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The History of Odessa
A history inextricable from the Odessa café
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
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, making the city an attractive destination for many Jews, both from Galicia, especially the city of Brody, and from small towns throughout the Russian Empire. Fleeing the shtetl for the big city in search of a better life, these Jews also fled to the modern institution of the café.
“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.”
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.
This freedom of Jewish life and intellectual creativity in the city of Odessa was crystallized around the idea of the Odessa café as a center of Jewish culture and a place where Jews “felt absolutely at home.” In a published letter from November 2, 1861, Z., a traveler from Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania), wrote about his experience in Odessa, which he called “the capital of Jews” in the Russian Empire.
“In the days after I returned from Odessa, I hastened to relate to you, the impressions I had. . . . I won’t tell you about the beauty, the princely life, the freedom and the wealth, which is already more or less familiar to all; I will tell only that I, at least, have never seen a comparable city. . . . But all this is of secondary importance for Jews, as there are many beautiful cities in the empire. I want to dwell only on the situation of our coreligionists there.”
As an example of what he found so attractive and exceptional in Odessa, Z. gave the city cafés:
“When I stopped by Café Richelieu, I saw that almost all of the customers were Jews, who argued, read, reasoned, and played; eventually I realized that this was something in the way of a Jewish club.”
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.
German and English guidebooks for tourists in the 1880s and 1890s mention the most established and popular cafés. There was the Italian Café Zambrini, which Anton Chekhov visited, the Swiss-owned Café Fanconi, the French-owned Café Robina, and the Jewish-owned Café Libman.
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, Café Fanconi, and the Jewish-owned Akiva's café where famous actors like Jacob Adler and Avrom Goldfaden would meet and perform. Adler remembers Akiva in his memoir, A Life on the Stage:
“Night after night we met at Akiva’s Restaurant on Rivnoya Street, never guessing that in this very room where we sat and dreamt of it, the first Yiddish performance would take place.”
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.
Nonetheless, during this chaotic time, Jewish café culture and creativity did not cease to exist. A group of Jewish Odessan writers, including Isaac Babel , continued to meet in private apartments and cafés. Babel wrote about the humor of Odessa that developed in the city’s cafés, as well as the characters he saw and met in them—from Benya Krik, the Jewish gangster, to middle-class merchants, aspiring writers, fashionable women, and cross-dressers—who constantly traversed the social and cultural borders. In 1918, Babel published in Petrograd’s newspaper two feuilletons with the title Listki ob Odesse (Odessa dispatches), in which he describes Odessa in the period of the 1917 revolution and civil war. Babel describes the “aroma” of Odessa as a strange one, which can be best noticed in the cafés and in Odessa’s newspapers and magazines such as the Divertissement (published 1907– 1918). He writes,
“In every issue of Divertissement, there are jokes about Odessa Jews, about Café Fanconi, about brokers taking dance classes and Jewesses riding trams.”
With sly humor, Babel ends the sketch with the declaration, “Odessa stands strong; she hasn’t lost her astonishing knack for assimilating people.”
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. 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. Writers and cultural figures who had experienced the heyday of café culture in Odessa found ways to remember and commemorate that culture in their writings. They were happy to perpetuate the bygone days of mythical “Old Odessa” but they also showed the radical changes that were now taking place, as in the novel Zolotoy telyonok (The Golden Calf, 1931), written by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov. They describe Odessa as “Chernomorsk” (literally, “the Black Sea”) and Café Fanconi as “Café Florida,” which becomes, in the Soviet era, “City Diner No. 68,” a space of absence filled with the memory of what had existed before. The old café habitués still come to the same place, compelled by a
“long-time habit, combined with a need to exercise their old tongues, that kept bringing them to this sunny street corner. . . . The legend of porto franco still shone its golden light on the sunny street corner near the Florida Café.”
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.”
Although the golden age of cafés is over, the mythological 'Jewish City' continues to inspire fiction about its Jewish life and rich past, much of it inseparable from the cafés that embodied both the blessing and the curse of the modern city of Odessa.
A neighborhood in Odessa
Moldavanka is a neighborhood in Odessa where many middle-class and poor Jewish migrants lived. By the late 19th and early 20th century, Moldavanka had become infamous for its destitute Jewish residents and for poverty and crime, which was reflected in the literature about Odessa.
The most memorable depictions of Moldavanka are found in the stories of Isaac Babel, who was born there in 1894. Babel’s most famous Odessan character is the gangster Benya Krik, the self-proclaimed “king of Odessa.” Benya Krik was based on the real figure of Mishka Yaponchik (Moisey Volfovich Vinnitsky), who operated mostly in Moldavanka and whom Babel knew well.