The Holocaust in Odesa: (un)memorialized sites

"Jewish merchants of Odesa," from Piotre Artamof, "La Russie historique, monumentale et pittoresque" (Paris, 1862–1865).

Polina Barvinska

[Editor's note: Russia's unprovoked and criminal war against Ukraine suspended the regular work of many organizations, reorienting their efforts. So it is with the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. We are occasionally running interviews and articles done before the beginning of the war, which reflect the myriad of interests undertaken by Ukrainian journalists, scholars, and writers.] 

This article discusses the little-known killing sites where the Jews of Odesa were executed during the Second World War. The fact that we did not know about them until recently is partly the result of the Soviet memory policy, which tended more toward building a heroic narrative that devoted little attention to victims and their ethnic affiliation. The current Kremlin regime continues to recreate the heroic narratives of the Second World War. With its military aggression against Ukraine, the Russian regime today is hindering the implementation of a number of projects to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust in Odesa.

Since the proclamation of Ukraine's independence, the topic of the destruction of the Jews during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine has gradually become established in the memory discourse, in itself a unique marker of Ukraine's move toward Europe. At the same time, the Holocaust in Ukraine is mostly connected with the Babyn Yar tragedy, even though there are many mass killing sites on the territory of Ukraine, including in Odesa. During the Soviet period, the horrible fate of Odesa's Jews and Jewish refugees from Bessarabia was preserved exclusively in the memory of the city's residents. After the proclamation of independence, civic organizations launched various events to commemorate the Holocaust in Odesa. On the initiative of and funded mostly by Yakov Maniovich, the then head of the Union of Israeli War Veterans and Disabled Soldiers and former resident of Odesa, now deceased, a memorial entitled "Death Road" was erected in Prokhorovsky Square in 1994, and an Alley of Righteous Among The Nations was built. Ten years later, a monument to the victims of the Holocaust was erected. From this place, starting in November 1941, Odesa Jews were transported to the ghetto in Bohdanivka, where most of them died. The memorialization of this site was a private initiative implemented without state funds. The biggest accomplishment of the local authorities was that they did not obstruct the creation of the memorial and issued all the necessary permits. For many people, this place is the embodiment of the Holocaust in Odesa, and it is here that solemn ceremonies to commemorate the murdered Jews of Odesa are usually held. For many years these ceremonies were attended mostly by representatives of Jewish organizations and caring Odesites, but after 2014 they acquired a more official character, and featured soldiers laying flowers, an honor guard, and the participation of municipal and regional leaders — proof that the Holocaust had become more visible in Odesa's memory discourse about the Second World War.

However, there are places in Odesa where its Jewish residents, as well as Jewish refugees from Bessarabia, were killed en masse, and they are either completely unmarked or were in a neglected state for a long period of time. These are places of executions that took place in the first days of the occupation of the city, which began on 17 October 1941. They, too, are much less researched by historians and not very well reflected in newly discovered sources; they are represented mostly in the form of memoirs and the materials produced by the Extraordinary State Commission for the Establishment and Investigation of the Atrocities of the German Fascist Invaders and Their Accomplices. The commission began its work after the liberation of Odesa in 1944, preparing materials for the Nuremberg Trials. This led to certain discrepancies concerning the dates of the criminal destruction of the Jews of Odesa and the number of victims. Various publications devoted to the history of the Holocaust in Odesa state that during the first ten days of the occupation, some 35,000 to 40,000 Jews were shot, burned alive, and hanged on the city streets; other victims included Red Army POWs, communists, and men of enlistment age.

One of the biggest mass killing sites was the artillery depots on Lustdorf Street, where some 22,000 to 25,000 Jews, including women and small children, were burned alive. Here in the fall of 1944, the Extraordinary Commission conducted investigations that attested to the presence of the remains of over 22,000 adults and children. After the war, this site turned into a wasteland, and in the 1950s, a military town arose around it. The memory of this tragedy was preserved mostly in the accounts of Odesites, and was mentioned only in passing in publications about the Second World War in Odesa. When sewer pipes were laid in the late 1980s, the tragedy resurfaced when numerous human remains were discovered in a trench. The Forensic Medical Examination Office of Odesa oblast examined the remains and made arrangements for some reinterments at the city cemetery. But the municipal authorities did not go so far as to clean up the territory or erect a monument; the Odesa regional branch of the All-Ukrainian Association of Jews — Former Prisoners of Ghetto and Nazi Concentration Camps took up this issue. In the early 2000s, thanks to the efforts of the association's members, a commemorative marker — dwarfed by the garages, garbage bins, and apartment buildings in its vicinity — was installed at the site of the tragedy. In 2008 a scandal erupted in connection with plans to build a multistorey building on the site of the tragedy. Ultimately, the Odesa division of the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine examined the area and discovered numerous remains — human skeletons. This put a stop to the construction; nevertheless, a residential high-rise complex was recently built on part of the mass burial site.

Why does this history look so sad? First of all, it is a holdover from the Soviet period. In the context of the Soviet narrative about the Second World War and the great victory of Odesa, a very tenacious myth about this Hero-City has become established, in which there was barely any room for the memory of civilian victims. A considerable number of Jews who were aware of this tragedy had emigrated from Ukraine. Furthermore, Odesa scholars researching this topic faced a number of obstacles, such as not knowing the Romanian language and having no access to Romanian archives. For a long period of time, the Romanian authorities devoted considerable efforts to denying their country's involvement in the Holocaust, and made it impossible to access relevant documents. Instead, they focused on the effective restoration of the city's communications and on establishing a peaceful life in Odesa during the Romanian occupation. It is worth mentioning that the Romanian authorities achieved some success in these efforts, as attested by the array of publications by Odesa historians and partly by an exhibit mounted at the local regional history museum, which was devoted in particular to the religious, cultural, and educational policies of the Romanian occupation authorities in Transnistria and Odesa.

In Germany, however, the memory of the Holocaust is an important element of contemporary German identity. After the Revolution of Dignity [in Ukraine] and the annexation of the Crimea, considerably more German politicians, especially members of the Green Party, became interested in Ukraine and her history. Thanks to the initiative of Marieluise Beck, director of Eastern and Central European questions at the Zentrum Liberale Moderne (ZLM, Center for Liberal Modernity), a project was launched in Odesa to create a memorial "Against Forgetting" at the site where Jews were burned at the artillery depots on Lustdorf Street. On 1 December 2020, the Odesa city council signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the ZLM. Quite a lot was achieved in 2021, despite the pandemic. Questions pertaining to the allotment of a plot of land and the financing of the construction of the memorial by the German government were resolved; a competition to select a design for the future square and memorial was also held. On 22 October of that year, during a solemn ceremony marking the eightieth anniversary of the tragedy, a time capsule was buried at the site of the planned memorial that was slated to be inaugurated in October 2022.

The importance of this project lies not only in the fact that the site of this tragedy would be set up properly but also in the certainty that it would focus attention on and expand the international community's knowledge of the history of the Holocaust in Ukraine, which is mostly associated with the Babyn Yar tragedy. It was the story of Babyn Yar that gave birth to the narrative of the Holocaust by Bullets. However, the Odesa tragedy deconstructs it and confirms that the methods of destroying Jews in Ukraine were varied and marked by exceptional brutality. In order to direct attention to the Holocaust in Ukraine and the horrific annihilation of the Odesa Jews, the German-Ukrainian Historians' Commission organized an international conference to mark the unveiling of the square and the memorial "Against Forgetting." The project's Oversight Council became an important platform featuring an exchange of views of politicians, diplomats, government representatives, scholars, and members of Odesa's Jewish community, the latter of whom were joined by the Romanian side. However, the realization of these ideas and plans was scuttled by Russia's large-scale aggression against Ukraine. By an ironic twist of fate, it was precisely Moscow's policies and her narrative of the Second World War that caused the amnesia surrounding the Holocaust in Ukraine. At the present time, Moscow's aggression is also preventing the efforts to memorialize the Holocaust.

Polina Barvinska

Is Visiting Professor at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg, Germany, professor at the Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University, and the author of the monograph Mizh naukoiu і politykoiu: Interpretatsiї Skhidnoї Ievropy v akademichnomu seredovyshchi nimets′komovnoho prostoru u kintsi XIX–pochatku XXI st. [Between Scholarship and Politics: Interpretations of Eastern Europe in the Academic Environment of German-Speaking Countries from the End of the 19th to the Beginning of the 21st Century] as well as articles on the history of Ukrainian-German relations and memory politics.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian @Ukraina Moderna

This article was published as part of a project supported by the Canadian non-profit charitable organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk