In the Beginning
Odessa was established in 1794 by the Empress Catherine the Great on land conquered from the Ottoman Empire on the site of the Black Sea fortress town of Khadzhibei. Catherine sent notices throughout Europe offering migrants land, tax exemptions, and religious freedom, attracting migrants of all types.
Thanks to its status until 1859 as a porto franco —a free port, exempt from taxes—Odessa attracted wealthy foreign merchants and exporters. Within a few decades, it became a sizable city as well as the preeminent Russian grain-exporting center. Odessa was multinational, multilingual, and multiethnic, which was reflected in its cafés. The 1855 Robert Sears guide to the Russian Empire declared that
“there is perhaps no town in the world in which so many different tongues may be heard as in the streets and coffeehouses of Odessa, the motley population consisting of Russians, Tartars, Greeks, Jews, Poles, Italians, Germans, French, etc.”
In particular, Odessa appealed to Jewish migrants because the city was located at the southern end of the Pale of Settlement, the area of the Russian Empire to which Jews were confined. This meant that Jews could settle there with few restrictions. Many Jews, both from Galicia, especially the city of Brody, and from small towns throughout the Russian Empire, made their way to Odessa in search of a better life.
Politically and culturally, toward the middle of the nineteenth century, Odessa became a center of Jewish life and attracted many maskilim: proponents of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment that began to take hold in eastern European cities and towns. In the 1860s, Odessa was the empire’s center for the publication of multilingual Jewish periodicals. Rassvet, Sion, and Den appeared in Russian-language editions between 1860 and 1871, as did Ha-melits in Hebrew and Kol mevaser in Yiddish in the same period. By the late 1860s, major Jewish book publishers opened branches in Odessa, promoting, among other publications, books of the Haskalah movement.
Odessa in the Late Nineteenth Century
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Odessa became the fourth-largest city in the Russian Empire. Around that time, Odessa was blessed, or cursed, with many cafés. In 1894, the newspaper Proshloe Odessy reported about 55 cafés and teahouses, 127 bakeries, and 413 restaurants in the city. In 1897, the 138,935 Jews constituted over a third of the city’s total population. Most of the Jews who lived in Odessa at end of the nineteenth century were migrants, from middle-class merchants to poor Jews, who were living and working as small artisans and middlemen in neighborhoods and suburbs such as Moldavanka.
Around the same time, an extraordinary group of Jewish writers, intellectuals, and political figures formed a loose circle in the city that became known as the "Sages of Odessa." They wrote in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian and had followers far and wide. Yiddish theater also flourished in late-nineteenth century Odessa, nurtured by creative spaces like café-chantants and Café Fanconi where actors like Jacob Adler and Avrom Goldfaden would meet and perform.
Revolution and Crime in the "City of Life"
After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, there were waves of anti-Jewish violence in the Russian Empire including Odessa. Anti-Semitism and political tension in Odessa and its cafés only increased in 1905 in the wake of the abortive Russian Revolution against the tsarist regime, sparking a large pogrom in which at least four hundred Jews and one hundred non-Jews were killed and approximately three hundred people, mostly Jews, were injured.
Nonetheless, Odessa and its cafés continued to be central to Jewish culture, which in the early twentieth century became linked to Odessa's mythologized image as a “city of rogues and gangsters.” The complicated identity of Odessa during this time—an exchange between the image of a criminal Odessa and that of middle-class respectability—was expressed in a feuilleton penned in June 1913 by Leri, one of Odesskiy listok’s journalists, concerning Odessa’s popular cafés:
“It is always the way in Odessa. First, the tasteless smoke-filled mansions of Robina, Libman. . . . a cup of coffee, and business conversation; then, an assault and battery, breach of the public peace; then, the bleak chamber of the justice of the peace. And the next day small synopses printed in the newspapers. Such are our ways, a kind of Odessan fun-house mirror.”
World War I and Sovietization
During World War I, Odessa was far from major battlefields and majorly unperturbed. Ya’akov Fichman, a Hebrew poet who lived in Odessa during the first years of the 1900s, came back to the city in 1915 and observed that Odessa during the Great War was “calmer and quieter than the day it was established”:
“The deserted port seemed as if it stretched to the eastern horizon. . . . The city itself was full of life. The cafés were full of people. . . . The War years—I am afraid to say—were the most carefree years in our life.”
As a consequence of the 1917 October Revolution and the consolidation of Soviet control in Odessa, Jewish schools, synagogues, and other religious groups, including nearly all non-Bolshevik cultural institutions, were closed. Almost all Hebrew and some Yiddish writers left Odessa in 1921 after Hebrew was declared a “reactionary” Zionist language in the Soviet Union. Many of them found new homes in Berlin, New York, and Tel Aviv.
While a group of Jewish Russian writers, including Isaac Babel, continued to write about the mythological "Old Odessa" and its cafés most of these writers did so from outside Odessa, in cities which offered more opportunity. By the 1920s, the cafés were closing their doors one by one and were replaced by a tangible nostalgia for the golden era of cafés.
World War II and the Aftermath
Following a siege lasting two months, on 17 October 1941 the Romanians and Germans occupied Odessa, which was officially declared part of Romanian Transnistria. Jews were immediately registered separately, with some 8,000 slaughtered during the few first days. Many Jews had fled the city during the siege; there were between 80,000 and 90,000 Jews residing there at the time it was invaded. By war’s end, only 5,000 remained alive. (YIVO)
Soviet troops recaptured the city on 10 April 1944. Statistics on the city’s immediate postwar population are imprecise, but as many as 180,000 Jews were living in Odessa as of the late 1950s, the vast majority of them recent arrivals. Postwar Soviet Odessa was marked by blatant antisemitism and anti-Jewish persecution, along with the closing down of all Yiddish institutions and the arrest of Yiddish cultural activists. Emil Draitser described his childhood experience in the postwar Soviet Union in Shush! Growing Up Jewish under Stalin:
“There's no hope of escape. No matter where I run, I am branded. "Without kin," "Unscrupulous," "Rootless." [...] Since everyone avoids using the word Jew, the feeling that I belong to a strange, ill-defined ethnicity takes roots in me and lasts for a long time [...] A people like a curse.”
The mythological 'Jewish City,' Odessa continues to inspire fiction about its Jewish life and rich past, much of it inseparable from the cafés which harbored so much of the city's history and now serve as vessels of memory.