Seniors | Worrisome situation in Odessa like dj-vu, migr says of homeland

With the uncertain fate of Ukraine still in the headlines, Valery Bazarov’s upcoming talk in Los Altos Hills is particularly timely — especially for anyone interested in the Jewish connection to the besieged Eastern European country.

“It’s like déjà-vu,” said Bazarov, 72, a native of Odessa who immigrated to the U.S. in 1988.  “The people are seeing one of the worst times ever. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, as it is everywhere … ”

This was not always the case, said Bazarov, a resident of Union City.

Valery Bazarov

He recalled an incident in 2000 when he and his wife, Sofia, were visiting Odessa. “We were having dinner in a very good restaurant, we asked for some fish soup, or something, but they brought a meat borscht with sour cream.

“I explained that I’m Jewish and we don’t mix meat and dairy. Their facial expressions were priceless. They apologized profusely. They were so nice. It wouldn’t have happened that way during Soviet times.”

Bazarov will give a talk Oct. 20 titled “Odessa, the Jewish Soul of a Cosmopolitan City.” His 7:30 p.m. lecture to the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society is free and open to the public.

Bazarov will present some little-known factual gems about his native city, which is only a few years younger than the United States.

“Constructed between the green infinite steppe and the blue endless sea by order of an empress, and embellished by the best architects of France and Italy, Odessa’s first builder was the same person who helped George Washington in the battle of Yorktown,” Bazarov noted. “Jews participated in city management in Odessa, unlike other cities in the Russian Empire, almost from its first years.”

Bazarov has developed a passion for the study of his former home. He began working for HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) shortly after immigrating, and as director of HIAS’ Family History and Location Services, he helped immigrants find lost friends and family members. He said he is committed to finding and honoring the heroes, Jews and non-Jews alike, who rescued European Jews during the Holocaust.

A frequent Jewish genealogy lecturer, Bazarov retired last year and recently moved to the Bay Area to be near his grown children.

“I was born in Kazakhstan in the middle of the war, but right afterwards, my father — who was in the Russian military — was transferred [to Odessa],” he said. “A talented artist, my father learned the Jews were as good as soldiers as anyone else, but the popular saying at the time was that the Jews who were soldiers were cowards and the Jews who were not, were traitors.”

Acknowledging there were periods when Jews had it rough in Odessa — there were several pogroms, the first in 1820 — Bazarov said Jews nonetheless made important contributions to nearly all areas of the city’s culture, traditions, folklore, music and literature.

“There were quotas in universities, limitations in certain jobs,” but the Jews’ treatment in Odessa was significantly less harsh than elsewhere during much of the city’s history, he said.

“Despite the pogroms, Odessa’s Jewish history is more like that of the United States,” Bazarov said. “It was a mosaic of different cultures: There were Italian, Russian and other street names for many years, a lot of nationalities, and each contributed to the culture.”

Jews in the Russian Empire could live only in certain areas, he added. Odessa was different.

“The Jews were specifically invited to help give the new city culture. Their contribution was appreciated and they were considered almost equal, though not quite.”

In the empires other cities, Jews were not allowed to “even look at city management. They were not second [class], but third-class citizens.

“That’s why so many important Jewish artists and others came from Odessa. There were more opportunities for Jews there than anywhere else in Eastern Europe.”

But the statistics also tell a story.

Estimates of Odessa’s current Jewish population range from 30,000 to 45,000. Before World War II, Jews made up about 40 percent of the population — nearly 300,000.

During his talk, Bazarov will discuss what happened to the Jews of Odessa from 1941 to 1944 and why they left en masse in the 1980s and 1990s. He will also share some facts about the rebirth of Jewish life in Odessa and new dangers emerging there.

He promises a stimulating lecture “done with humor and photos and an interesting history.

“The most important thing,” he said, “is that people learn something they didn’t know before, while enjoying themselves. That’s the best thing a lecturer can ask.”

Valery Bazarov will speak at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Free.


Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."