street names, demolished was the cathedral, exhumed from their graves were Vorontsov and his faithless consort; the new boast of the city was its part in the 1905 rising, very soon immortalised by Comrade Eisenstein.
So Odessa adjusted, on the whole, to the new regime, and became a favoured resort on the Soviet Union’s Red Riviera, where veterans of 1905, cheerful artful dodgers and ir repressible Jewish comedians sustained the civic reputation. King brings us to this fulfilment with careful restraint: but now, at the coming of the Second World War, he springs upon his readers a ghastly late surprise.
Like me, probably few of his British readers will know that when the Germans captured Odessa in 1941, near the start of their treacherous onslaught upon Stalin’s Russia, they did not themselves administer the city and its surrounding territory but entrusted it to their allies the Romanians. In the previous year the Soviets had annexed from Romania regions that formed the immediate hinterland of Odessa, so when they themselves were driven out in the following year the Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu readily accepted the captured terr itor ies from the victorious Nazis. Romania’s zone of occupation was called Transnistria. One result was the expulsion or extermination of the Odessan Jewish community. Antonescu’s Romanians were as violently anti-Semitic as the Nazis themselves, if less well-organised in their persecutions, and the cruel climax of this book describes their behaviour. ‘Odessa used to impress its visitors,’ declared one of the newspapers they established in the city, ‘mainly through the smell of dirty yid diapers … You’d think that only yids lived there.’ But then, cried Gazeta Odesei, came the Romanians, and the Jewish hullabaloo was put to an end. Odessa started to cleanse itself of its filth. ‘The repulsive smell of Jewish courtyards disappeared with time, and Odessa awoke to a new life, full of luminous hope.’
But not for the Jews. Antonescu outlawed Jewishness throughout Transnistria. Judaism was declared an illegal religion, and Jews were regarded as more or less indistinguishable from communists as endemic enemies of the state. A ghetto was established, something altogether new in Odessa, and later all Jews were officially expelled from the city, their property confiscated and they themselves subject to forced labour in the countryside. By then, though, with German help, literally thousands of Jews had been executed in reprisal for Soviet partisan activities – the Romanian general in command ordered all his units to hang ‘at least 100 Jews’ each. Jewish leaders were murdered, and there were mass hangings and shootings all over the city. Overhead trolley-bus cables were used as gallows, and the lines of dangling bodies stretched out into the suburbs.
King relates all these horrors with calm and sorrowful restraint, relying upon contemporary accounts or statistics. Perhaps the most telling of them comes from an official Soviet report compiled in 1944, when Odessa had been liberated from the Romanians by the Red Army and pro-
claimed a Hero City of the Soviet Union. In 1939 there had been half a million Jews in the city. In 1944, so the Soviet commissars found, there were forty-eight. What now? Ask any cruise ship passenger, from the thousands that come ashore nowadays at Odessa, the great port of the Ukrainian Republic. The Pearl of the South, the Hero City of the Soviet Union, has emerged from the shadows, but in many ways, King tells us, it is a twilight town still, ‘sitting uneasily inside a new country and more comfortable marketing its distant past than presenting itself as a city of the future’.
It has its Opera House still, and all the tourists go to see the Potemkin Steps. It has its Irish pubs, too, its cappuccino cafés along tree-lined boulevards, and they have rebuilt its cathedral. It seems, though, that it has still not acquired a permanent civic identity. History will not let it rest. Since Odessa stopped being Russian and became Ukrainian, the city government has removed 148 public monuments (104 of them to Lenin) and renamed 179 streets (often in Ukrainian spelling).
Almost at the end of his fine book Charles King takes us to Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn. During the tumultuous twentieth century so many people from Odessa came to live here, many of them Jews, that journalists liked to call it Little Odessa; but they took their homeland with them, and even in Brighton Beach, King says, far, far from the Black Sea, they still find themselves in a place ‘perched between reality and memory’. To order this book for £15.99, see LR bookshop on page 12
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011