One of the most famous visitors to Odessa was Mark Twain. He found a city that was full of people from various nationalities and religions. He had visited the city in 1867 and was one of the many who stepped ashore to see its famous cascade of stone steps, while observing the "city center, buzzing with the business of trade, shipping and exchange". Because of this, he was reminded of his America.
Thus Mr.King starts his fascinating tale of the city's history-a city founded on the shores of the Black Sea. Later on you could find in it everything and everyone: Russians, Romanians, Jews, Greeks, Italians, Germans. The city has attracted all kinds of people. Many of them were prominent figures and they included Alexander Pushkin, Grigory Potemkin, Jose de Ribas, Isaac Babel and various Jewish writers and Zionist activists. It was a city where intellectuals, crooks and raconteurs were living side by side. Like most sea and river ports, Odessa became a haven for the underworld and this thing in itself "became one of the deepest and most enduring features". Criminals, delinquents, Jewish artful dodgers and schemers populated the city, which was built originally by Catherine the Great as a model of Enlightenment. One of the most famous personalities was Illya Mechnikov, the famous immunologist who earned the Nobel prize and whose tragic life is well told here. His story is only part of a greater picture of the terrible and endless plagues which were rampant in Odessa throughout the centuries. This resulted in many quarantines imposed by the authorities on ships and travellers alike. Another plague, that of locusts during the nineteenth century, caused the inhabitants of Odessa to find comic solutions, such as the creation of enough noise to scare the insects away. One lady had even organized an annual parade to deal with the pests, "by engaging her husband to use a large bell, then the gardener hanging on a water bucket, then the footmen clanging on shovels, followed by housemaids striking pots and kettles, and lastly the children tapping with toasting forks on tea boards".
Not only was the city a magnet for merchants and businessmen.It was to become one of the bloodiest places for the Jews and the famous pogroms these unfortunate people have gone through are retold here in detail. Pogrom survivors came from all professions and social classes. Students, traders, clerks, teachers and port workers comprised the majority, while another group was that of housewives. Thus the city was also a place of tremendous violence and this continued through World War Two, when the famous Roumanian- administered Transnistria Area, which contained tens of ghettoes, was established between the Bug and the Dniester. Odessa was its capital and Mr.King writes that " the horrors of Transnistria and its capital city, Odessa, had analogs in the more extensive and well-documented atrocities committed in the infamous death camps of occupied Europe and at the hands of the German military". Hundreds of thousands of Jews perished there. The chapter on the capture and trials of many well- known Romanian Fascist leaders is extremely interesting. Some of these included Ion Antonescu, Mihai Antonescu and the Governor of Transnistria, the murderous professor Gheorghe Alexianu, whose headquarters during the war was to be found in the former palace of Counts Mikhail Vorontsov, another prominent man who developed Odessa. Some Odesssan Jews who left the city formed the Odessan diaspora ,many of whom ended up on Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
The book is superbly researched, using many new and unknown sources and containing as rich bibliography. It is a history of courage, tragedy, fun, crime, murders, intellectuals and artists, villains and geniuses, and it is also a tale of optimism that characterized the city of dreams. This book is highly recommended because it is a tale of courage and glory of a world that was and will probably never exist again.