Following the Russian conquest of Southern Ukraine from the Ottoman Empire and its Crimean Tatar vassals, Empress Catherine decided that she needed a port in the South just as St.Petersburg was her port in the North. In 1794, she approved the founding of Odessa on the site of the old Turkish fortress of Hacıbey, what is now Shevchenko Park, as well as a Moldavian settlement that became the city’s Moldavanka neighborhood.
The new city quickly became among the largest in the Empire, but its story really accelerates when it became a Free Port in 1819, where import duties were waived in order to encourage the growth of business up until 1858. The city quickly became a multi-ethnic metropolis, attracting not only people from elsewhere in the Empire, but also Italians, French, and others from Western Europe who sought their fortune.
Jews quickly found their place in Odesa, though not without difficulty. Within the city’s fluid social structure where nobody really had the upper hand, pogroms became a frequent way of making sure whatever ethnic group, Greeks, Russians, etc., could secure their economic interests at the expense of the Jews. However, while there was violence, Odessa became a paradise in its own way. The freest city in the Russian Empire provided an escape both from the repressions of Russian officials and the increasingly ossified world of the shtetl. The Haskalah, or Enlightenment, was particularly strong here and Jews could become anything from (fairly well-paid) porters to shipping magnates, or dip into the world of smuggling and organized crime. This is why more traditionalist Jews came to say that “the fires of hell burn for seven miles around Odesa.”
Odessa was also a site of a Jewish cultural golden age. Isaac Babel’s Odesa Tales about the colorful characters and pretty criminals of the Moldavanka, which had since become a neighborhood for the Jewish working class. It also became an important center of Zionism. Ahad Ha’am developed Cultural Zionism which emphasized building a state that could be a center of a Hebrew civilization. Ze’ev Jabotinsky became the leader of right-wing Revisionist Zionism, creating a Greater Israel on both sides of the Jordan River protected by an “Iron Wall” of militarism. Shalom Aleichem, Meir Dizengoff, Yosef Klausner, and Chaim Bialik also called the city home.
During the Second World War, the city fell under Romanian occupation. The slaughter that the fascists undertook near the beginning of the occupation were some of the largest of the Holocaust. Between October of 1941 and February of 1942, tens of thousands of Jews were killed through a series of massacres. The Odesa massacre itself in October killed 25,000-34,000, with more coming after a series of deportations. However, the Romanians were comparatively less heavy-handed than the Germans, so there was also a large number of survivors. Many of whom joined the underground resistance operating out of catacombs.
After the war, the Jewish character of the city remained. Even the local dialect of Russian is dripping with influence from Yiddish…influence that became the source of quite a bit of Russian profanity and criminal slang. While Jews are now only a small percentage of the city’s population, there is also a revival of Jewish culture in the city with new synagogues being renovated, cultural festivals, museums, restaurants, and more. The name of Odesa was carried into America as well. The center of Russian-speaking Jewish-American culture, Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, is also known as Little Odessa.
The most important synagogue in Odesa, and the largest in the Southern part of the Russian Empire at the time it was built, was the Brodsky synagogue, which was founded by Jews who had immigrated from Brody, near Lviv. One of its most famous congregants was Meir Dizingoff, the founder of Tel Aviv, and it makes frequent appearance in literature from the late 19th/early 20th century.
In 1920, the Soviets turned the Synagogue into the Rosa Luxembourg Worker’s Club, then it was transformed again during the Romanian occupation into a city archive. It remained an archive up until recently. In 2016, the building was returned to the Jewish community. It is being renovated to turn into a synagogue and museum.
Prior to the Zionist Movement proper, Jews in the Russian Empire began to organize the Hovevei Zion, or Lovers of Zion, Movement in the 1880s. They did so as a reaction to the massive wave of pogroms that were sweeping through the Russian Empire at the time and passage of the antisemitic May Laws. Leon Pinsker first brought it together as a legal entity in 1890 as The Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Palestine, or the Odessa Committee. As the name implies, their goal was to support Jewish settlement in what in Palestine. Some of their biggest accomplishments were the establishment of Rehovot in 1890 and Hadera in 1891. They also funded schools, agricultural training, and purchasing land in Ottoman Palestine, including the territory where Hebrew University now sits.
Following the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Hovevei Zion became a part of the broader Zionist Movement. But, the Odessa Committee continued to operate independently until being shuttered by the Bolsheviks in 1919. Their last major act was organizing the voyage of The Ruslan, called the “Israeli Mayflower.” Over 600 Jews sailed from Odessa to Jaffa port to escape the violence of the Revolution. Perhaps its most famous passenger was Rachel the Poetess. This voyage was the start of the Third Aliyah, which was most socialist in character than the First and Second.
This building in Odessa, located at 12 Nechypurenka Lane was the Odessa Committee’s headquarters.
In Ukraine’s far southwest and overlooking neighboring Romania, Izmail is Ukraine’s port on the Danube river and most southern city (with the exception of some of its surrounding villages) not currently under Russian occupation. It is most famous as the site of Izmail fortress, which was built as a Genoese trading post in the 12th century. It then spent most of its early history under the control of one of the Romanian principalities, either Wallachia or Moldavia. It was then conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1484 shortly before they made the rest of Moldavia into a vassal.
It was under the Ottomans that Izmail gained its legendary status. They reinforced and built it up in order to serve as a border fortification during the frequent Russo-Turkish Wars. The Bujak region, which Izmail is the western boundary of while Akkerman sat in the east, was the site of much of the fighting between the two, with it being taken by the Russians several times. The most famous siege was in 1790, when it was taken by Alexander Suvorov. It was finally ceded to the Russian Empire in 1812 along with the rest of Bessarabia.
However, Izmail Fortress no longer exists. The Russian Empire was forced to dismantle it as a part of their terms of surrender in the Crimean War of 1856. All that remains is a mosque, which now houses a panorama museum to the siege of 1790. It became a part of Romania following the Crimean War, then again after WWI, but was attached to Soviet Ukraine as a part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Jews shared the city with many Romanians, Germans, Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks, etc. The Bujak as a whole remains one of the most heterogeneous in Ukraine, though it is now mostly ethnic Ukrainian or Russian. The city was, and is, a hub for exporting wheat, and Jews often worked as merchants.
The Jewish population here was always even more insecure than usual. As a border town that changed hands so often, Jews were frequently seen as a disloyal foreign people by those in charge. In 1872, when Izamail was a part of Romania, a Jewish convert to Christianity, and army deserter, robbed a church and claimed he was sent by the leader of the Jewish community. This led to a series of pogroms in the region. The Romanian government did not find the pogromists guilty of any crimes, but international pressure led them to at least let the Jewish leaders go. This was just one of several pogroms that took place here.
During WWII, the city was taken almost immediately by the fascist Romanian army and the Jewish community was exterminated, though many before that time had already by targeted by Stalin’s purges.
The Izmail Jewish community today is small, but still supports a synagogue and school.
While Izmail Fortress was on the western border of the Bujak region, Akkerman Fortress was on the east. Between the two, Akkerman is the only one that still stands.
What is now the Ukrainian city of Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky was originally the Greek city-state of Tyras, founded by settlers from Miletus. Ancient Greece was exceptionally metropolitan and densely populated for its time and needed food imports to support itself. The two major places that food was sourced was in Egypt and southern Ukraine, which was at the time run by the Scythians. Several Greek city-states popped up along the Black Sea coast to serve as trading posts for the grain trade.
The Byzantine Roman Empire built a fortification here called Asprokastron (White Castle), it then became a Genoese trading city in the 14th century, before being incorporated into Moldavia as Cetatea Albă (White Castle). The current fortress was built by the Ottomans after they took the city in 1484. Like Izmail, the Russians and Turks fought over it many times until it was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1812. Its history largely mirrors that of Izmail, so see my previous post for more information.
Akkerman Fortress is the largest castle in Ukraine and the city is designed like a quarter of a wheel around it. It is a fascinating city that also has sites reaching back to the Scythian era.
The Jewish history of Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky/Akkerman goes back to at least the 16th century with its Karaite community, which was heavily connected to Crimea. Though, it could easily be older. In the 19th century, the Jewish community was something of an extension of the Odessa Jewish community, which is only a short distance away. The city was largely either Jewish, Romanian, or German at the beginning of the 20th century, and there were a decent number of Jewish communal organizations. Much of the population escaped the initial Romanian/German invasion during WWII by fleeing to Odessa, but that did not save them in the end.
Two old synagogues are still owned by the Jewish community. The first, the Choral Synagogue, is still in use as a synagogue. The other, the Workman’s Synagogue, is now a Jewish Community Center.