p>On October 12, 2018, Shalimovka, an area of new housing development on the outskirts of Odessa, will be the site of an unusual event. The German and Romanian ambassadors will make appearances there, and Holocaust victims' organizations will travel to take part, too. During the event, a speech from German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be read aloud, the RathsChor choir from the northern German city of Bremen will perform, and a rabbi from the liberal reform branch of Judaism will recite a kaddish, a hymn of praise to God that is often part of mourning rituals.

This kaddish will be recited for all those who died on one October night in 1941 in that very place.

Is it a memorial service that, like so many others, recalls the innumerable crimes of Nazi occupation during WWII? Not quite, for the mass murder of Odessa's Jewish population, known as the 1941 Odessa massacre, is a black hole in Western Europe's culture of memory.

A forgotten tragedy

Marieluise Beck wants to change the situation. The former expert on East European affairs for the German Green party co-founded the Liberal Modern Center (Zentrum Liberale Moderne), a think tank dedicated to defending liberal democracy.

With the help of this center, Beck not only organized the memorial event in Shalimovka, but also motivated the official German and Romanian sides to jointly claim responsibility for the massacre. The appearance of the German and Romanian ambassadors together on the site of these horrors is a long overdue gesture — and a sensation.

She had accompanied Bremen's RathsChor to Ukraine for a joint performance with the Odessa Philharmonic. At one point during the trip, the musicians and Beck got lost and ended up in the small interior courtyard of a Holocaust museum run by volunteer activists. After a visit there, the group saw the city with different eyes. Beck wrote Chancellor Merkel and quickly received her backing. 

The 1941 Odessa massacre

"Everything is fastidiously documented," says Pavel Kozlenko, the 48-year-old lawyer who voluntarily leads the Odessa's Holocaust Museum, founded in 2009.

On October 16, 1941, following two-and-a-half months of bitter fighting, the Soviet Red Army surrendered Odessa. Romanian troops backed by the Nazi-German Wehrmacht marched into the city.

Around 6:45 p.m. on October 22, a bomb went off in the heart of Odessa, right near Romanian headquarters. The device, which likely had been placed there before the fall of the city, killed 67 people, including 16 Romanian and four German officers.

Revenge measures were announced: For every dead officer, 200 "Bolsheviks" must be executed. For every soldier, 100. The one problem? There were no more "Bolsheviks" in the occupied city and practically no adult men at all, apart from the 3,000 prisoners of war. Odessa's males had long ago joined either the army or the partisans. Jewish civilians became the victims of the retaliation.

 

The actual massacre occurred overnight between October 22 and 23. Up to 30,000 people, including the prisoners of war and many Jewish civilians, were corralled and locked into nine empty munitions depots at the edge of the city. Execution by gunfire failed; people were packed in too close to one another. Instead, the building was doused in gasoline and set on fire. Similar exterminations took place elsewhere in Ukraine over the following months and weeks.

Museum head Kozlenko describes how a special committee investigated the massacre site after the war, measuring the ground and its contents. "The number of victims could be calculated by determining the proportion of bone remains found in the ashes."

Holocaust in Ukraine

Kozlenko proudly displays the many items in his small, volunteer-run museum, which receives practically no state support. "No one bothers us about our work, but no one helps us, either." 

"Most of these places are not in city centers or towns but in outlying areas," Kozlenko says. "Sometimes it was a pig stall, sometimes a shut-down factory on the outskirts of town."

Death by gunfire

Kozlenko believes that caring for these places should be the task of the Ukrainian state, and he is surprised this isn't yet the case. "Ukraine still doesn't see the Holocaust as part of its own history, or as a tragedy of Ukrainian citizens," Kozlenko says.

The Soviet rule also played a role. "In the Soviet era, the historical memory landscape was destroyed," Kozlenko says. "Jews hadn't been murdered — Soviet citizens had been." His great-grandfather had been burned to death in the munitions depot near Odessa in October 1941 — "as a Soviet citizen, but because he was Jewish."

A remembrance ceremony like no other

Children's playgrounds, concrete housing complexes, urban garden allotments: A small memorial is the only thing today in Shalimovka that recalls what happened there 77 years ago. There is no mountain of shoes or glasses like at Auschwitz.

And still, "Whoever comes to this place with an open heart senses that a shudder is buried here under the asphalt," the German politician Beck says. "Germany has to make a statement in the sense of accepting historic responsibility, which in this case can only be asking for forgiveness. There is no way to make amends."