ; orphanages; agricultural training farms; summer camps for invalid children; and a large and well-equipped hospital.

Social and Political Activities

The prominent social and political activities of the Jews of Odesa had considerable influence on the rest of Russian Jewry. The community leaders and maskilim showed considerable initiative and made frequent representations to the authorities to obtain improvements in the condition of the Jews and their legal equality with the other inhabitants during the 1840s, 1850s, and 1870s, and called for the punishment of those who took part in the pogroms of 1871, 1881, and 1905 (see below). They were the first in Russia to adopt the system of publicly and courageously defending the Jews in the Russian-Jewish press which they had established (*Razsvet (1860), of Joachim H. Tarnopol and O.A. *Rabinovich; Zion of E. Soloveichik and L. *Pinsker; Den (1869), of S. Orenstein with the permanent collaboration of I.G. *Orshanski and M. *Morgulis), while the criticisms they published of internal Jewish matters were also sharp and violent in tone. The Hebrew and Yiddish Haskalah press (*Ha-Meliẓ, 1860; *Kol Mevasser, 1863) which had been born in Odesa (under the editorship of A. *Zederbaum) also adopted this "radical" attitude to some extent. Jews of Odesa contributed largely to the local press, where they also discussed Jewish affairs. At the beginning of the 20th century, a style of Jewish awareness became apparent in discussions of Russian-speaking and Russian-educated Jews (V. *Jabotinsky and his circle) which was widely echoed within the Jewish public, particularly in southern Russia. The social and political awakening of the Jewish masses was also widespread in Odesa. Odesa Jews played an extensive and even prominent part in all trends of the Russian liberation movement. The Zionist movement also attracted masses of people.

The Pogroms

This social and political awakening of the masses arose in the atmosphere of strain and struggle surrounding the life of the community. Anti-Jewish outbreaks occurred on five occasions (1821, 1859, 1871, 1881, 1905) in Odesa, as well as many attempted attacks or unsuccessful efforts to provoke them. Intensive anti-Jewish agitation shadowed and accompanied the growth of the Jewish population and its economic and cultural achievements. Almost every sector of the Christian population contributed to the agitation and took part in the pogroms: the monopolists of the grain export (especially the Greeks in 1821, 1859, 1871) in an attempt to strike at their Jewish rivals, wealthy Russian merchants, nationalist Ukrainian intellectuals, and Christian members of the liberal professions who regarded the respected economic position of the Jews, who were "deprived of rights" in the other towns of the country, and their Russian acculturation as "the exploitation of Christians and masters at the hands of heretics and foreigners" (1871, 1881). The government administration and its supporters favored the *pogroms as a means for punishing the Jews for their participation in the revolutionary movement; pogroms were also an effective medium for diverting the anger of the discontented masses from opposition to the government to hatred of the Jews (1881, 1905); the masses, the "barefoot," the destitute, the unemployed, and the embittered of the large port city were always ready to take part in robbery and looting.

The severest pogroms occurred in 1905, and the collaboration of the authorities in their organization was evident. In this outbreak, over 300 Jews lost their lives, whilst thousands of families were injured. Among the victims were over 50 members of the Jewish *self-defense movement. Attempts to organize the movement had already been made at the time of the pogroms of the 1880s, but in this city inhabited by Jewish masses it had formed part of their existence before then and on many occasions had deterred attempted pogroms. After the Revolution, during 1917–19, the Association of Jewish Combatants was formed by ex-officers and soldiers of the Russian army. It was due to the existence of this association that no pogroms occurred in Odesa throughout the Civil War period.

Zionist and Literary Center

From the inception of the *Ḥibbat Zion movement, Odesa served as its chief center. From here issued the first calls of M.L. *Lilienblum ("The revival of Israel on the land of its ancestors") and L. Pinsker ("Auto-Emancipation") which gave rise to the movement, worked for its unity ("Zerubbavel," 1883), and headed the leadership which was established after the *Kattowitz Conference ("Mazkeret Moshe," 1885–89). The *Benei Moshe society (founded by *Aḥad Ha-Am in 1889), which attempted to organize the intellectuals and activists of the movement, was established in Odesa. Odesa was also chosen as the seat of the settlement committee (the *Odesa Committee, called officially The Society for the Support of Agricultural Workers and Craftsmen in Syria and Palestine), the only legally authorized institution of the movement in Russia (1890–1917). Several other economic institutions for practical activities in Palestine (Geulah, the Carmel branch, etc.) were associated with it. Jewish emigration from Russia to Ereẓ Israel also passed through Odesa, which became the "Gateway to Zion."

The social awakening of the masses gave rise to the popular character of the Zionist movement in Odesa. It succeeded in establishing an influential and ramified organization, attracting a stream of intellectual and energetic youth from the townlets of the Pale of Settlement to Odesa – the center of culture and site of numerous schools – and provided the Jewish national movement with powerful propagandists, especially from among the ranks of those devoted to Hebrew literature. The group of authors and activists which rallied around the Zionist movement and actively participated in the work of its institutions included M.L. Lilienblum and Ahad Ha-Am, M.M. *Ussishkin, who headed the Odesa Committee during its last decade of existence, and M. *Dizengoff, Zalman *Epstein and Y.T. Lewinsky, M. *Ben-Ammi and H. *Rawnitzky, Ḥ.N. Bialik and J. *Klausner, A. *Druyanow and A.M. Berakhyahu (Borochov), Ḥ. *Tchernowitz, S. Pen, M. *Gluecksohn and V. Jabotinsky. These had great influence on this youth, who were not only initiated into Jewish national activity, but were enriched in Jewish culture and broadened in general education. Important literary forums were established in Odesa (Kavveret, 1890; Pardes, 1891–95; *Ha-Shilo'aḥ, 1897–1902; 1907–17; *Haolam, 1912–17); their editors (Aḥad Ha-Am, Y.H. Rawnitzky, Ḥ.N. Bialik, J. Klausner, A. Druyanow, and M. Gluecksohn) not only succeeded in raising them to a high literary standard but also won considerable influence among the public through the ideological integrity of their publications. The publishing houses established in Odesa (Rawnitzky, Moriah; Ḥ.N. Bialik and Y.H. Rawnitzky, S. *Ben-Zion and Y.T. Lewinsky, *Devir, founded by Bialik and his circle, from 1919) were also systematic in their standards and consistently loyal to their ideology. A Hebrew literary center and "Hebrew climate" was created in Odesa. It united the Hebrew writers by an internal bond more closely than in any other place; it attracted toward Hebrew literature authors who had become estranged from it or who had never approached it (Mendele Mokher Seforim, S. *Dubnow, Ben-David, M. Ben-Ammi, S.S. *Frug, V. Jabotinsky); it produced new authors who were to play an important and valuable role in literature (S. *Tchernichowsky, J. Klausner, N. *Slouschz, etc.); it attracted talented young authors (S. Ben-Zion, Y. *Berkowitz, J. *Fichmann, Z. *Shneour, A.A. *Kabak, E. *Steinman, and many others) who sought the benefit of this congenial literary meeting place refecting the spirit of its distinguished founders (Aḥad Ha-Am and Ḥ.N. Bialik). The arguments between the leaders of the national movement (Aḥad Ha-Am and S. Dubnow, M.M. Ussishkin and V. Jabotinsky) and its opponents, grouped around the local branch of the Society for Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia who stood for "striking civic roots, linguistic-cultural assimilation, and general ideals" (M. Morgulis, J. *Bikerman, etc.), were published at length and grew in severity from year to year, their influence penetrating far beyond Odesa. With the advent of the Soviet regime, Odesa ceased to be the Jewish cultural center in southern Russia. The symbol of the destruction of Hebrew culture was the departure from Odesa for Constantinople in June 1921 of a group of Hebrew authors led by Bialik. The *Yevsektsiya chose *Kharkov and *Kiev as centers for its activities among the Jews of the Ukraine. Russian-oriented assimilation prevailed among the Jews of Odesa in the 1920s (though the city belonged to the Ukraine). Over 77% of the Jewish pupils attended Russian schools in 1926 and only 22% Yiddish schools. At the University, where up to 40% of the student role was Jewish, a faculty of Yiddish existed for several years which also engaged in research of the history of Jews in southern Russia. The renowned Jewish libraries of the city were amalgamated into a single library named after Mendele Mokher Seforim. In the later 1930s, as in the rest of Russia, Jewish cultural activity ceased in Odesa and was eventually completely eradicated. The rich Jewish life in Odesa found vivid expression in Russian-Jewish fiction, as, e.g., in the novels of *Yushkevich, in Jabotinsky's autobiographical stories and his novel Piatero ("They Were Five," 1936) and particularly in the colorful Odesa Tales by Isaac *Babel, which covered both the pre-revolutionary and the revolutionary period and described the Jewish proletariat and underworld of the city.


Eshkol, Enziklopedyah Yisre'elit, 1 (1929), 809–26; B. Shohetman, in: Arim ve-Immahot be-Yisrael, 2 (1948), 58–108 (incl. bibl.); J. Lestschinsky, Dos Sovetishe Yidntum (1941; Heb. tr. Ha-Yehudim be-Rusyah ha-Sovyetit, 1943); A.P. Subbotin, V cherte yevreyskoy osedlosti, 2 (1888); J.J. Lerner, Yevrei v Novorossiyskom kraye-istoricheskiye ocherki (1901); A. Dallin, Odesa 19411944… (1957); Litani, in: Yedi'ot Yad Vashem, no. 23–24 (1960), 24–26; idem, in: Yad Vashem Studies (1967), 135–54; A. Werth, Russia at War, 19411945 (1964), 813–26; S. Schwarz, Jews in the Soviet Union (1951), index, I. Ehrenburg et al. (eds.), Cartea Neagr…, 1 (1946), 92–107; M. Carp (ed.), Cartea Neagr… 2 (1948); 3 (1947), indexes; Procesul Marii Traˇdaˇri Nationale (1946), index; PK Romanyah (1969), 390–4.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.