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Odessa, Genius and Death in a City of Dreams

By Charles King

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 2011, 386 pages, hardcover.

 


Odessa was the Russian Empire’s gateway to the Middle East, its greatest commercial seaport, and home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in all of Europe.

When Mark Twain visited, he found its mix of nationalities and religions—Jews and Russians, Ukrainians and Greeks, Italians and Germans—to be America in miniature.  Created as a model of enlightenment by Catherine the Great and developed by colorful adventurers such as Grigory Potemkin, José de Ribas, and Armand de Richelieu, Odessa became a magnet for the artistic and the ambitious—from Alexander Pushkin and Isaac Babel to Zionist activist Vladimir Jabotinsky and immunologist Ilya Mechnikov.

Odessa’s reputation for nurturing feisty dissenters, artful raconteurs, and good-natured crooks cemented its place among Europe’s great cities.  But in the twentieth century, pogroms devastated the Jewish community; the Russian civil war brought refugees and new rulers, the Bolsheviks; and during the Second World War, Romanian occupiers killed tens of thousands of Jews in one of the untold episodes of the Holocaust.

Drawing on a wealth of original source material, historian Charles King paints a rich portrait of Odessa through the lives of its geniuses and villains, revealing how a diverse, cosmopolitan city turned against itself during the Holocaust—but also how Odessa’s dream has survived in a diaspora reaching all the way to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Odessa is colorful account of the transformation of one of Europe’s foremost Jewish cities, told through the stories of its geniuses and villains.

Italian merchant, Greek freedom fighters, and Turkish seamen; a Russian empress and her favorite soldier-bureaucrats; Jewish tavern keepers, trader, and journalist—these and many others seeking fortune and adventure rubbed shoulders in Odessa, the greatest port on the Black Sea.

Here a dream of cosmopolitan freedom inspired geniuses and innovators, from Alexander Pushkin and Isaac Babel to Zionist activist Vladimir Jabotinsky and immunologist Ilya Mechnikov.  Yet here too was death on a staggering scale:  not only the insidious plagues common to seaports but also the mass murder of Jews carried out by the Romanian occupation during World War II.  Drawing on a wealth of original source material, Odessa is an elegy for the vibrant, multicultural tapestry of which a thriving Jewish population formed an essential part, as well as a celebration of the survival of Odessa’s dream in a diaspora reaching all the way to Brighton Beach.

Praise for Odessa

“A superb and dreadfully moving account of the glory and subsequent murder by the Romanians of the Jewish city in Odessa….Odessa is both celebration and lament and equally impressive as both.”

--- Harold Bloom

“Odessa has risen—and fallen—from a great Black Sea port to the most fabled of cities in Russia’s borderlands.  A preposterously rich history—yet few Westerners have navigated this beguiling entrepot as ably as Charles King.”

--- Andrew Meier, author of Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall

“This is a beautiful, lyrical history of a city that didn’t just give birth to people of genius but embodied that genius in its streets, theaters, and public markets….Charles King’s research is impeccable and his writing style is pure joy.  This is a book to savor.”

--- Ilya Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa

“A marvelous book of epic courage, admirable erudition, and astute separation between myth and what really happened.  Odessa’s ability to laugh at itself and its decided skepticism are among the reasons to enjoy reading, under King’s delicate and vibrant guidance, about its fate.”

--- Peter Demetz, author of Prague in Black and Gold

“Wonderfully written and thoroughly researched, Charles King’s Odessa is a history of the city presented through the lives of its people.  Their dramatic and sometimes tragic stories are told with the kind of optimism that characterized the spirit of the ‘city of dreams’ for generation.”

--- Serhii Plokhii, Myhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History, Harvard University

About the Author

Charles King lives in Washington, DC, where he is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.  He is the author of four books on Easter, Europe, including The Ghost of Freedom:  A History of the Caucasus and The Black Sea:  A History, and a frequent commentator on events in the region for television, radio, and the press.

 


Odessa, Genius and Death in a City of Dreams

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