A day in Odessa: hanging in my great-grandfather’s hometown

My great-grandfather, Hyman Manoff, was born in 1884 in Odessa, in what’s now the Ukraine. This past May, I got a glimpse into my heritage by spending a day in my great-grandpa’s hometown.

Hyman Manoff was my maternal grandfather’s father, and I was sort of named after him. (My parents bestowed on me the Hebrew name of Chayim, which derives directly from my great-granddad’s first name; they then chose the relatively similar moniker of Harvey for the English-language name on my birth certificate.) At some point, Hyman married a woman named Sadie who came from the small Ukrainian village of Shpola. In 1905 he left Odessa and emigrated to the United States; he settled in Philadelphia, where he worked as an upholsterer. (I’m not sure whether Hyman married Sadie before or after his crossing of the Atlantic.) Hyman and Sadie had three children including a son Joseph, whose daughter Arlene would become my mother. And I’ve now pretty much exhausted the extent of what I know about Hyman Manoff’s life. He died in 1959, more than a decade before I was born, and I don’t even know what he looked like.

In May 2013, during my visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, I took a day-trip to Odessa. (I flew there from Kiev; the flight was about an hour long.) For several hours, I was privileged to wander some of the very streets that my ancestor must once have trod, and to gaze upon buildings and monuments that would have been familiar to him more than a century ago.

Odessa is a metropolis of just over 1 million inhabitants, making it the third-largest city by population in the Ukraine. My self-guided walking tour of the city began at a really long stairway.

The Potemkin Stairs

The most celebrated symbol of Odessa isn’t a building, but a staircase: the Primorsky Stairs, popularly known as the Potemkin Stairs. Rising up from the harbour to the plateau on which Odessa’s historic downtown rests, this assemblage of 192 stairs and 10 landings measures 466 feet in length. It widens as you descend; the topmost step is 41 feet wide, while the bottom step is nearly 71 feet in width. These stairs were constructed between 1837 and 1841. Here’s the view looking down the Potemkin Stairs towards the Black Sea:

Looking down the Potemkin Steps from the top.

Looking down the Potemkin Stairs from the top.

And here’s the opposite perspective, gazing up the Potemkin Stairs from somewhere just above their base:

Looking up the Potemkin Stairs from the bottom.

Looking up the Potemkin Stairs from one of the lower steps.

These stairs appeared in a famous scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film, The Battleship Potemkin. As you can see from the above photos, viewing the Potemkin stairs involves an optical illusion: if you look down them from above you’ll see only the landings, while the steps will be invisible to you; but if you look up them from below, you’ll see only the steps, and the landings will be invisible to you.

Just to the side of the Potemkin Stairs, I noticed some ruins that have an ancient appearance about them:

Ancient-looking ruins to the side of the Potemkin Stairs.

Ancient-looking ruins to the side of the Potemkin Stairs.

I know that Odessa originated as a colony of ancient Greece, but I have no idea whether these ruins date back anywhere near that far. Although I did some research after my trip, I’ve been unable to ascertain what structure this heap of bricks used to be. If you have any idea, please let me know!

At the top of the stairs

At the top of the Potemkin Stairs (and visible to you as you’re climbing them) is a statue of Duc de Richelieu, who served as the first mayor of Odessa. (His full name was Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septimanie de Vignerot du Plessis, 5th Duke of Richelieu. That guy sounds like the French equivalent of Joey Jo-Jo Junior Shabadoo. πŸ™‚ ) Fashioned from bronze, the monument to that unwieldily named nobleman was erected in 1828.

The statue of the Duc de Richelieu, the first mayor of Odessa, near the top of the Potemkin Stairs.

The statue of the Duc de Richelieu, the first mayor of Odessa, near the top of the Potemkin Stairs.

If you walk past the statue of the Duke and continue further away from the Potemkin Stairs, you’ll reach St. Catherine’s Square (Ekaterinenskaya Square), featuring a statue of Catherine the Great. Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, Catherine the Great issued the 1794 decree that founded the city of Odessa. Her statue was originally installed in 1900. However, in 1920, it was dismantled by the Bolsheviks and replaced by a monument to Karl Marx. The Marx statue is now long gone; reportedly it was destroyed by a strong wind. Apparently, like the man himself, Marx’s statue was on the wrong side of history! The memorial to Catherine was rebuilt on the same site in 2007; and the new version was designed, with the help of old photographs, to exactly replicate the original. Thus, while it’s not the same statue of Catherine that was in place in the early 20th century, it looks the same as the first statue would have appeared to my great-grandfather.

Another view of St. Catherine's Square.

St. Catherine’s Square featuring the recently reconstructed statue of Catherine the Great.

After paying your respects to Catherine the Great, if you circle back to the Duc de Richelieu statue, you can turn onto Primorsky Boulevard, a broad tree-lined avenue that juts off in either direction from the Duke’s statue. Prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917, this street bore the name Nikolaevsky Boulevard, in honour of Tsar Nicholas (Nikolai) II. That’s the name by which my great-grandfather would have known this street for at least part of his life. (Nicholas II assumed the throne in 1896. I’m not sure what the boulevard might have been called prior to his coronation — or whether it even existed before 1896.)

Among the elegant buildings on Primorsky Boulevard is the oldest hotel in Odessa: the Londonskaya, which opened in 1846.

The elegant Londonskaya Hotel, near the top of the Potemkin Stairs.

The Londonskaya, a grand hotel near the top of the Potemkin Stairs, is over 160 years old.

The most iconic building in Odessa, and one whose silhouette rivals the Potemkin Stairs as the most recognizable shape in the city, is the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre (officially titled the Odessa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet). The original theatre on the site was constructed in 1801, but burned down in 1873. The current edifice was built in 1887, and is an outstanding example of Vienna Baroque architecture:

The Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater features gorgeous baroque architecture.

The Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater features gorgeous Baroque architecture.

The address of this theatre is 1 Tchaikovsky Drive, which I think is pretty cool.

Deribasovskaya Street

If you walk from Primorsky Boulevard to the theatre and then continue just a bit further, you’ll reach Deribasovskaya Street, a pedestrian-only cobblestone thoroughfare that’s sort of the principal street of downtown Odessa. Lined with shops and restaurants, Deribasovskaya is great for people-watching. Here’s an image of that street:

A view of Deribasovskaya Street.

A view of Deribasovskaya Street.

Our next photo shows a building on Deribasovskaya Street that I really liked. I have no idea what it is, but it sure looks distinctive:

A building whose look I really liked, near Deribasovskaya Street.

A building whose look I found pleasing, on Deribasovskaya Street.

Amid the bustle of Odessa’s downtown, just off Deribasovskaya Street, you’ll find an oasis of green: a public park called the City Garden. Here are a couple of glimpses inside that park:

A fountain and gazebo in the City Garden.

A fountain and gazebo in the City Garden.

Another perspective on the City Garden.

Another perspective on the City Garden.

On the opposite side on Deribasovskaya Street from the City Garden is a spectacular indoor space: the Passage (pronounced “pa-SAHJ” by locals with whom I spoke). At the heart of the Passage is a grand L-shaped corridor, flanked by shops, with a glass roof high overhead. The building also contains a hotel. Like the Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Passage is a 19th-century building with a Baroque design. Adorning its central corridor are numerous sculptures in the classical style.

The stunning interior of the Passage.

The stunning interior of the Passage.

The entrances to the Passage are unassuming for such a grand structure, although they still contain some intricate detailing:

One of the entrances to the Passage.

One of the entrances to the Passage.

The next landmark on my agenda was by far the newest of any of the buildings I saw in Odessa: the Orthodox Cathedral, also known as the Transfiguration Cathedral. It was actually dedicated quite recently, in 2003. (The earliest church on the site was built in 1808, and was expanded and rebuilt a number of times, but was ultimately destroyed by the Soviets in 1936. At its peak in the early 20th century, the predecessor cathedral was the largest church in the Russian Empire and could accommodate 9,000 worshippers. I haven’t found a reliable source that indicates the capacity of the current incarnation of the church.)

The Odessa Orthodox Cathedral.

The Odessa Orthodox Cathedral.

Two other buildings that I wish to point out

Here’s an establishment that probably wasn’t around in my great-grandfather’s day:

 I found this karaoke bar in downtown Odessa!

I found this karaoke venue in downtown Odessa!

It’s a karaoke bar! I just happened to stumble upon it while strolling around the city. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to sing inside, as my excursion to Odessa was confined to the afternoon hours, and I was informed that the karaoke in this establishment wouldn’t get underway until the evening. But this just goes to show how skilled I am at conducting my World Karaoke Tour; in just about any city I go to, I can find karaoke bars without even trying! πŸ™‚ And I did still get to sing in the Ukraine, by virtue of my karaoke appearance in Kiev. So it’s all good. πŸ™‚

Before we depart from downtown Odessa, I feel compelled to share with you one other edifice that caught my eye. It’s another example of how even some of the most random buildings in this architecturally-rich city are visually arresting.

Here's another random Odessan building that I enjoyed looking at.

This is an unidentified Odessan building that I enjoyed looking at.

Arcadia Beach

Odessa is situated on the Black Sea, and as such, one of the most poular recreational outlets for its inhabitants is its beaches. Probably the most prominent of those is Arcadia Beach. With my time in Odessa winding down, I jumped in a taxi to head over to that particular stretch of seashore.

There’s more to Arcadia Beach than just sand and sea; a resort community has sprung up around it, and it abounds with trendy nightspots. To reach the actual beach, you stroll along a promenade.

A broad promenade forms the approach to Arcadia Beach.

A broad, paved walkway serves as the approach to Arcadia Beach.

Like any good resort area, Arcadia Beach offers the opportunity to ride bumper cars! There’s not a full-fledged amusement park like you’ll find at some seaside piers; as far as I could tell, the dodgems were the only ride available. But what else do you need? πŸ™‚

Like any good seaside resort, Arcadia Beach offers bumper cars.

Like any good seaside resort, Arcadia Beach offers bumper cars.

As you can see, these bumper cars have met a better fate than their counterparts in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat.

And here’s what the beach itself looks like:

Arcadia Beach

At Arcadia Beach, looking towards the sea.

That’s the Black Sea in the background!

Parting thoughts

I could easily have spent much more time in Odessa; it’s a charming city whose buildings and other features are pleasant to look at. And of course, while I always enjoy discovering a city that I’m visiting for the first time, my introduction to Odessa had special meaning for me.

Did Hyman Manoff run up and down the Potemkin Stairs, Rocky-style? Did he attend any performances in the Ballet and Opera Theatre? Did he take a meal inside the Londonskaya Hotel? Did he go to Arcadia Beach on a hot day and swim in the Black Sea? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but it’s fun to imagine him doing those things. What I do know is that, 129 years after his birth, I saw the town where he was born and raised. In so doing, I learned a little more about where I came from.

This is a draft registration form that my great-grandfather filled out in 1918, during World War I.

This is a registration card for the military draft that my great-grandfather filled out in 1918, during World War I. This document was found via ancestry.com.

Would you like to explore the places where your ancestors lived?

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Categories: Europe, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “A day in Odessa: hanging in my great-grandfather’s hometown

  1. Excellent post! Knew them as the Odessa Steps. Saw Potemkin a long time ago, but it was a brilliant film for the silent era for sure!


  2. How special to be able to retrace his footsteps! And I was not at all surprised that you were able to find a karaoke bar there;-)


    • @Jess: It’s just too bad that I wasn’t able to sing at the karaoke bar I found there. πŸ™‚

      And it was pretty awesome to think that I was retracing some of my ancestor’s footsteps.


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