What is never talked about: pogroms, pestilence and Covid-19

The original purpose of this blog was to publish the official list from the Odessa death records of those who died in the 1905 pogrom, because families directly involved in the pogrom had almost never talked about it and their descendants often did not know their family had lived in Odessa. I researched some of the families in the list as a memorial to those who had died and been forgotten.

The 1905 pogroms were not the only silenced disasters in the early 1900s. We commemorate the dead of World War I but, until recent times, there was silence about the Armenian genocide, the pogroms of 1919, the 1918 flu pandemic, and the 1919 sleeping sickness epidemic. Diseases often took more soldiers in more war than battles, but they do not make such a heroic story.  I learned of the 1918 flu in the late 1960s when reading about the artist Egon Schiele who, along with his wife and unborn child, died from it. When I read Albert Camus’ The Plague, I could not believe it was based on a real plague epidemic in the early 1900s. I had learned about the mediaeval plague at school and no one said that bubonic plague has always been among us.  I learned about the 1919 sleeping sickness in the 1970s from Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings. The people he described, who lived in a frozen state of speechlessness and immobility, were still alive but probably very few people knew, possibly even their families. Similarly people who survived polio were never followed up after the vaccine was discovered as polio was thought to have disappeared.

The amnesia about genocide and epidemics may be behind the inability for anyone to prepare for what will continue to happen again and again. After the fall of communism, it was inconceivable that there could be genocide in Europe. And although scientists have been warning of pandemics like the 1918 flu, no one believed this could happen again, especially after the SARS epidemic did not spread as widely as thought might be possible. Now there is the pandemic of Covid-19 which has spread across the world and yet no one seems to have been ready, and very few countries prepared themselves when they had two months to do so. So how will Covid-19 finally be remembered?

It is interesting to look back at a post I wrote early in this blog about a small plague epidemic in Odessa in 1902, shortly before the pogrom (https://odessasecrets.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/plague-and-population-ups-and-downs/ ). I was looking at epidemics because I thought my family had arrived in Odessa in 1902, although I later found it was probably not until the spring of 1905, and I was trying to find out the cause of the deaths of two of my mother’s brothers around that time, either from the pogrom or natural causes. Having discovered the weekly US journal Public Health Reports, which tracked illnesses across the world in order to try and help prevent them spreading, I began to look at the weekly population figures also listed with the number of immigrants entering the US, finding very interesting changes around the time of the pogrom.

But now, with Covid-19, my interest is in the descriptions I have found of reactions to the various epidemics common at that time. In a newspaper article about the plague, which is in the previous post, it describes how they dealt with cases.

The teahouse in which the first case of the play was discovered was virtually cordoned by a military guard, and none of the 40 inmates, chiefly stevedores, were allowed to leave until the expiration of 12 days. The teahouse was then drenched with petroleum and burned to the ground, with all its contents (December 1901).


Odessa had a quarantine port with accommodation for travellers who might have been exposed to notifiable diseases. As there were no drugs against infectious diseases, they were taken extremely seriously.

The previous post had centred around a Lithuanian Jewish doctor and bacteriologist, Lydia Rabinowitsch-Kempner, a rare woman who got a medical degree and PhD in the 1890s. She went to Odessa in 1902 to study the plague and cholera epidemics. There were 49 cases plague and 18 of cholera. Her trip to Odessa is described in Ladies in the laboratory II: West European women in science, 1800-1900 (Creese M 2004):

Their account of their trip, through the Bosporus on a small Russian trading steamer to the south coast of the Crimea and then again by ship to Odessa, is still interesting reading. The city had been officially declared ‘acutely infectious’ and the usually busy port with it a very considerable grain trade was almost at a standstill. Hotels were empty, the streets reeked of carbolic disinfectant, houses were being evacuated and some of the poorer districts burned as epidemic control measures.


Public Health Reports Dec 1902

I ended the post thinking about the huge population changes in Odessa in the early 1900s:

Things were beginning to slot together in my mind– the huge influx of people into Odessa over a few years in the early 1900s, rapid change, tensions, and then the huge exodus after 1905. That is the overview, but what effect did it have on the individuals caught up in it? Like Tolstoy’s theory in War and Peace, that history is not made by generals but by ordinary people’s small actions, gestures or comments at a crucial moment, the events in Odessa in 1905 may have resulted, in the end, from someone, maybe a small child, waving a hand or shouting something no one may even have understood. And then the events that follow completely colour the lives of the people involved, their families and future generations. Every gesture, every comment, their hopes, their fears, would have the shadow of October 1905 upon it. Even if nothing is said. Now those little events might be an email about ventilators that is not passed on, or an inaccurate tweet.

A great deal will be recorded and written about Covid-19, but whether ordinary people pass their experiences and stories on to the next generation depends on the feelings that come out of this pandemic. If people come away from it feeling too much sadness and shame that they did not protect or help their families and neighbours enough, it may slip away from the public consciousness as others have done. On the other hand, hopefully, it might change the way we live our lives for the good. The first lesson we should learn is that we need more slack in the health and emergency systems. But we may also learn that we and our world are better off without so much rushing about – the roads do not need to be so congested, we do not need to buy so much, to eat so much, to go out so much. We could lead simpler lives. I have noticed that with travel restricted, the air is clearer, and beautiful photographs of the sky are appearing online. Maybe we will want to keep the sky beautiful.

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