Boasting one of the largest concentrations of Eastern European Jewry, Odessa was a major center of the Enlightenment, Hebrew literature, and Zionism, and stood as an exemplar of the modernization of Russia’s Jews. In the 1930’s Odessa had a Jewish population 200,000.
Odessa was occupied by the Romanians allies of Nazi Germans on October 16, 1941. About half of the Jewish population in the city managed to evacuate or flee to the east before the Romanians entered the city. At the same time thousands of Jewish refugees arrived in Odessa from Bessarabia and southern Ukraine. From the first days Jews were brutally murdered by the Romanian forces. On October 22, 1941, hundreds of Romanian soldiers were killed when a squad of Soviet sappers blew up the Romanian army headquarters in Odessa. In retaliation, the military and gendarmerie authorities launched a massacre and mass deportation, which was carried out over several months. Within a short time of the detonation, the Romanians began to drive out tens of thousands of Odessa’s Jews on foot, while thousands of others were concentrated for short periods in areas designated as ghettos by the Romanians.
In late October 1941, at the orders of the Romanian governor of Transnistria, Gheorghe Alexianu, about 25,000 of Odessa’s Jews were concentrated in a ghetto established in the Slobodka area of the city. The living conditions in the ghetto were extremely harsh, and hunger and bitter cold caused the death of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jews. On November 3, 1941, ten days after they had been imprisoned in the Slobodka ghetto, children, women, and the elderly were permitted to return to their homes, whereas the men were transferred to the municipal jail. In mid-November, the Romanians once again concentrated the Jews in the Slobodka ghetto, as well as in the village of Dalnik and in other places in the city. Many Jews perished, committed suicide, or were murdered.
On December 28, 1941, the commander of the Romanian headquarters transmitted the orders handed down by Romanian ruler Marshal Ion Antonescu to deport the Jews from Odessa. On January 10, 1942, the city commander issued a decree giving the Jews two days to move to Slobodka under the threat of severe punishment. The Romanian authorities designated Slobodka as a ghetto and forbade the Jews to leave its confines. It was encircled by a barbed-wire fence and guarded by special units. By January 12, 1942, the Romanians had begun to deport the Jews from the ghetto to villages in counties near Odessa, as well as to nearby districts, where most either perished or were murdered. The Slobodka ghetto existed until June 10, 1942, when its last 400 inhabitants were deported.
The Romanians murdered at least 25,000 of Odessa’s Jews and deported another approximately 60,000, most of whom later perished in the places to which they were expelled.