How Odessa’s Jewish community is taking up arms again against Russian imperialism

Members who have joined the Ukrainian territorial defense forces are familiar with the history of their ancestors, who suffered a pogrom in 1905

Judíos de Odesa contra el nacionalismo ruso en la Guerra de Ucrania
Gennadiy Raskin, a Jewish member of Ukraine's territorial defense forces, during a night patrol in downtown Odessa.Albert Garcia

In a corner of the third Jewish cemetery in Odessa, among the overgrowth and tombs that no one visits anymore, there is a monument that the present has recovered from oblivion. It is an amphitheater made up of large stone blocks and black granite columns. There are steles with 305 names in Hebrew. They are the identified victims of the 1905 pogrom against the city’s Jews. That episode of ethnic persecution also triggered the creation of the Jewish self-defense groups of Odessa, the largest armed organization of the Jewish people on Ukrainian soil. More than a century later, the members of this community are taking up arms again against Russian imperialism.

Each piece of this memorial has a number painted in red; they are the markings that helped reconstruct it. The memorial was originally located at the second Jewish cemetery in Odessa, which was closed in 1974 by the Soviet authorities. It stands again, ignored even by the descendants of the dead who are honored there. But the spirit of survival has passed on to the new generations, says Roman Shvarcman, 85, who is the vice-president of the Ukraine Holocaust Survivors Association. “Russia says it wants denazify Ukraine. Have you seen many Nazis in Ukraine?” asks Shvarcman rhetorically. “Not me, and believe me I know what a Nazi is: I grew up in the Berschad [central Ukraine] ghetto and came out alive, that’s why I know it’s the Russians who are now acting like the Germans 80 years ago.”

Every day at 8pm, Gennadiy Raskin dons a military uniform, slings his rifle over his shoulder and goes out to patrol the city of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. He proudly explains that both his grandfathers fought against Nazi Germany in the Red Army, and at home they keep a photograph of one of them in a tank in Berlin after the fall of the German capital. Raskin is Jewish, but that, he says, means nothing when he’s on duty with his four fellow patrolmen. Only one of them, Aleksandr, has a Jewish father; the others have no ties to Judaism.

Odessa’s Jewish community
Gennadiy Raskin, first from the left, with other members of the patrol. Albert Garcia

They form a surveillance unit of the Territorial Defense Forces, a paramilitary arm of the Ukrainian army made up of civilian volunteers. They go through the old quarters of the center of Odessa during the curfew, from 9pm to 7am. Raskin, like Shvarcman, cannot believe how the Kremlin’s rhetoric has permeated left-wing European political parties: “To say that Ukraine is led by Nazis is stupid. The president [Volodymyr Zelenskiy] himself is Jewish. In our country there is no problem between nationalities.”

Raskin is 40 years old and a coroner by trade, currently holding a high rank in the structure of the Odessa Territorial Defense Forces. He is respected as a figure of authority by his colleagues and by the police. He is familiar with the legacy of the Jewish self-defense forces during the pogroms of more than a century ago, because the armed reaction of his people against recurring aggression has become something of a legend in the city.

It was here that the strongest self-defense groups in Ukraine against pogroms were organized in the late 19th century. The proletarian revolution of October 1905 led to nationalist violence against the Jewish population. The death count, which according to some estimates may be as high as 1,000, could have reached an even higher number if it had not been for the self-organized defense. This was the conclusion of the American historian Robert Weinberg in the most comprehensive book on this episode, The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa.

It’s the Russians who are now acting like the Germans 80 years ago
Roman Shvarcman, 85, who is the vice-president of the Ukraine Holocaust Survivors Association

The aggression against the Jewish population was the product of a combination of two factors, according to Weinberg’s study: on the one hand, the workers’ uprising that demanded reforms from Tsar Nicholas II also included radicals motivated by stereotypes about the supposed Jewish control over the economy. On the other hand, and more importantly, Russian nationalism and the authorities channeled that popular anger against their community.

“The pogrom began on October 19 [1905], hundreds of Russians gathered in various parts of the city in patriotic marches to show their loyalty to the tsar, with the approval of the local authorities,” Weinberg writes. The mood among the revolutionaries and the supporters of the government had been heated since the previous days. Plainclothes policemen distributed bottles of vodka, money and pistols among the protesters. During the journey from the port to the center of the city, the national anthem and also religious hymns were sung; according to various documents, slogans such as ‘down with the Jews’ and ‘the Jews need a beating’ began to be chanted. Weinberg’s account of the Jewish paramilitary organization, and its coalition with Bolshevik and student groups, partially evokes the current civilian militarization in Ukraine: “The Jewish National Self-Defense Committee distributed leaflets threatening non-Jews with reprisals in the event of a pogrom. […] Many Jews living in Odessa followed the Committee’s advice and armed themselves with guns, knives, sticks, whips, as well as sulfuric acid.”

Rabbi Abraham Wolff believes that this will to prevail against so many enemies is what has kept the Odessa Jewish community alive. The main Black Sea port, founded by the Russian Empress Catherine II, had Greeks and Jews as the main entrepreneurial groups in maritime trade. Despite the pogroms and especially despite the Holocaust —which killed 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine, 90% of the total—, their community in Odessa today numbers about 35,000 members. According to Wolff, some 15,000 have fled the war to the West or to Israel, and 15% are involved in volunteer work.

Raskin estimates that 300 Odessa Jews have enlisted in the Territorial Defense Forces. He considers that the current context is very different because Russian aggression is not against his people: it is against Ukraine as a whole. He does believe that, as at other times in history, his relatives are having to flee again – his wife and three children are in Hungary. But the war, he admits, has also divided the Jews themselves: Of the many friends he has in Russia, he can only talk to one or two. “They are under the influence of propaganda, and despite the fact that they have relatives in Ukraine who tell them what they are going through, they do not believe it.”

Schvarcman highlights that the identity component does not play any role today because the Jewish community is fully integrated into Ukrainian society, unlike at the time of the pogroms: “The mentality of the Jews at that time was different, they lived separately from the rest of the population.” Schvarcman above all provides arguments to refute the arguments of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, who claims Ukraine is a nest of Nazis. He criticizes the fact that despite the role of the Russian state in encouraging the pogroms, the memorial at the third Jewish cemetery did not receive any Russian money for restoration work, and he adds that “under the Soviet Union there was a palpable anti-Semitism.”

“Now we have synagogues that we could not open then. And in independent Ukraine, we can talk about the Holocaust, explain what happened without censorship. This is my response to Putin.”

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