ODESSA and its Jewish population

Didier BERTIN  - 06 May 2024

From 1787 to 1791 the Cossacks opposed to the Turks conquered two fortresses, one Tatar and the other Turkish, while an Italian admiral established a location nearby overlooking a bay of the Black Sea. This group of locations have constituted the future Odessa with a very small Pontic population. Catherine II chose the name Odessa in 1794 in memory of the Greek city of Odessos which is today Varna in Bulgaria. The development of Odessa is the fruit of the governorship of the French nobleman Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis de Richelieu from 1814 to 1819. Richelieu was mayor of Odessa then Governor of the new Russia (Southern Russia). This governor, appointed by Catherine II, had fled the French Revolution. Another element of the development of the city was its status as a free port from 1819 to 1859.

The layout of the city, its developments, its infrastructures are the result of the management of Richelieu assisted by his brother-in-law Louis-Victor-Léon de Rochechouart. The two had also organized a quarantine to save the city from cholera. The French high school Richelieu was created in Odessa in 1817. The Count of Langeron (aristocrat having also fled the French Revolution) became mayor of the city and created the French newspaper: “Le Messager de la Russie Méridionale” read by the elite of the city. Pushkin said that Odessa had a European flavor and French was spoken there. Richelieu spent fifteen years in Russia and was also a friend of Alexander I.

Richelieu had also been responsible for populating Odessa but Catherine II did not want to see a Jewish population influx there, which arrived mainly from 1783 to 1939. Catherine II, whose reign ended in 1796, was the founder of the geographically limiting segregation zone. the presence of Jews in the Russian Empire and which was called “the Pale of Settlement”, far from the major cities of Holy Russia. The arrival of the Jewish population mainly began under the reign of the very liberal Alexander II, then Nicholas II, and after the Revolution. The Pale of settlement was only abolished on March 20, 1917 and geographically included Odessa (see the table of demographic developments).

The population of Odessa was made up of a high proportion of Jews: a maximum of 36% in 1926, or 153,000 Jews out of the 2,700,000 Jews of Ukraine.

From 1941 to 1944 Odessa was taken by the Romanians (allied to the Germans) but the majority of Jews had fled before their arrival to other territories of the USSR and there remained around 100,000 Jews in the city. According to "The Jewish Virtual Library" 34,000 Jews were executed from October 22 to 25, 1941. The others were either executed or deported to camps in Romania where they died from various epidemics. The “American Holocaust Museum” estimates the number of deaths at 100,000 Odessite Jews.

The figures below appear to show that Jews who fled before the Romanian invasion returned after the war.






       20 349




       41 700

      6 950



     193 513

    51 378



     403 815

   139 935



     420 862

   153 243



     604 217

 200 981



     900 000

108 900



  1 023 800

   86 000*


*Substantial emigration to Israel in 1970