Odessa, known as “The Pearl of the Black Sea,” has an unparalleled and striking Jewish history. With a general population of over one million, Odessa is Ukraine’s fourth largest city and a major seaport. It combines a unique blend of Russian tradition with an unmistakable Mediterranean flair. Jewish presence is strong and pervades this cosmopolitan city. Local author Isaac Babel referred to Odessa as “the city made by Jews.” With a Jewish population of approximately 400,000, Ukraine’s community is currently the fifth largest in the world.
Prewar Jewish life in Odessa was renowned for its effervescence. The Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, manifested itself here with the first Jewish College in the world. It was also an important Zionist center with the BILU and Am Olam Movements. The list of prominent Jewish citizens from Odessa would fill a book… This is where the world renowned pianist Maria Grinberg lived. Called a “true feat of art,” she was the first Russian pianist to record all of Beethoven’s sonatas. International star of Yiddish theater, Jacob Adler began his career in Odessa. He was the father of the equally famous Stella of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York. The author and playwright Sholem Aleichem wrote his stories about Tevye the Milkman here, later the basis for the play “Fiddler on the Roof.” The list is endless!
Fame and cultural prowess did not protect the Jews of Odessa from periodic outbursts of anti-Semitic violence and pogroms. This great community has seen its numbers diminish steadily. Before 1941 about half the population was Jewish. The Holocaust, followed by hardship during Soviet times, has diminished the community to 30,000. It is however a vibrant community, rightfully proud of its rich history.