Street scene in Odessa center.
Sign for the Jewish museum.
Some of us old folks having a beer. Actually, I think I might be the oldest in this group.
Inside the magnificent opera house.
Monday morning at the library, just looked at my last post. My, that time on Demerdji Mountain seems like a long time ago even though it has only been a couple of weeks. Life here is a continuous parade, it seems, of new experiences and new thoughts about my life here. I have truly learned the importance of taking it one day at a time, because my despair/happiness on one day can change so radically on the next.
Two weekends ago I went to the famous Black Sea port city of Odessa. I have been wanting to visit Odessa ever since I have been in Crimea, so I welcomed the opportunity when SNAC (the over 50 Volunteers group in Ukraine—I seem to have forgotten exactly what SNAC stands for—guess that means I am truly a member of this group) decided to have their meeting in Odessa. Our “meeting” is really a pretense to spend some time in an interesting place in Ukraine. In November we are going to meet in Lviv in western Ukraine, and in the spring I and my fellow older PCVers will host the meeting in Crimea. I want to make it at a Crimean Tatar “cultural tour,” as a way to educate PCV’s about who the Crimean Tatar people are and also to perhaps develop that tourist concept among the Crimean Tatar establishments here. We’ll see how it goes…
Despite still feeling the effects of a lingering cold, I had a nice time in Odessa. One of the reasons I wanted to go was that I knew it would provide an opportunity to spend time with the new older PCV’s in Crimea, Cheryl and Vicki, and to get to know them better. They each live in villages about two hours from Simferopol. We took the overnight train together—Cheryl and me from Simferopol, Vicki from a stop two hours after Simferopol—and shared a room in the old hotel in the center of Odessa where our group was staying. We opted for the cheapest room so the bathroom was down a very long hall, but it was a huge room with many windows facing onto the main street. Unfortunately, that main street was quite noisy at night, but that is what ear plugs are for. The hotel was a find, as accommodations in Odessa are very expensive. Apparently, it was a palace of some sort at one time and had a grand staircase and large wide hallways. All a bit shabby, but really, quite lovely. It felt very Ukraine.
We arrived in Odessa on a Friday morning after 13 hours on the train (not bad coming from Simferopol where all train trips are at least overnight) and didn’t leave until Sunday evening, so we had three days to explore and hang out. Odessa is a lovely city. Not so old by European standards—it was established by Catherine (known historically as “Catherine the Great” but I have learned to drop the Great part around here. Russian czars are not looked upon very favorably by Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian nationalists) in the late 1700’s when she added Crimea and much of the surrounding land, including the Black Sea coast where Odessa is located, to the Russian Empire. The city was spared a lot of building damage in World War II, so many of the grand old buildings are still standing. The opera house was really something. It is said to be only second to the opera house in Vienna in grandeur and the elaborateness of its interior. We all got tickets to the current ballet production because we wanted to see the inside of the building. And it was certainly worth the relatively inexpensive tickets—gold leaf everywhere, tiers of balconies rising up to an elaborate domed ceiling, a red and gold velvet stage curtain. Photos definitely don’t do it justice. It looks like something that a czar would have built.
We spent the rest of the weekend exploring the center and its historic buildings and monuments, taking a short boat tour of the famous harbor, stumbling into a cat show (yes, even in Ukraine there are people obsessed with their pets), wandering through the archaeology museum with its interesting displays about ancient Black Sea cultures, photographing each other on the Twelfth Chair (from a very famous Russian story) and the Potemkin Stairs whose 200 steps lead down to the Sea (or did at one point—now they lead to a busy highway!), and just generally enjoying the beautiful weather and city and the company of older volunteers from all over Ukraine.
I also wanted to explore another side of Odessa. I had always known Odessa as the center of Jewish intellectual life in pre-war Europe, the home to many famous writers and artists. And, of course, I knew that the Holocaust devastated the Jewish population there. But I went to Odessa with the hope of seeing some remnants of that historical past where the 50% Jewish population played such a vibrant role in the creative energy of Eastern Europe. But all I found, which speaks volumes I think, was a very small (five rooms) museum of the history of Odessa Jews. It was filled with odds and ends--much of which I didn’t understand as there were no English signs--but one thing I could read was the sign showing the Jewish population numbers in Odessa, which ranged from thousands before the war to only 600 Jews left at the end of the war. And even that doesn’t tell the real story, as the soft spoken elderly woman at the museum informed us: Jews from all over Europe fled to Odessa during the war in hopes of being safe in the “Jewish capital” of Europe, only to be slaughtered along with the rest of the population, their numbers lost in the historical count of who lived and who died. The museum did little to satisfy my desire to know more about pre-war Jewish life in Odessa, but sometimes I think you learn more from realizing what is lacking than seeing what is there. Such was my experience at the museum of the Jewish history of Odessa.
Somehow this has turned into a longer post than I had planned, so I will save my other doings for the next post. The weather has cooled down here and the days are getting shorter. Nadjie is still on vacation but will be back later this week, and I look forward to our next year of work together. And who knows, what it will bring… Hopefully more Russian understanding!
With love from Crimea.