Odessa’s Hidden Courtyards

Odessa’s hidden courtyards intrigued, fascinated, and more often than not, surprised me.

Around the corner from Cathedral Square in the old town was my hostel, the door of which was deep inside a gated, old courtyard. The pavement was in upheaval, paint was sorely lacking everywhere, but it was clean. Laundry was often hanging out to dry between the walls of houses which surrounded the inside of the courtyard.

I eventually came to the conclusion that my atmospheric courtyard was typical of Odessa’s old traditional courtyards which were hidden throughout old town. The occupants were of diverse nationality, age, and profession. It was scarce on beauty, but revealed an interesting slice of Odessa life and culture.

My courtyard became my *Little Odessa. I soon felt very much at home there. I periodically exchanged friendly greetings in English with two Muslim women outside the entrance of their stately, two-story house. A couple of times I observed a young professional man tapping on a window as he approached a door of a house in the courtyard. The door opened quickly thereafter and he vanished inside. Once I was faster than he was and got a glimpse of a stunning, flower-filled interior. I often exchanged smiles with a middle-aged woman who was taking her dog out for a walk. Two adolescents occasionally played a noisy game of football (soccer) until someone called them in.

I observed a different kind of courtyard activity just outside my dorm window where I often sat while writing this blog. A large paved area with a volleyball net was surrounded by buildings. It was often a buzz of activity with students from the high school next door who were playing volleyball or football (soccer). First there would be a scurry of excitement, then a whistle, then total silence as the group exited the play area. Then I would get back to work until the next pleasant disturbance. Fun!

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No courtyard was more thought-provoking than the one where the Museum of History of Odessa Jews was located, which was a few blocks from my hostel. In the rear of the crumbling courtyard was a small apartment where four Jewish families had lived together during Soviet times. This museum pictured the lives of the Jewish population of Odessa before the Holocaust with a rich, diverse collection of items donated by descendants of Jewish families who managed to survive those times.

I couldn’t help but compare this humble museum to the grandiose Jewish history museum that I visited a couple years ago in Warsaw, Poland. The museum in Warsaw delved deep into centuries of Jewish history. In comparison, the museum in Odessa gave me the feeling I had walked into the lives of several Jewish Odessa families in the 20th century. It was cozy, informative, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

The new handbook City Guide of Jewish Odessa, which I purchased at this museum, was a great help in my quest to learn about the city’s heritage. The smile on the fresh-faced Jewish boy on the cover made me feel like he was welcoming me into his world, which he did through this well-written guidebook.

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On the wall of one of Odessa’s more artistic courtyards was a mural containing the famed Russian poet, playwright, and novelist, Alexander Pushkin, in a very casual, relaxed pose. Born into Russian nobility in 1799, he was the great grandson of an African slave. He was eventually banished, for his political poems, to remote southern Russia, where Odessa was located.

It seemed every time I turned around there was some sort of remembrance of Pushkin, whether in the form of a statue, a bust, or a wall painting. This wall painting was the most endearing of all these remembrances, presenting him as a charmer, which I understand he was.

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* Little Odessa was a nickname sometimes given to Brighton Beach, NY, due to the Russian immigrants who settled there, largely Russian Jews, from Odessa.

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