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SFS Professor Details Highs, Lows of Odessa

Charles King Odessa Book

March 17, 2011 – A new book about Odessa by Georgetown School of Foreign Service professor Charles King concludes that “From its founding in 1794 all the way to the present, [the city] has struggled to survive somewhere between success and suicide.”

In Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, King explores the history as well as the tragedy the city experienced over the past few centuries.

The professor describes how Odessa, founded by Russian Empress Catherine the Great as a model city of enlightenment, grew to be a haven for Jews, Ukrainians, Greeks, Italians and others seeking fortune and adventure. Its reputation for art and industry made it one of Europe’s greatest cities.

A Dark History

But during the late 19th century, it became the site of one of the first anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian empire. During the Holocaust, German-controlled Romanian forces killed tens of thousands of Jews in what became known as the “Odessa Massacre.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, King writes, Odessa’s Jewish community numbered over 230,000, or one third of the total population. After the Holocaust, only 48 remained.

“A city that was home to one of the largest and most famous Jewish communities in Europe ended up destroying itself during the Second World War,” King explains.

Consistent Recovery

The city then went through a slow but consistent period of recovery after the war, the professor notes in his book, and an era of almost theatrical nostalgia began.

King likens that nostalgia to the experience of other cities with dark histories, explaining that nostalgia becomes “a balm to heal” both the destruction and self-destruction of the area.

“Odessa managed to produce a local culture woven from uneasiness, a way of living that may hold lessons about the creative and destructive power of being in-between,” he writes.

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