Gospitalnaya and Isaac Babel: fact and fiction

Looking up Moldavanka and Gospitalnaya, it is not long before the name Isaac Babel appears. His Odessa stories take place around Hospital Street during the time of the pogrom. There is an Odessa newspaper article that comes up on Google about fundraising for repairs of the Moldavanka courtyard, Gospitalnaya 23, the possible childhood home of a famous Jewish bandit who was thought to be the model for Babel’s Benya Krik,. He was born Moyshe-Yakov Vinnytsky probably at Zaporizka 9, around the corner from Gospitalnaya.

Gospitalnaya 23

Later he took the name Mishka Yaponchik and became an actor. Besides that the early life of Vinnytsky/ Yaponchik seems lost in myth, Babel always insisted that there was never one person behind any of his characters and that everything he wrote was fiction. Even his own life. He loved making up stories and never separated fiction from life. As he made up so many stories about his own past, including the short stories he wrote in the first person which people believed were autobiographical, very little is known about his early life. Possibly he didn’t think it mattered, or it mattered too much.

Isaac Babel

Babel was born in Moldavanka where his father had a farm machinery business. Shortly afterwards they moved to Nikolayev where the family business became very successful. After the 1905 pogrom, Isaac was sent back to Odessa to enter the Nicholas I Commercial School, open to Jewish guild merchants’ sons, and to live with his aunts and grandmother on Tiraspolskaya St in Moldavanka. His parents returned the next year and lived at 23 Dalnitskaya St, before moving to 17 Rishelyevskaya Street, in the centre, where his father had his business, around the corner from the Brodsky Synagogue. Because of the Jewish quota Babel was unable to attend the University of Odessa and went to the Business Institute in Kiev. This much of Babel’s life is well-known and fairly factual.

17 Rishelyevskaya Street

If there had been stand-up comics in 1920s Russia, Babel would have been one. He loved pranks and acting parts, the more absurd the better. Walking along the street he would suddenly begin to act the part of someone with a limp or a partially paralysed leg. Or begin coughing or groaning, simply to see the puzzled looks on people’s faces. And because he enjoyed acting. Possibly it was simpler than trying to be himself, which, in the days of Stalin, was a difficult thing to do as so much needed to be hidden. Fiction was easier than truth when everyone needed to hide their thoughts.

One source about his life are his letters, many of which were written to his sister who had left Russia for Belgium in 1925, and his mother who joined his sister in Belgium in 1926. His wife, Evgenia Gronfein, a painter and daughter of a Kiev merchant, who he met when he was studying in Kiev and married in 1919, also emigrated to Paris in 1925, at first with Babel. He spent time with her there in 1925 and 1927-1928 but felt he could only write back in Russia.

His daughter, Natahlie, was born in 1929 and he was not able to see her until she was three years old in 1932. In that year he met Antonina Pirozhkova, a young engineer working on the Moscow subway, who later became his ‘wife’ and had his second daughter, Lydia, in 1937.

Antonina, Lydia and Isaac

Babel saw Nathalie for the last time in 1935 when he attended the Antifascist International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture and Peace in Paris. He had had a son in 1926 to an actress in Moscow with whom he had had a long affair and who was the cause of his wife’s emigration to Paris. It was not until the 1960s that Nathalie went to Russia and met her sister and brother, whose existence she had only discovered when she arrived in Russia. In 1964 Nathalie wrote in the introduction to her father’s last letters The Lonely Years 1925-1939, “I grew up wishing that someday, somewhere, a door would open and my father would come in. We would recognise each other immediately and without surprise, without letting him catch his breath, I would say: ‘Well, here you are at last. We’ve been puzzled about you for so long. You left behind much love and devotion, but very few facts. It’s so good to have you here. Do sit down and tell us everything.’”

As Babel had to hide his thoughts about what was going on around him in Russia, the letters themselves cannot be honest and are certainly not revealing. They are mainly about everyday matters, his and his family’s health and endless plans to try and meet up. He also did not write to his mother and sister about his new wife in Russia, as they knew his first wife and daughter in Paris. Babel was always trying to escape from Moscow to the country where he could concentrate more on his writing and he particularly loved returning to Odessa. He had bought a piece of land on.the coast hoping to build a dacha there, but his last trip to the south coast was in 1936, from where he wrote several letters that he was working on a very personal work with a new style. He hoped to finish it within the year, but the book never appeared and he was arrested in May 1939, having written no more than a few stories since 1936. He was shot in January 1940, although his family did not know for many years.

In 2003, Robert Rosenstone wrote a novel, King of Odessa: a novel of Isaac Babel, imagining Babel’s 1936 summer in Odessa and the novel he was working on. Like Babel, it is a novel of jokes and farce, of sex, spies, crooks and serious thoughts about life and love. He uses the letters, documentary evidence and Antonina’s memoir of his final years and her search to find out what happened to him (AN Pirozhkova At his side: the last years of Isaac Babel, 1996). I think Babel would truly have liked to have been able to write honestly about his life but it was not possible to get beyond the silence and distrust of the time. On a 1935 visit Babel made with his wife Antonina to Odessa, she writes that she asked him what he was thinking about as he paced back and forth in his room, and he answered with a sweeping gesture, ‘I want to tell about all this… and use the minimum words, but nothing seems to work.’

Photos of Moldavanka

Leaning shed Moldavanka

Moldavanka gate

Moldavanka courtyard





Ulitsa Gospitalnaya (улица Госпитальная) or Hospital Street

When I was writing about Malaya Arnautskaya, the Weitzmans and anti-semitism, I puzzled over the problems I had finding the street at the beginning of Malaya Arnautskaya running parallel to the coast, called Belinskaya on several websites, until I finally discovered that it was called Leontovicha on modern maps. Then I realised that possibly people carry on using the old names if they prefer them. And I wondered about other name changes in the streets of Odessa which I had noticed on various maps and whether any had been influenced by the 1905 pogrom, for instance the central street Evreiskaya or Hebrew Street. This was changed in 1908 to Skobelevskoi or Skobeleva (Скобелева). Another street in central Moldavanka where many families in the pogrom death records lived, and in the area investigated by the police, was Ulitsa Gospitalnaya or Hospital Street, the street of the Jewish Hospital. It is now Bohdan Khmelnytsky Street (Богдана Хмельницкого). This was also the street with the highest population density in Odessa at that time.

Gospitalnaya 45

Gospitalnaya 7

The first Jewish Hospital was set up in 1802, only a few years after the start of building of the new port of Odessa designed by Catherine the Great, which previously had been mainly a Tatar fort and small fishing port. Before that  there had been a Jewish society for visiting patients called Bikur Holim. In 1829 the hospital purchased a house on the corner of Gospitalnaya and Myasoedovskaya which had 60 beds and one doctor. A new building, the building still in use, was built in 1865.

The Jewish Hospital building

Jewish Hospital doctors 1898

The hospital was closely connected with Jewish life in Odessa. In 1905, the courtyard of the hospital was turned into a camp for the many displaced families whose homes were destroyed. They were provided with free food and medical care. In the highly populated area of Hospital Street, when the police were brought in to quell the pogrom riots, there was a battle between the police and the Jewish defence group where 11 were brutally killed. https://evreimir.com/9198/

Gospitalnaya 1904 (lower left, third street from bottom, upside down with hospital marked) http://www.retromap.ru/show_pid.php?pid=g4039

The name Gospitalnaya or Hospital Street remained from the early 19th century until 1911, when there was a 50th anniversary celebration of the liberation of the peasants from serfdom. Gospitalnaya became 19 February 1861 Street, a name which never took hold, as happened with many of the multiple street name changes over the years. And strangely the name kept ricocheting back and forth between 19 February and Hospital Street. It is interesting to think why this one small street should have been chosen to have its name changed at that time. Did they want to change the Jewish identity of this street?

Odessa 1914 Baedeker 19 February 1861 St


This is a rare map in English from the 1914 Russian Baedeker on the eve of World War I and coming revolution. Interestingly, it is also a rare map that does not indicate the Jewish Hospital on 19 February 1861 St or the Jewish cemetery just below the Old Cemetery. It does however mention the Plague Cemetery, which I had not noticed before which is called Plague Hill (Чума Гора) on Russian maps.


19 February Street map from 1919

https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Одесская_ эвакуация_(1919)

In this 1919 map, just after the revolution, the individual buildings of the Jewish Hospital are clearly drawn as are the Jewish Cemetery, Old Cemetery and Plague Hill. A map from 1924 was made for the purpose of showing the name changes that followed the revolution. Many of the centre streets have been given names like Lenin and Karl Marx Street and the old history of multicultural Odessa with its Hebrew and Greek Street has been wiped away. Hospital Street has regained its name and 19 February has been written in brackets.

Gospitalnaya (19 Fevralya) map from 1924 http://kraeved.od.ua/map/odessa.php

By 1931 there were more name changes and changes of spelling. The street that crossed Gospitalnaya at the corner of the hospital, Myasoedovskaya, had now become Sholom Aleichem Street. What was Gospitalnaya is difficult to read because the first letter is on a fold of the discoloured map, but the name seems to be лютого, which I discovered is Ukrainian for February, so it has reverted to 19 February Street.

1931 map  http://www.retromap.ru/show_pid.php?pid=g4026

By 1947, the street is again Gospitalnaya. At some point after 1947 there was one more change which has lasted until today. The first appearance I have is a map from 1962 with the name Bohdan Khmelnytsky Street. Bohdan Khmelnytsky was the leader of a Cossack rebellion against the Poles in 1648. He united Ukraine and was considered a saviour but also tried to rid the area of Jews, killing tens of thousands and destroying their towns. That this famous figure in Ukrainian history, who caused possibly the greatest massacre of Jews before the Holocaust, should be used as a name for what had been called Hospital Street after the Jewish Hospital, in the heart of Jewish Moldavanka, seems quite horrific. It may have been a way of clearly stating that finally the Holocaust had completed what Bohdan Khmelnytsky had wanted to accomplish, as there were no longer enough Jews in Moldavanka to resist the name change.

As I was looking at these maps I did not recognise the name Bohdan Khmelnytsky until I looked him up and realised that I had once read about the Cossack uprising of 1648. At the base of my 1812 family tree is the very famous Jewish Rabbi David ben Samuel Halevi (1586-1667), an ancestor most people wanted to have on their family tree, especially a rabbinical family like mine, although it appears this was often only wishful thinking. On my tree, above the name of the great Rabbi is his son, Shmoul, then his son, Shimson, and then Rabbi Shlomo, the son of Yehiel, unrelated and obviously my ancestor who came from northern Ukraine like David Halevi. And to complicate matters further, the translator wrote ‘son of Shmoul’ below David Halevi but in a diagram at the end indicates that Shmoul is the son of David. It is, however, easiest to read a family tree as one generation following another, whatever the names, and my family believed that the famous rabbi was their ancestor. One sees what one wants to see until suddenly the lack of continuity pops out at you and the fantasy dissolves. Possibly none of the first three names on the tree are related or could they be?

Stem of my family tree with my variation on a 1990s translation

In the meantime I had read about the life of David ben Samuel who built a majestic synagogue in the small northern Ukrainian town of Ostrog, Volhynia. He was rabbi there for many years until he was forced to flee from the massacres of Khmelnytsky and the Cossacks.

David ben Samuel Halevi

Ostrog Synagogue

Another name that comes up when searching Hospital Street is Isaac Babel, whose well-known Odessa stories took place in that area of Moldavanka at the time of the 1905 pogrom. It is also thought that one of the models for his bandit, Benya Krik, was a gangster who lived on Hospital Street. But that will be in the next post, as I will probably want to puzzle over Babel’s relationship with Moldavanka and the 1905 pogrom… and the mysteries of his life in general.



Introducing Moldavanka: Dalnitskaya and the beginning of the pogrom

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.

tyraspolskaya st

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.

babel 13

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.

moldavanka babel character home


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 2

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.


Moldavanka courtyard

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.

dalnytska st

Dalnitskaya Street

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.


privos moldavanka

Privoz Market late 1800s

The pogrom then moved on into Moldavanka.

What was it like for people? Where did they hide? Who fled the city and what happened to the homeless?

I first read about the Odessa pogrom in articles by Robert Weinberg, who uses descriptions from the Russian reports, Одесскiй погромъ и самооборона, The Odessa pogrom and self defence, 1906, http://torrentsat.org/d60271611dc36bb78e63e13da8f68d96a2f82b8e and Еврейские погромы в Одессе и Одесщине в 1905 г, C. Семенов ,The Jewish pogroms in Odessa and surrounding area in 1905, by S Semenov, 1925 http://escriptorium.univer.kharkov.ua/handle/1237075002/303.

The lurid details of the pogrom can be found in several eyewitness and secondary accounts. Although the list of atrocities perpetrated against the Jews is too long to recount here, suffice it to say that pogromists brutally and indiscriminately beat, mutilated, and murdered defenceless Jewish men, women and children. They hurled Jews out of windows, raped and cut open the stomachs of pregnant women, and slaughtered infants in front of their parents. In one particularly gruesome incident, pogromists hung a woman upside down by her legs and arranged the bodies of her six dead children on the floor below.(Robert Weinberg, “The Pogrom of 1905 in Odessa: A Case Study” in Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, John D. Klier and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. (Cambridge,1992): 248-89) http://faculty.history.umd.edu/BCooperman/NewCity/Pogrom1905.html
The only eyewitness accounts in English that I found were from the newspaper correspondents in Odessa or elsewhere in Russia – and between the many newspaper accounts one can begin to build up more of a picture.

The Guardian, 6 November
Immense bands of ruffians, accompanied by policemen, invaded all the Jewish houses and mercilessly slaughtered the occupants. Men and women were barbarously felled and decapitated with axes. Children were torn limb from limb and their brains dashed out against walls. The streets were littered with the corpses which were hurled out of windows. The houses of murdered Jews were then systematically destroyed, not the smallest piece of furniture being left intact.

western times pogrom witness

A British sailor’s account

The Western Times Monday 20 November
During that eventful day (first day of the pogrom) there were 120 killed and 500 wounded. During the following days the mob walked about the streets in multitudes, with the soldiers and policemen in front, and every Jew’s shop they came across they began looting, the soldiers helping them. When the Jews inside the house fired on the mob to keep them from damaging their property, the soldiers fired on the inhabitants, and then the mob rushed into the houses and killed the occupants, throwing them from the windows into the street, and tearing the children limb from limb, and smashing in their faces beyond recognition. Young women had their arms completely torn from them, and their breasts cut off, and nails driven into their bodies. Old men and women, too feeble to walk, were saturated with oil and burnt. In all, 341 men women and children were treated in this manner. The officers gave orders to bash the killed about so that no one could recognise them. No one knew if any belonging to them were killed, as the dead were taken away and dumped in a heap in a kind of outhouse attached to the burying ground. The captain of the ship went and had a look at some of the bodies, and he said it was awful, things having happened too bad to appear in print. I went through the streets where the shops were plundered. Every Jewish shop was completely wrecked, windows smashed and everything taken away. China shops have all the crockery smashed and strewn about the streets, and all the walls and windows of the houses were marked with revolver shots. Only one quarter of what has really happened has been printed. Every ship in the harbour was sheltering refugees.

Looking for some eyewitness descriptions by people who had actually experienced the pogrom, when I first began this research, I wrote ‘pogrom’ and ‘biography’ into Google and found writers like Shalom Aleichem (Fiddler on the roof) and Isaac Babel. I also found some references to Mark Rothko. Several biographical articles about Rothko, who was born in Dvinsk, Russia in 1903, mention him telling a family story of Cossacks making Jews dig large square communal graves before they were slaughtered, which influenced his paintings. The biographies suggest that his story was not believed as they had never heard of mass graves during the 1905 pogrom.


Mark Rothko 1962

Isaac Babel was born in Odessa but brought up nearby in Nikolaev and in ‘The story of my dovecote’ he describes a pogrom of 1905 when he was nine years old. Most incredible was the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary. He described working very hard to get into the lycee, as there were strict quotas for Jews, but then writes of the joys of buying a new pencil case, notebooks and a school bag, experiences of so many children. On the day he goes to the market to buy doves, his present for passing the exam, he is beaten up, the doves killed, and when he gets home finds only his grandfather there, beaten to death. Then the scene reverts to a scene of such outward normality — his parents have taken refuge at their next-door neighbour’s and he finds his mother sitting in the glassed-in veranda having tea. It is difficult to switch between the neighbours’ normal day and what was happening to the Babel family.
The glassed-in veranda is a long way from the traditional image of the shtetl with its poverty-stricken inhabitants, rough log houses and streets of mud, which is often the only image presented of Jewish life in Russia, possibly because it distances people from the victims of massacres. I knew that my grandmother’s family had lived in large townhouses but I had never thought of what they might have looked like. My grandmother’s parents ran a hotel near the railway station in the new railway town of Baranovichi in Belarus.

baranavichy 1907 near station

Baranovichi street near station 1907

I had never been able to conceive, until recently, that my family was Russian as it was never spoken about. As a small child I knew that my parents always spoke Yiddish when they got together, but I had no idea where they were from until, when I was possibly 5 or 6, I asked my mother where my grandparents were from, and she said ‘Russia’. She did not elaborate and I always assumed that there was nothing more to be said on the subject. Somehow, that one brief word was not enough to have any meaning for me, or only enough to believe and yet not believe that they were Russian. I did not meet my eldest uncle until I was 12 and by that time I knew he had left Russia when he was about seven, so the first thing I asked him was whether he remembered any Russian. He turned and left the room, slamming the door behind him, and I knew from that time that something had happened there that I was not supposed to ask about.

At the time I read about Rothko, I had not read the newspaper articles about the mass graves in the cemetery of Odessa. I did not even know then where my grandparents had lived in Russia. I wondered why people doubted the story of the mass graves, and I wondered what happened to all the people whose homes were destroyed. Were there refuges, did people remain for days in cellars or attics, did they flee? Looking in the New York Times archive I found several articles on fundraising for the refugees, one of which included a letter written to a sister in New York on 27 Oct 1905 about the Odessa pogrom. It mentions “until today we have all been lying hidden in a cellar”. The next paragraph describes that after three days of burying the dead, the graves take up one half of the field “and 35 bodies are buried in one grave. Bodies are scattered all over the graveyard, so battered that they are unrecognisable. Limbs and heads of the children are strewn about. They lie in thick heaps, covered with tarpaulin. The morgues are full.” At the end of the letter, the author writes: “We find ourselves in a stable. Do not ask about food. The only thing that could help us would be to take us out of this accursed land.” (New York Times 29 Nov 1905).

The Jewish Chronicle had many articles on the pogroms throughout November and December, quoting from correspondents and letters from people in Odessa.

Two private doctors have attended over 300 children of both sexes horribly gashed on head and shoulders with sabres…Today I visited a building containing 2500 refugee Jewish children. They were half famished owing to the scarcity of bread during the last few days.

All the localities in Odessa which could be used as places of refuge were full of victims and wounded, among them the two principal hospitals, clinics of the university, private clinics, the high schools and Jewish schools.

The horrors witnessed in all these places are simply incredible. There were women who had lost the faculty of speech by shock, occasioned by the horrors witnessed and experienced, men who had been thrown from the upper stories of their dwelling houses, young girls who had voluntarily cast themselves from the windows to escape being violated, old men and infants mutilated, whole families found in cellars and attics where they had remained without food for over 48 hours.

Some of the Jews fled their lives to the steamers in the harbour. Others crowded the hotels.

The Jews were leaving the city, in a state of terror, many taking refuge in steamers.

A train from Odessa to Kiev yesterday was held up at Rasdjelna and 12 Jews found in it were dragged from the wagons and shot.

Odessa1905Pogrom postcard

Postcard Odessa pogrom 1905

As many who had lost everything or had friends or family elsewhere were fleeing Odessa, others were trying to survive in the city, returning to their wrecked houses when the violence died down.

Wenatchee, Washington 8 November
All is quiet here today. The town councils and the newspapers have opened collections in behalf of the victims of last week’s slaughter. The municipality headed the list with $12,500 and has re-established temporary refuges and food kitchens. The losses total many millions and no less than 800 families are ruined.

Jewish Chronicle 17 November
The Odessa correspondent of the Morning Leader estimated that 3300 orphans of Jewish victims in the recent slaughter had been thrown upon public benevolence. Over 7700 Christian and Jewish adults who have been plundered, were destitute, and were being assisted by public subscriptions. Twice that number were being temporarily sustained by their relatives and friends.


After the pogrom

The Times 30 November
Inquiry into the working of the Central Hebrew Committee’s Relief Fund, which was originally organised to distribute aid to the wives and families of reservists sent out to Manchuria, show that 150,000 rubles were locally available for immediate distribution. Some 8000 Jewish families, over 40,000 people, nearly all of the poorest classes dwelling in the suburbs, have been affected by the outbreak. The losses, irrespective of life, comprise furniture, clothes, household goods, implements of crafts and labour, and the stock of countless petty tradesmen and sutlers. The Hebrew Committee, which derives its funds from the rich Jewish mercantile houses in Odessa, distributed 40,000 rubles during the first week of the outbreak, and reckons that 1,500,000 rubles will be required in Odessa to furnish adequate redress.

One of the chapters in The Odessa pogrom and self defence is called ‘Slaughter in the attic: a woman’s story’, a first person account about 50 people, mostly women and children, hiding in an attic on Prokhorovskaya St in Moldovanka. The caretaker of the building told the hooligans that no one was left in the building, but they didn’t believe him, forced open the gate and entered. Seventeen were slaughtered in the attic and more than 30 in the courtyard. It is difficult to believe, that with the death of so many women and children in this one building, there were so few women and children in the death records.

I gradually began to picture that possibly my grandparents might have been hiding in a cellar or attic. If they lived in a house on the edge or outside the town rather than an apartment, they might have had less choice about whether to flee to a public refuge, like a school or a public building. Instead, they would have had to hide away on their own or a neighbour’s property. There were several reasons why I felt that my grandparents had not lived in the middle of the city, one of which came from an old, badly copied tape-recording of my mother just before she died in 1972. It is almost incomprehensible, but after many years of trying to understand it, I finally heard my mother saying that when her parents first arrived in New York, eight months after the pogrom, her mother did not like the tenement life, where small children rarely when outdoors, and wanted a house with a garden as she had been used to. Six weeks later they moved out of the city and rented a house in an immigrant area on the edge of New Rochelle, not far from the sea. Another reason was discovering from a cousin that my grandfather had grown grapes and made wine in his garden in New Rochelle. My grandfather could only have learned about growing grapes in a wine producing area like Odessa, not in his original home near Baranovichi. The map below shows New Rochelle in 1900, a few years before my grandparents arrived. The street they lived on, Oak Street, at the top of the map near the railway line, ends abruptly with no more building beyond. Echo Bay, the inlet off the Long Island Sound near their house is where the youngest son, Michel, who was born around the time they left Odessa, drowned.

new rochelle 1900

New Rochelle 1900

Postcards from the early 1900s from both New Rochelle and Odessa show some eery similarities, stretches of sandy beach with rocks and boulders, the boathouses, the wooden walkways, the white sails gleaming…

New Rochelle, New York

new rochelle rowing club


Odessa, Bolshoi Fontan

odessa b fontan

odessa new switzlerland beach