Dancing in Odessa (1941)

Dancing in Odessa

Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004)

“They crumpled and fell into the sea,” my grandfather once told my mother.


They didn’t have faces until 2006, when I heard Jewish-Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky read from his award-winning book Dancing in Odessa, at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.

“my family, the people of Odessa,

women with huge breasts, old men naive and childlike” – In Praise of Laughter

(from Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky)


My grandfather and I in 1977

My grandfather and I in 1977

Until his death in 2005, Dumitru Morgovan, my grandfather, had been to me just the man who shepherded me to school when I was a child, the man with a wobbly walk from a war wound to his right leg, the man with a post-war potbelly, the man with thinning dark hair and a military-cropped mustache, the man with a cloth flat-cap—an old man, who huffed and puffed alongside me on the way home from school.


Ilya Kaminsky reads his poems with a familiar Russian cadence overlaid upon familiar English words. He is a deaf poet who learned English after his family was granted political asylum to the US in 1993.

“…My grandfather fought

the German tanks on tractors, I kept a suitcase full

of Brodsky’s poems. The city trembled,

a ghost-ship setting sail.

At night, I woke to whisper: yes, we lived.

We lived, yes, don’t say it was a dream” – Dancing in Odessa

(from Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky)


After my grandfather died, I asked my mother to write down everything she remembered about him, everything he had told her about his past. I assumed there had been more to him than just the mellow Transylvanian accent, the soccer games over the transistor radio, and the yellow-paged books about World War II.

“They crumpled and fell into the sea,” my mother wrote back in her twenty-page letter.


Ilya Kamisnky

Ilya Kamisnky

In an interview for The Jerusalem Post from January 2005, Ilya Kaminsky said:

“I think it’s a poet’s job to witness joy in the world, no matter how much tragedy also exists. I think authors who write only of tragedy are mistaken; they give us only one half of human experience. People still loved during the Holocaust; that should be written about, and that’s what I want my readers to be left with. That life is ‘short and unhappy’ is not true. Life is a miracle.”


My grandfather joined the Romanian Army in February 1941, at seventeen. He received a machine gun and he marched east, toward USSR. On October 16, 1941, after a two-month siege, the Romanian and German troops captured Odessa (in current-day Ukraine).

Even though their military leaders received reports that the Soviet troops had mined important buildings on their way out of the city, the Romanians made their headquarters inside the former NKVD (the Soviet secret police) command center. On October 22, a delayed bomb exploded, killing a Romanian general, four German officers, and dozens of officers, soldiers and civilians. The retaliation order from Marshal Ion Antonescu demanded that Odessa pay for each officer killed with two hundred Jewish lives and for each soldier with one hundred.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum concludes that “Romanian and German forces killed almost 100,000 Jews in Odessa during the occupation of the city.” The waves of executions between October 1941 and January 1942 dealt with thousands at a time: ten thousand, four thousand, thirty-five thousand, five thousand, twenty-five thousand. Shot, the documents say, hanged in public squares, burned inside locked warehouses, frozen, buried alive.


“In a soldier’s uniform, in wooden shoes, she danced

at either end of day, my Aunt Rose.” – Aunt Rose

(from Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky)


I learned about the Odessa Massacres from my mother’s letter about my grandfather. To this day, many Romanians don’t acknowledge that part of our history, even though, on November 11, 2004,  the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, presented its report to then-President Ion Iliescu, who had appointed the commission to research the actual history of the Holocaust in Romania and to make recommendations for educating the public about the past.

Almost a decade later, many Romanians still see Marshal Ion Antonescu, who ordered the Odessa Massacres, as a national hero. When I was in high school, I had a framed picture of Antonescu on the desk in my room.

Released on March 13, 2013, filmmaker Florin Iepan’s documentary “Odessa” urges Romanians to acknowledge their role in the Holocaust and to own their real history. Iepan himself learned about the massacres by accident, while making a documentary about Antonescu in 2006.


“If I speak for the dead, I must leave

this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,

for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.” – Author’s Prayer

(from Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky)


The images I’ve gathered about the massacres seem taken from silent films. Wide, expressive body movements—a death dance—as in this fragment from Wiesel’s report about the burning of warehouses (pp. 62-63):

“In an attempt to escape the agonies of the fire, some appeared at the windows and signaled to the soldiers to shoot them, pointing to their heads and hearts. (…) Then they turned their backs to the window in order not to see the soldiers shooting at them. The operation continued throughout the night, and the faces visible by the light of the flames were even more terrifying. This time, those who appeared in the windows were naked, having stripped off their burning clothing.”

My grandfather’s memory of Odessa, as he once revealed it to my mother, is of people lined up on the shore of the Black Sea and shot in the back of the head. At seventeen, my grandfather was shell-shocked and terrified, but I have to assume he wasn’t watching from a distance.

“They crumpled and fell into the sea,” he once told my mother.


“Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking ‘What year is it?’

I can dance in my sleep and laugh

in front of the mirror.” – Author’s Prayer

(from Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky)


During the writers’ conference in Port Townsend, I had the chance to meet poet Ilya Kaminsky. I told him that my grandfather had been in Odessa during the massacres. He nodded. There wasn’t much to say.

One afternoon during the conference, Ilya Kaminsky and I shared a copy of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream at a reading with a group of other writers. We sat next to each other and read Shakespeare—two people from Eastern Europe, halfway around the world, whose grandparents had once met in Odessa.

16 thoughts on “Dancing in Odessa (1941)

  1. Thank you for posting this history. In this time of “alternate” truths we must always recall the villainy of those who use force to kill for political ends. This force is often applied by the young; they become the unwitting tools of evil. Current events in the United States show that this nation is neither exceptional nor immune from these forces and actors.

  2. My great grandparents never spoke of the Holocaust. It was forbidden conversation, for many reasons. I grew up in an area of Europeans who at the time (1950’s & 60’s) were fairly new to America and spoke not one word about what they fled. But in that silence was an understanding in the community. They’d escaped Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, etc., ‘from the old country’ was the term used, as if that country were dead, burned, sent to hell with their hearts attached. But the eyes of those neighbors and friends, all dark sockets of dust and sorrow, were haunting, they’re haunting still. I’m so happy you’re writing about these historical issues that our ancestors, who like your grandfather, are disappearing and with them, their stories, our roots, the truth of our DNA. Wonderful job on this blog, Roxana. BTW -“They crumpled and fell into the sea,” is a great name for a novel. Thank you. Mindy

    • From the old country… Most of my Romanian friends still refer to Romania as “home.” “From the old country” sounds so final. And it also sounds like a good title for a story.
      Thanks for your words, Mindy. I don’t claim to understand what it must have been like for your grandparents. I feel as if I’m only catching a faint echo, from far away.

  3. What must it have been like for your grandfather to carry those horrific memories all those years and yet be the kindly grandfather who shuffled alongside you from school? I would imagine that his mind protected him while awake but what flooded back during dreams one can only imagine. Indeed: “life is a miracle.”

    Great writing, Roxana.

    • I’m sad I didn’t ask him more when he was around. There was a time, at the end of his life, when he was talking more about his past, about the war, but I was already gone from home, and missed all that. I seem to know the least about the people I spent the most time with…

  4. Roxana… you have a golden gift for bringing the past into focus.
    This is gutsy and personal and universal… and damn good writing.
    I feel privileged to know you.
    You remind us of how many stories we all have to tell, even though we personally were not there. In some way… we were… and we can remember.
    Thank you.

    • Thank you for reading and posting, Max. Thank you for your encouraging words.
      You’re right, these stories become part of us. I’ll feel forever linked to Odessa, even though I never set foor there.

  5. Since my mother’s death last month, I’ve been trying to trace my roots. We were raised Irish American, our German roots long ignored because to be of German heritage during WWII was not easy in America. The color of their skin and their ability to blend in, allowed my grandparents and other German-speaking Americans to escape the internment camps that Japanese Americans endured. The day you posted this piece I recieved confirmation that my great grandparents were among those called the Black Sea Germans. Born in Russia, they lived in what was then Guldendorf, today called Krasnosilka, not far from Odessa. I don’t know when they left Odessa, but records show immigrated from Bremen, Germany to NYC in 1889.
    Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece, Roxana.

    • So you have Eastern European roots too! I never heard of the Black Sea Germans – so much more for me to learn.
      This is fascinating, Arleen. I wish I had a clear picture about my ancestors, past my grandparents. I guess I should start digging while my extended family still remembers…

  6. Roxana, this is a brave post. So poignant and tragic. As the mother of 2 sons who safely passed the age of being drafted into wars with no say of their destiny for causes not of their making or in their belief system, my heart aches for those young men, just out of childhood – boys like your grandfather. Nations always send the very young and tender boys and now girls too, off to fight their wars. I didn’t know about Romania’s connection to the Jews of Odessa and I was not familiar with Kaminsky. History can be our teacher if we open our minds. Thank you for bringing this up and writing a beautiful piece.

    • Wow, I didn’t focus much on my grandfather’s experience when I wrote this piece, but you’re right. Being sent to war at 17, right in the middle of a massacre, is a big tragedy in itself. Thank you, Rebecca, for making me appreciate that side of the story too.

  7. Thank you for writing this piece. It’s a part of history that would be easy to forget. I had no idea about the massacre. Ugly things happened all over Europe. I think of the Jewish people I know who came out of Europe during that period as suffering from PTSD, even their off-spring. I didn’t know the poet Ilya Kamisnky. I surely want to read more. Where it says, ‘author’s prayer’ is that you? Keep going!

    • Thanks, Stacy! I don’t think I know that much about the Holocaust, yet it is something so close to my family. And to many people’s families, I’m sure, even if they don’t know it.
      I wish I could write poetry like that, but no. All the lines are from Dancing in Odessa, Ilya KJaminsky’s book.

  8. I sob out loud at your last sentence-image reading Shakespeare with Ilya in Port Townsend. I surprise myself. While I cry my office is filled with music from Earth, Wind, and Fire singing “Shining Star.” I have to smile at the crazy mashup of b/w Odessan grandparent-soldiers and mid-eighties over-dressed big-hair black pop glitter band.

    Thanks for pulling the tarp off this old chest of photographs and letters and rendering it in such a way that I too,for better or worse, may see behind the veiled eyes.

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