Having read that Isaac Babel’s The Story of my Dovecote was semi-autobiographical, I thought he had seen the events of the 1905 pogrom in Nikolaev and that his grandfather had been killed. However, he was writing fiction and much of his biography has remained a mystery. There was very little of himself in the little boy of the story, although his family did have a dovecot in Nikolaev. Though he passed the gymnasium examination like the boy in the story, he did not get a place because of the Jewish quota, and was sent to Odessa to a commercial school for the sons of merchants of the first and second guilds where he lived for the first year with two aunts, one a midwife and the other a dentist, who lived on Tiraspolskaya Street.
The next year, his parents returned to Odessa, moving into an apartment on Rishelievskaya Street, an elegant street in the centre. Babel did not write much about his own family although the parents in Nikolaev had some resemblance to his own. His father was not a shopkeeper but a dealer in farm machinery who worked his way up and became quite wealthy. Closer to his life was At Grandmother’s, the story of a strict grandmother beadily watching her grandson doing hours of homework in silence in a gloomy, stuffy room behind the kitchen of the family apartment.
Isaac Babel, 13
Unfortunately, the story of his two independent aunts who possibly never married or had children remained untold, and it is these independent, unassuming, hard-working women who fascinate me the most.
Babel is most famous for The Odessa Stories, which took place in the poor Jewish area of Moldavanka, an area where he was thought to have been born and which fascinated him when he returned to Odessa as a schoolboy. His stories seemed to be a way into seeing Moldavanka, the streets, the courtyards and the alleyways, their colours, sounds and smells, the area of Odessa where the pogrom began, was most violent, and where most of the people in the pogrom death records probably lived.
The larger-than-life, exuberant, violent, and often grotesque Moldavankan thieves, shady characters and prostitutes Babel created probably would never have been killed in the pogrom, as they had connections to all the warring factions, and, if anything, helped save many Jewish lives. Maybe this was why he wanted to create them. Many of those who did die were simply getting on with their jobs and looking after their children, muddling through their daily lives. There are no iconic stories of the Odessa pogrom in Moldavanka, like the story of Elena Weingurt and the Weitzman family. Instead there are scraps and fragments, street names and numbers of buildings where all the inhabitants were killed. This colourful, noisy area of Odessa with its exciting life of passion, desire, deception and trickery turned out to have no words for the excesses of the pogrom and the deaths of so many ordinary citizens.
Moldavanka flea market
The official boundary of Moldavanka is the wide street running from north to south on this 1905 German Baedeker map of Odessa, the Staroportofrankovskaya (the Old French Port Street) with Moldavanka to the west, but the area of angled streets between Moldovanka and the centre was also the home to many Jews, including Babel’s two aunts, and he considered the area part of Moldavanka.
1905 Baedeker map of Odessa
Possibly this area was a step up for Jews who were moving from the working to middle-class. Another predominantly Jewish Street was Malaya Arnautskaya which runs from Moldavanka through the southern part of the centre. In his memoir, A mosaic of life: memoirs of a Russian child, Kataev describes an early memory of a trip with his mother to her dressmaker, Fanny Markovna, on Malaya Arnautskaya, and his horror at the poverty and the dingy rooms filled with families. But unlike Babel, it is the machines not the people who create the din.
There was a street called Malaya Arnautskaya, which seemed to me at the time to be a long way away, but was, in fact, quite close to where we lived. When we went there, we were immediately engulfed in the world of Jewish poverty, with all its confused colours and sour-sweet smells. We entered a wooden, glass-roofed arcade that surrounded the yard. Here, mamma had to keep her head bent the whole time to avoid breaking the eagle’s feathers in her hat on some protruding object or other – garments suspended on a close line, or a low cross-beam supporting the arcades rickety, boarded walls, half-destroyed by death-watch beetles. The arcade possessed innumerable windows and doors. All the windows were dirty and half of them broken. Most of the doors were open and, in the darkness beyond them, nested families of Jewish shopkeepers and craftsmen: tailors, shoemakers, watchmakers, ironmongers, dressmakers. Mingled together were the sounds of hammering, the squeak of cutters’ huge scissors, the sharp protest of torn calico, the screech of unoiled treadles on the sewing-machines. Pungent kitchen smells were blended with the smoke from kerosene lamps with little mica windows, which lit up the apartments so that they looked like a scene in a toy theatre, representing a town on fire with corrugated card-board tongues of flame. …A chest of drawers, the colour of a beetle, stood out in the semi-darkness; it was covered with a canvas cloth, on which a small plaster vase filled with paper roses was reflected in a frameless mirror on an ashwood stand… I was filled at one and the same time with repulsion and a tormenting pity for that poor race, condemned to live in such crowded and ugly conditions among the two wheeled carts with curved handles and the shops selling evil-smelling kerosene in barrels, small sacks of coal, rust-coloured salted herrings, bottles of olives, glass jars of cucumbers in clouded, milky water, bunches of dill, and halva that looked like blocks of window putty.
And here is a description by Babel, from his story, The Father, of life on Dalnitskaya Street in Moldavanka, the street where the pogrom began.
The old man drank vodka out of an enamelled teapot and ate his meatball, which smelled of happy childhood. Then he picked up his whip and walked out the gates. Basya came out after him. She had put on a pair of men’s boots, an orange dress, and a hat covered with birds, and sat down next to him on the bench. The evening slouched past the bench; the shining eye of the sunset fell into the sea beyond Perecyp and the sky was red, like a red letter day on a calendar. All trading had ended on Dalnitskaya Street, and the gangsters drove by on the shadowy street to Ioska Samuelson’s brothel. They rode in the lacquered carriages and were dressed up in colourful jackets, like hummingbirds…Old Jewish women in bonnets lazily watched the flow of this everyday procession – they were indifferent to everything, these old Jewish women, it was only the sons of shopkeepers and dockworkers who envied the Kings of the Moldavanka.
The Odessa pogrom and self defence has a chapter called ‘The beginning of the pogrom – the pogrom at Dalnitsa, a girl’s story’. When I first began translating the story the girl tells of Krugliak, I could see the story was not going in a way that was going to be comfortable. If a death is violent, we would rather it had been inevitable, and that preferably the victim had fought heroically, tried to save himself and others, or attempted to escape, but Krugliak, a well-off man in his 40s, whose family was in the centre of town, was hiding with Russians on Dalnitsskaya Street. Whether he lived or worked there is not clear. As the hooligans marched down the street, he panicked, running out of the house in terror, shouting ‘Save me!’ Among the ruffians, two blacksmiths set at him with sharp iron implements, beating him on the head. They finished him off with bottles and sticks. Then one of the blacksmiths lept to his feet and danced on the chest of the corpse which lay on the street for the next two days. A Jewish woman witnessed the scene as she scurried out to find bread for the neighbours she was hiding with. She fainted at what she saw. I try to imagine what Krugliak’s family must have been thinking when they could not find him after the pogrom and how they found out what had happened. In the pogrom death records, there is a Shaya Itskov Krugliak, 48, from Boguslav.
In his chapter “The Pogrom of 1905 in Odessa: A Case Study” in Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, John D. Klier and Shlomo Lambroza, 1992, Robert Weinberg describes the first clashes between Jews and Russians the day before the pogrom began.
Armed confrontations between Jews and Russians originated near the Jewish district of Moldavanka in the afternoon and early evening of 18 October. The clashes apparently started when a group of Jews carrying red flags to celebrate the October Manifesto attempted to convince a group of Russian workers to doff their caps to the flags. Harsh words were exchanged, a scuffle ensued and then shots rang out. Both groups scattered, but quickly reassembled in nearby streets and resumed fighting. The clashes soon turned into an anti-Jewish riot, as Russians indiscriminately attacked Jews and began to vandalize and loot Jewish homes, apartments, and stores in the neighborhood. The rioters also turned on policemen and troops summoned to quell the disorders, actions suggesting that pogromists were not yet fully focused on Jews in their attacks. The military on October 18 was equally vigilant in its efforts to restrain both Russian and Jewish rioters, vigorously suppressing these disturbances and restoring order by early evening. Four Russians were killed, dozens of Russians wounded – including policemen – and twelve Russians arrested as a result of the unrest. The number of Jews who were injured or arrested is unknown.
The newspapers add their own take on that first day.
New York Times 26 November
Southwest of Odessa in the Dalnitskaya Street, leading to the village of Dalnik, where many poor Jews are living. The news of the Tzar having granted a constitution caused great exhortation among these Jews also, whereas the Russian population was made jealous and got irritated by the provocative behaviour of some fanatics who carried red flags and declared that now they would have the same rights as the Russians, and soon would get the better of them. At night already a Russian mob commenced to destroy and loot Jewish shops and houses. When the students heard of the disorder in the Dalnitskaya, part of them hurried their armed with sticks and revolvers to defend the Jews, but were fired at by Cossacks and infantry, and many of them killed and wounded. This was the signal for the outbreak of the Civil War and indescribable anarchy which rained Odessa for the following three days.
The Times 8 November
The suburb of Dalnik has been the scene of great carnage. All the Jewish houses and shops have been plundered and burnt.
Privoz Market late 1800s
The pogrom then moved on into Moldavanka.