Bay Area emigres to honor Odessas Holocaust victims

Bay Area Jews from Odessa are a close-knit, charitable community, said Rabbi Shimon Margolin, whose organization is working on a new project that will honor Holocaust victims from the city.

The project, led by the Odessa Landsmanship Society of San Francisco, is the planned construction of a Bay Area memorial to honor Odessa Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. Margolin's organization, the Techiah Foundation, will handle the administrative and public-relations duties of the collaboration.

Vadim Kvitash, president of Odessa Landsmanship, said, "Our dream is to erect a monument for all victims."

Kvitash, a physician specializing in allergies and immunology, immigrated to the Bay Area 24 years ago. "I have grandchildren growing up," he said. "I am sure when they see this monument, the history of what happened to my grandfather will never leave our family."

Margolin's Techiah Foundation is a group that concentrates on assisting Jewish emigres. "[The Jewish emigres] would expect us to be involved," Margolin, 26, said of the group's participation,

He added, "The project is the first time I've seen the Russian Jewish community show a desire to do something very specifically Jewish.

"It will bring people together. Everyone's had relatives or friends from Odessa who were killed. And Holocaust memorials are important for outside the community because it reminds people what racial or religious intolerance can lead to."

There are an estimated 10,000 emigres from Odessa, a city in the Ukraine, living in the Bay Area, and according to Margolin, 95 percent of them are Jewish.

"Jews from Odessa are active and lead a communal way of life," said Margolin, who is originally from Dneprotrovsk, another city in the Ukraine.

"In Russia, Odessa was always known as a unique city. It was culturally rich and had an entrepreneurial atmosphere. It's the way they were raised. Probably parents were telling their children that if you're from Odessa, you have to do something different."

The Odessa Landsmanship, a 4-year-old organization, reaches out to its community with cultural and social programs, as well as a monthly newsletter. The inspiration for a monument surfaced at one of its events, last Oct. 23.

The gathering, attended by 200 people, was held at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, to mark Oct. 23, 1941, when thousands of Jews were burned alive or publicly hanged in the city by occupying German forces.

"We said Kaddish and a survivor told a personal story of what it was like back then," Margolin said. "That's when the idea was born." He added that the 8-month-old Techiah Foundation decided to get involved shortly afterward.

The fund-raising campaign has not yet begun, but according to Margolin, the plan is to raise $10,000 to $20,000 within the next couple of years.

The design for the memorial will be selected through a contest that will be open to the public. There is no target date yet for completion of the memorial.

The Odessa Landsmanship is compiling a master list of names of those killed.

"Nobody knows exactly how many Odessa Jews were exterminated in ghettos and death camps," said Blyuma Yampolskaya, coordinator of the group's Odessa Holocaust program. "Not many people know about this now, and we are afraid that even less will know about this in the future."

Sinai Memorial Chapel may also lend support to the project, particularly in helping find a Bay Area site for the monument, said Margolin. One possibility is placing it in a Jewish cemetery.