Odessa Steps and Roots

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There’s a new epilogue to the story of a girl from Odessa who fled with her family to America in the early 1900s to escape the pogroms that were killing and persecuting Jews in Ukraine and others parts of the Russian empire.

IMG_1676That girl was my grandmother, Sarah.

On Saturday, Champa and I visited Odessa to pay our respects to Grandma Sarah’s memory while touring this great Black Sea port city. I was the first of her children or grandchildren to return in the many years since Grandma Sarah’s family — my family — arrived with nothing at New York’s Ellis Island. She used to describe their journey as resembling this closing scene from “Fiddler on the Roof,” a film she loved:

Champa and I hired an excellent driver, Marcel,  to make a long day trip there with our host sister, Alisa (wearing the blue Odessa souvenir hat), and her cousin Natalia.

IMG_1588We left Ialoveni early, crossing the Moldovan-Ukrainian border at Palanca since Peace Corps does not allow volunteers to travel through the disputed territory of Transnistria. We were lucky to arrive near Odessa’s opera house, shown behind us, just before a noon performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” was beginning.  IMG_1600We bought the cheapest seats, less than 40 cents apiece, so we could glimpse the theater for a few minutes. It was magnificent.

We then walked to another local landmark, the Odessa Steps that figure prominently in the famous scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, shown in the following clip. On one side of the steps is a plaque honoring their cinematic significance; on the other is a funicular we rode to ascend after visiting the port below, a major freight and passenger transportation hub for Ukraine.



Throughout Odessa’s central area we saw beautiful buildings, parks, shops and statues commemorating figures such as Catherine the Great (below) and Duke de Richelieu, the French-born governor who helped Odessa grow to become the third largest city in the Russian empire. We thought of our two daughters-in-law when visiting the “Mother-in-Law Bridge” and ate a late lunch of traditional Ukrainain food at Kumanets.


We ended our trip with a visit to Odessa’s largest synagogue, where I left a donation in my grandmother’s honor. It had taken more than a century but one of her descendants had finally made it back to revive her memory in this fascinating city, which we really enjoyed visiting.

7 thoughts on “Odessa Steps and Roots”

  1. Beautiful piece, David. I have always thought i’d Love to see Odessa. Thanks for the amazing film clip, too. What an astonishing piece of filmmaking and such an inspiration for other directors, such as De Palma’s steps scene from “The Untouchables.” The generation connection was very moving, too. See you soon. Love to Champa!


  2. Hi David, So crazy story, my friend’s son was drugged and robbed in Odessa on Friday night. He was traveling alone, and decided to cut his trip short and return home tomorrow. My friend is a Duke grad and lives here in Greensboro, Drew Blaha. His son Jonathon is 28, just got out of the army and was traveling before starting law school in the fall. I’m so sad that he missed the beautiful experience you did. Darn it. He thinks someone drugged his drink when he bent down to tie his shoe. Crazy to see your post today after having dinner with the Blaha’s last night. Crazy small world. Namaste sati and say hello to Champa! Chrissy

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Chrissy. Wow, that IS an amazing story. I’m so sorry Jonathon had this experience and am thankful he is OK. As you saw, our own experience in Odessa was much better.


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