1941: The Jews of Odessa Left Out in the Cold

Following three days of massacres, the remaining Jews of Odessa, Ukraine, were gathered together on this day in 1941 by Romanian occupying forces and left to face the elements for 10 days.

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A rabbi from Odessa, stands at what Jewish leaders say is a mass grave of Jews slaughtered in Ukraine during World War II.
A rabbi from Odessa, stands at what Jewish leaders say is a mass grave of Jews slaughtered in Ukraine during World War II.Credit: AP

On this day in 1941, the Jews of Odessa, Ukraine, were taken outside the city and left exposed to the elements for 10 days, after already surviving  three days of massacres by the Romanian occupying forces.

Odessa, founded in 1794, was a cosmopolitan port city on the Black Sea. Its Jews were involved in politics, commerce and shipping, as well as in education and the city’s cultural life. Important Jewish figures from the city include Zeev Jabotinsky, Zionist leader Leon Pinsker, writer Isaac Babel (who called the city the “Star of Exile”), poet Haim Nahman Bialik, and historian Simon Dubnow, to mention a very few. 

In 1939, some 201,000 Jews lived in Odessa (about a third of the overall population), which had been annexed to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1920. After the conquest of the Transnistria territory by Axis forces in summer of 1941, the Germans gave control of the region, called the Transnistria Governate, to Romania. After a two-month siege, Odessa fell to the Germans and Romanians on October 16 and was declared the capital of the governate. By then, some half of the city’s Jews had fled. Of the approximately 90,000 who remained, Romanian troops immediately killed about 8,000.

On October 22, an explosion rocked the Romanian military headquarters in Odessa, killing 67 soldiers and officers. The bomb was apparently a device left behind by the retreating Soviet army and set for delayed detonation, but the Romanian response was a massacre of Jews. Over the following three days, some 44,000 were killed – by shooting, fire, shelling, and hand grenades. On the final day, October 25, those who were still alive, numbering between 35,000 and 40,000, were moved to the ghetto in the suburb of Slobodka, and left outdoors until November 3. From then until January 1942, the remainder of Odessa’s Jews who didn’t die from natural causes died either on death marches, in concentration camps, or were shot.

The Red Army liberated Odessa on April 10, 1944. Yad Vashem estimates that 99,000 of the city’s 201,000 Jews died in the Holocaust.

Despite a viciously anti-Semitic atmosphere that prevailed in the city following its return to the USSR after World War II, and despite the departure of thousands of Jews both in the 1970s and the 1990s, the city today has some 30,000 Jewish residents, out of a general population of 1,000,000. They are served by numerous institutions established there in the wake of Ukrainian independence, by organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency and Chabad.