Suspicion and hope in the city kissed by God

Paul Cainer visits the Black Sea port of Odessa, where he finds optimism and faith amid the mistrust of strangers


“Odessa is a city that was kissed by God,” declares Daniel Oks, a businessman and member of the local kehila. We are standing outside the main functioning synagogue in Osipova Street run by Chabad’s Rabbi Avraham Wolff. In the foyer, shul volunteers dish out supplies. Remnants of Pesach line the shelves – boxes of locally baked matzot.

Inside the shul the weekday morning minyan has attracted between 30 and 40 men – more than before the war started, I’m told. Faced with potential death and destruction, Jews here have been contemplating the meaning of life and embracing the community.

The ongoing Russian invasion does not seem to have dampened Daniel’s enthusiasm. “Odessa was a Jewish city; Odessa is still a Jewish city and it’s going to be a Jewish city,” he says, gesturing 360 degrees around him. “It’s one of the best places all over the world, where Jews feel free and don’t need to hide their identity. And that’s why we feel so happy here.”

Before the Second World War, Jews comprised about 30 per cent of the entire population. Now, though, the majority of Jewish women and children, and men over 65, have been evacuated. Most are in Germany, says Daniel. “It’s crazy to think that Germany is saving Jews... can you imagine it?”

There are Russian forces close to the nearest Black Sea port, Mykolayiv, to Odessa’s east, and if it were to fall there would be a route for Russian forces from occupied Crimea to storm through to Odessa and potentially capture their biggest prize yet. On 8 and 9 May (when this city was in total lockdown for 36 hours), Odessa was struck by seven long-range Russian missiles, one of which smashed into a hotel. I walk a couple of miles from the shul through the centre of this city, with its elegant buildings and facades.

Most of Odessa’s precious statues have been covered by sandbags. Barriers prevent any access to the sea, or to the famous Potemkin Steps, which lead down to the port, and would now provide an entry for Russian forces to penetrate from land or sea. A 19-year-old soldier forbids anyone to enter. I ask if I can go just two doors inside the barrier to interview the press officer of the Tourism Ministry in its city office.

“It’s been closed since the war started, but you can phone it,” a local tells me. (Tourism has been a mainstay of this famous city, particularly drawing Israeli visitors.) Highly unusually, the solider guarding the checkpoint allows his photo to be taken.

But when I take a picture with the sea and the port in the distance, it produces an angry response from Ukrainian security forces, who threaten to arrest and lock me up as a suspected spy. Eventually they relent and an intelligence officer explains: “You see, we’ve caught several spies paid by Moscow, and they’re mainly French, never British. We like Boris Johnson. Tell him thank you.” He gives me his mobile phone number in case I get into trouble again. “Get whoever arrests you to phone me,” he says.

The Russian navy is blocking Ukraine’s vital exports of wheat and other agricultural and industrial products, as well as preventing the import of arms from the sea.

It was not the first time I had attracted police attention in Odessa. On arrival in the city, after a long land journey from neighbouring Moldova, I took a tram to the train station. At the terminus I was using my iPhone to snap a sign reading “Welcome to Odessa” in English.

Four policemen had suddenly turned up alongside me. “No photos.” “You’re a spy,” said one in Russian. “No,” I said in English.

“Ah but you just understood the word ‘spy’ – in Russian.” I pointed out that it was easy to guess what the word “spion” meant.

After being taken in a police van to the local police station, they eventually concluded I was just a journalist and I was allowed to continue with the warning: “Be careful what you photograph.”

Later, an American, who had helped the Ukrainian military recruits to train at an airport to the north, guides me around the town. We walk through a tree-lined park, from which it was easy to see the container port. We pass a huge stadium, advertising forthcoming football games – now cancelled – and displaying a poster for the Tour de France. At the edge of the park is a large metal heart, painted red, into which the public had been stuffing scribbled notes, rather like at the Kotel, perhaps asking for peace and safety.

In a nearby square we meet two Lycra-clad cyclists. One of them, Viktoriia Bondarenko, is Ukraine’s cycling champion. She tells me: “I have a gun and of course I know how to use it. We dream to finish this and to come back to our life – swimming, taking hikes, and fun cycles.”

She pleads to the outside world: “We need you to help us. We’re ready for fighting here in Odessa, but we lack weapons. Bring us the best of the best. I need some body armour, for example.”

We drive in my American friend’s 4x4 about 30 miles south-east, to the town of Chornomorsk, to briefly meet the country’s female karate champion. The large port is, of course, closed. We pass through what a local tells us was Lenin Square, now renamed and adorned with only a grey lamp-post. I order a taxi from Chornomorsk to exit Ukraine that evening across the border with Moldova, but the taxi driver calls back to cancel, worried he won’t get back from the two-hour drive before the 9pm curfew.

My exasperated American acquaintance drops me at the Odessa railway station, suggesting it’s advisable for me to leave town on the overnight train to Kyiv. However, it has gone. After half an hour in the rain, I find a taxi. We do a hotel crawl – until, mercifully, we find one that’s open: the elegant Hotel Bristol. There’s a kosher restaurant inside, but it’s been closed since the war started, the receptionist explains. Still, my room is luxurious, though the ham-and-cheese sandwich I’m given to take away as breakfast in the morning has to go into the bin. I head for an 8am rendezvous with a bus that will carry mainly Jewish refugees from Mykolayiv to Moldova and then Romania, where many will be airlifted to Israel. One boy climbs aboard carrying a large cello.

The exodus is arranged by Jewish rescuers. One of them is Nellie Kuznetsova, a 27-year-old civil engineer in her pre-war job, now working for a charity. She tells me: “At first we were much more scared than now. Supermarkets were closed, we were worried about food, and pharmacies were closed. Life is tough but I’m managing. And though I was secular, I managed this Pesach not to eat bread, only matzah. And go to a Seder. It felt liberating.” The biggest thing she misses? “It’s that all the theatres are closed. No plays, no music.”

She adds: “Ambitions? I can only plan for today or tomorrow. No one has any big career plans. The one plan we have is to save our country... and to survive.”

I hitch a ride in the Magen David Adom ambulance that’s accompanying the refugee bus to help it pass the checkpoints. My fellow passenger, Masha Scavalanovich, has just tearfully hugged her husband goodbye. She was able to be with him for two precious days, their first snippet of marital life since the war began. She says: “He insists it’s safer for me to go back to Moldova, and to look after my two dogs and the rest of our relatives who have also fled. I hope we can all return very soon – to a free Ukraine.” Masha tells me her mother is Jewish. Her parents refuse to leave their home much further east, close to the epicentre of the war.

“Like most Jews who grew up in the Communist era, they are totally secular, but I’ve become much more religious in the last few years – and my husband, too. I even persuaded my parents last year to light Shabbat candles.”

She celebrated Pesach in Moldova, under the aegis of dynamic 34-year-old Russian-speaking rabbi Shimson Izakson, attending two Seders and going to shul both mornings. “I suppose you may say that some good things have come out of this war – like feeling and being more Jewish. But much more will come if we can only get to peace.”

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