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    Entries in Odessa (11)

    Frederick Thomas and Armistice Day

    When the Great War ended with the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany on November 11, 1918, at Compèigne, France, Frederick had been in Odessa, Russia, for the past four months, following his harrowing escape from the Bolsheviks in Moscow.  Although far from the momentous event near Paris, Frederick and scores of thousands of others like him knew that their lives were now also changed because the Germans occupying the north coast of the Black Sea would have to leave and the French would replace them.  It seemed at the time that this would be the end of the Bolsheviks.

    I was reminded of this today in Paris when I went to watch the Armistice commemoration that takes place on November 11 at 11 am every year, with a parade of some one hundred and fifty cavalrymen of the Garde républicaine on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées while wreaths are placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.


    Frederick’s First Glimpse of Constantinople

    When the humiliating and painful French quarantine procedures were finished, the Russian refugees were finally put on steamers for the hour-long trip south to Constantinople.

    Then as now, the first glimpse of the city was breathtaking. 


    View of Stambul much as Frederick Thomas first saw it in 1919


    Galata Bridge leading to Galata and Pera, Constantinople


    As the boat transporting Thomas and his family navigated the final, right bend of the Bosphorus, with Asia on the left and Europe on the right, the steep green banks parted slightly and all of Constantinople swung into view. 

    Shimmering straight ahead in the distance, and dominating the promontory known as Seraglio Point, stood Topkapi Palace, the old seat of the Ottoman Sultans, and beside it, silhouetted against the sky, rose the thin minarets and giant domes of the mosques in the old part of the city—the legendary, Muslim Stambul. 

    On the right, by the water’s edge, the boat soon passed a vast, low building of gleaming white marble, the present Sultan’s Dolmabahce Palace, decorated with elaborate carvings that looked like frozen sea foam. 

    A bit further on, small houses suddenly began to increase in number and to climb up the steep slopes of Galata and Pera, the European parts of the city, over which loomed the stubby cylinder of the Galata Tower. 

    The Golden Horn, a long natural harbor between Stambul and the European parts of the city, as well as the entire waterway around Thomas’ boat, teemed with traffic:  dozens of grey European warships rested heavily at anchor; ferries linking the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus churned back and forth; countless small boats under oars or sail coursed in every direction. 

    Never in all his travels had Thomas seen anything like this ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire. 

    Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky, the Russian naval officer who was on the same ship with Thomas from Odessa, recalled that when he first saw Constantinople he “gasped at the vision of beauty.”  He searched for something to compare it to and decided that it could only be “the view of the Golden Gate and the Bay of San Francisco from Telegraph Hill.”  But, he added, “San Francisco lacks the oriental glamour which gives such colour to the sky line of Constantinople.” 

    The evacuation from Odessa was now a bad memory.  What lay ahead was full of uncertainty and would surely be difficult. 

    But not long after he stepped ashore for the first time Thomas decided that he liked the look and the feel of the new city.

    Frederick Suffers “Delousing” at the Hands of the French

    Once ashore in Turkey, Frederick Thomas and the other Russian refugees had to go through “delousing” to rid them of any disease-carrying vermin they might be carrying.  The process was painfully slow, primitive, and deeply degrading.


    Russian Refugees During the Civil War


    Men and women were separated and made to enter a barrack-like building through different doors; no one was spared and small children had to go with their mothers.  Inside, they were ordered to undress completely, to put all their clothes in mesh bags they were given, and then to proceed into what proved to be a large communal shower room.  There they were told to wash—it was a matter of luck if the water was hot or cold, and the guards were brutal about forcing everyone through, no matter what their age or state of health—after which they moved into a third hall, where, eventually, their mesh bags were tossed back to them through a window.  There were no towels of course and everyone had to get dressed as best they could.

    One vicitm recalled how shocked he was when he saw what had happened to his clothing.  The delousing process consisted of putting the filled mesh bags through a chamber filled with high temperature steam that was supposed to kill any vermin that might be in the clothes.  But the heat and moisture also warped and scorched leather shoes, shrank fabrics, and baked wrinkles into garments that could not be smoothed out.  Women in particular were distressed to see their dresses ruined, which stripped them of the last vestiges of their dignity. 

    Outside the delousing station, long lines formed as the masses of refugees overwhelmed the inefficient system.  The crush was so great that one of the ships that arrived from Odessa with a thousand passengers, including fifty orphans, spent eight days at Kavak without allowing anyone on shore.  Even with armed guards posted on deck, many passengers still risked trying to slip overboard to escape the horrible conditions. 

    Because of confusion and miscommunication, other ships that arrived from Russia later in April of 1919 evaded French controls and let their passengers off without any controls. Inevitably, bribes smoothed the way to Constantinople for anyone who had the money, allowing various shady characters and political undesirables to enter the city unhindered, to the annoyance of the French military gatekeepers. 

    But Frederick had only some twenty-five dollars to his name out of the millions he had lost.

    Frederick’s Hellish Passage to Constantinople

    For most passengers, the conditions on board Imperator Nikolay deepened their emotional suffering. 

    The ship had been built just before the Great War and was designed to carry 374 people in modern comfort.  When the war began, it was transferred to the Russian Black Sea fleet and transformed into a hydroplane cruiser for operations against Turkey; at one point, its planes had actually bombed Constantinople. 

    Now, on its way back to the Bosphorus on a very different mission, it was crammed with 868 refugees, well over double its capacity.  With the exception of some rich Russians who had booked passage on other ships but had been moved to cabins on Imperator Nikolay, the conditions for most everyone else were miserable. 

    The British Consul General in Odessa, John Bagge, was on the ship with the other allied evacuees and reported that the treatment the French meted out to the Russians in particular was “almost inhuman”:

    The filth on board was almost indescribable and nothing could be obtained except by payment.  A glass of water, for instance, cost 5 rubles.  The men had to wash by drawing up buckets from the sea, whilst the women had to pay 25 rubles each to go into a cabin where they could wash . . . the French went out of their way to ill-treat and insult them, and the ill-feeling which had been growing during the French occupation of Odessa has now become one of intense hatred.

    Frederick and his family were under American protection with Jenkins, the American Consul, and were thus likely spared the overt brutality that the French inflicted on the hapless Russians.  Nonetheless, the passage could not have been pleasant or easy, especially for Frederick’s wife, Elvira, and the children. 

    Mrs. Elvira Thomas (née Jungmann) Frederick's third wife

    Frederick Trapped, or the French Betrayal in Odessa in 1919

    The French occupation of Odessa in 1918 had awakened fervent hopes among anti-Bolshevik Russians in the city and throughout the rest of the ravaged country that this was the beginning of the end for Lenin’s and Trotsky’s bloody reign.  But the fates that always seem to rule over Russia’s tragic history decided otherwise.

    It turned out that the French had no real interest in fighting the Bolsheviks and had placed unrealistic expectations on the Whites and on popular anti-Bolshevik sentiment in Russia.  The Allied troops were tired after four years of the Great War and wanted to go home.  For the North Africans especially, fighting Russians made even less sense than had fighting the Germans. 


    Views of Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century


    The French also did not fully understand the complexities of the political situation in Russia or the differences among the various anti-Bolshevik factions.  The tactless and hectoring attitude of the French high command toward the Whites, which stemmed from a kind of neo-colonial disdain for the “natives,” alienated the leaders of the Volunteer Army, who, in turn, aggravated the situation by squabbling among themselves.  Finally, the Bolsheviks in the Odessa underground lost no time in propagandizing the French sailors and colonial soldiers against their white commanders, thus driving a demoralizing wedge between them.

    By the end of March 1919, much of Odessa’s population—scores of thousands of refugees from the north like Frederick Thomas, the local bourgeoisie, officers of the White Army, stranded foreigners, the intelligentsia—was looking with increasing nervousness to the French as their only salvation and hope.  No one knew, however, that the French had already betrayed them.

    The high command in Paris and Constantinople had recently concluded that the entire Odessa adventure was a mistake and that the Allied forces faced disaster if they did not leave soon.  Realizing that this decision would cause panic if it got out, the French commander in the city, General Philippe d’Anselme, decided to lie:  he not only kept the news from the civilian population, but also from his Greek comrades-in-arms and from the Whites, his ostensible allies. 

    Moreover, to dispel rumors, on Tuesday, March 25, 1919, he published an announcement in Odessa’s newspapers that he would not give up the city without a fight and that more troops and assistance were on the way. 

    In secret that same day, however, he prepared a detailed plan for the evacuation of all of his forces and began to wait for final authorization from Paris.  (To be continued)

    Frederick and the French African Invasion of Odessa in 1918

    On December 17, 1918, a week after the Ukrainian nationalist troops of Simon Petlyura had entered Odessa and began their depredations, the French warships from Constantinople finally reached the city.  The Whites, who numbered 1,500 men by then, got the French commander’s blessing to begin.  Under the cover of the French flotilla’s guns they attacked Petlyura’s troops, driving them out of the city in ten hours of street fighting that left residents cowering and scores dead on both sides. 

    With the city now cleared, an advance guard of 1,800 French troops came ashore the same day.  The following day, the first waves of what would be a 70,000-man army, magnificently equipped with all the hardware of modern warfare—tanks, artillery, trucks, armored cars, and even airplanes—began to disembark from the transports.  The enormous quantities of materiel seemed confirmation that the French were in Odessa to stay.


    French Troops in Odessa, 1918-1919


    People rushed out onto the streets leading to the harbor to cheer the arriving troops as saviors and liberators.  After months of anxiety, the joyful unreality of the scene was magnified by the exotic appearance of the soldiers, few of whom, it turned out, actually came from mainland France. 

    Most were from French colonies in North Africa, including black Muslims from Morocco and 30,000 Zouaves from Algeria, who wore picturesque baggy red pants and fezzes.  There was also a large contingent of tough-looking Greeks in khaki kilts and caps with long tassels. 


    French Zouave Troops


    After the African troops set up camp, Odessites gathered to gape at them and were especially struck by their music—the mournful, repetitive melodies, the choked sound of their singing, and their strange-looking, stringed instruments.  This was the largest number of black men that Odessa had ever seen. 

    This was also the largest number that Frederick Thomas had seen since he left the American South twenty-four years before.  He could have spoken French to them.  But who would have been more curious about whom—Frederick about the Africans, or the Africans about a prosperous-looking black gentleman who sounded like one of their white officers?

    As the Allied troops continued to pour in, they spread out from Odessa in a semicircle twenty miles long and with the Black Sea at their backs.  This was the solid barrier that the French Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Army in the East—an especially grand title that echoed the allies’ imperialistic ambitions in the region—General Franchet d’Espèrey, who was based in Constantinople, promised would allow a White Russian army to grow until it was strong enough to move against the Bolsheviks.  (To be continued)

    Frederick in Odessa, 1918-1919, or Russians Fighting Ukrainians while Waiting for the French

    Everything suddenly changed throughout Europe after November 11, 1918.  At eleven in the morning on this eleventh day of the eleventh month, in Compiègne, France, Germany surrendered to the Allies and the Great War was finally over.  Shortly thereafter, as the armistice agreement stipulated, the Germans started to evacuate the territories they had occupied, including the south of Russia and Odessa. 

    And then came news that made the Russians’ heads spin:  an Allied naval squadron had arrived in Constantinople and was heading for Odessa. The French were going to land an army in the city. White Army forces would gather in the resulting enclave to start a crusade against the Bolsheviks, whom the French saw as the Germans’ stepchildren and as traitors to the Allied cause.  Excited crowds began to gather daily on the boulevards above the harbor to search the horizon for the ships of their saviors.  For Frederick Thomas and the other refugees from the north, returning home now seemed just a matter of time.  


    The famous Richelieu Steps in Odessa leading from the city to the shore


    Before this could happen, however, history staged an unexpected sideshow that sent a wave of panic through the residents when an entirely different force occupied Odessa for a week (the city was such a desirable prize that it would change hands seven times during the three years of Civil War in southern Russia).  An eyewitness likened the whirl of unlikely events that followed to a “kaleidoscope.” 

    Even before the Germans had finished evacuating Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, a nationalist leader, Simon Petlyura, seized power, declared independence, and formed his own army.  He would eventually fight both the Bolsheviks and the Whites in an attempt to keep his country autonomous, but in the meantime marched on Odessa. 

    This was an unnerving development because the city was now virtually defenseless.  Moreover, no one knew exactly what to expect from Petlyura, except that his troops were notoriously anti-Semitic and approximately one third of Odessa’s population was Jewish.  On December 11, following the German evacuation, Petlyura’s 4,000 men occupied most of the city, with the exception of a neutral zone cordoned off by several hundred Polish soldiers who happened to be passing through and who were in touch with the French. 

    Odessites were bemused by the Ukrainians’ appearance, which imitated eighteenth-century Zaporozhian Cossack garb:  shaved heads with long topknots curling down, big astrakhan fur hats, caftans, and curved sabers.  A Russian naval officer who saw them enter the city wondered where they managed to get such things.


    Officers and enlisted men in Ukrainian uniforms, 1918-1920


    However, the threat Petlyura’s force represented was quite real, as they quickly showed by beginning to rob Jewish jewelry stores. 

    Volunteers for the White Army began to gather in the Polish zone and prepare for battle.  (To be continued)

    Frederick Thomas Faces New Dangers in the South (of Russia)

    Although the act of crossing the border into German-occupied territory immediately removed the class stigma and threats that had dogged Frederick on the Bolshevik side, new problems appeared at every step, beginning with his having to insist that he was—Russian.  The United States had been at war with the Central Powers since April of 1917 and an American entering their territory would have to register as an enemy alien and would be their nominal prisoner.  Frederick’s appearance and the way he spoke English—if he revealed that he could—would have given him away to any German who had ever met other American blacks.

    When the Germans and Austrians occupied southern Russia in early 1918 after the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with the Bolsheviks, they set up a puppet state in Ukraine, including Odessa, which they garrisoned with thirty thousand troops.  Their presence put an end to the reign of terror that the Bolsheviks had unleashed in the city after their October takeover.  But not all the Bolsheviks fled.  Some went underground instead, plotting how to expel the occupiers and their local allies, and waging a persistent, low-grade guerilla war that marked daily life in Odessa.  Ukrainian police bristling with guns stood on every street corner and could kill on sight any civilian carrying a firearm.  Despite this, the city regularly echoed with the sounds of gunfire and explosions, as Bolsheviks sniped at sentries and blew up supply depots. 

    There was an even greater danger for Frederick and other civilians than being accidentally caught in crossfire.  In Odessa as in Moscow, the Bolsheviks had thrown open all the prisons after their putsch and several thousand thieves and murderers had spilled out onto the streets.  Thus reinforced, the city’s notorious criminal gangs—which were comparable in their larger-than-life brazenness to Chicago gangsters from the 1920s—instituted their own reign of terror against the city’s inhabitants, whom they burglarized, robbed, and murdered on the streets, in their homes, and in their businesses.  The “king” of Odessa’s underworld was nicknamed “Mishka Yaponchik,” or “Mikey the Little Jap” (real name, Moisey Vinnitsky) and crimes committed by his gang and their ilk were so numerous that most remained unreported. 


    The “king” of Odessa’s underworld “Mishka Yaponchik,” or “Mikey the Little Jap”


    Odessa was especially dangerous at night.  Many eyewitnesses recalled how gunfire that began on the city’s outskirts at dusk gradually crept toward the center as the darkness thickened; after midnight, small arms fire, grenade explosions, and even machine guns would erupt in the city’s heart. 

    A prominent lawyer who risked walking to the well-known London Hotel late one night counted 122 gunshots from various directions during the 12 minutes that he was outside.  The firing lasted all night long and it was hard to tell who was shooting at whom—Bolsheviks at soldiers, or criminals at barricaded homeowners; most times, it was both. 

    Frederick owned an expensive villa in Odessa located in an outlying, sparsely populated area that would have been easy prey for thieves who would not hesitate to kill anyone who got in their way.  Frederick was also sufficiently prominent to have been mentioned in local newspapers when he arrived in the summer of 1918, together with other notable entrepreneurs and entertainers from Moscow and Petrograd, which increased the chances of his becoming a target.  Between Bolsheviks on the one hand, who were still eager to finish settling accounts with the “bourgeoisie,” and traditional thieves on the other, he would have found it prudent to move himself and his family to the city center, where there was at least some safety in numbers.

    But even with bullets and other threats swarming around them, Odessites were still free in ways that had become impossible in the Bolshevik north.  The Germans and Austrians had no interest in establishing a radically different social and economic order or in reengineering human beings, and thus largely left the local population to its own initiatives.  As a result, the city’s residents could pursue all their favorite pastimes and forms of dissipation, which they did with a feverish zeal that contemporaries likened to a feast during a plague. 

    During the day, the handsome streets overflowed with colorful and polyglot southern crowds.  People filled the elegant stores, restaurants, and popular cafes like Robinat and Fanconi, which also doubled as exchanges for hordes of speculators trading currencies, cargoes from abroad, abandoned estates in Bolshevik territory, anything of value.  At night, people flocked to theaters, restaurants, café-chantants, gambling dens, and dives specializing in sex or drugs, throwing money around as if it had lost all value, trying to grab as much pleasure as they could from life and to forget its horrors. 

    As the champagne corks popped and singers warbled indoors, businesses and homeowners bolted their iron shutters and locked their entrance doors.  The city center took on an eerily empty appearance late at night, as if the entire population had died out.  The sudden noise of a crowd leaving a theater or cinema and scattering rapidly broke a silence that was otherwise punctuated only by sporadic gunshots.  Cabs were hard to find and drivers demanded enormous fares to venture out, which forced people to take special precautions if they had to walk any distance. 

    One naval officer recalled being instructed as follows:  if you see someone on the street, and especially two or three people, cross over to the other side immediately and take the safety off your revolver.  If the person or persons follow you, open fire without warning.

    Frederick Thomas Flees the Bolsheviks to Save His Life

    Several months after Frederick’s wife, Elvira, and the four children managed to leave Moscow for Odessa, Thomas decided that he had to escape as well.  His businesses and properties had been stolen by the new regime, or “nationalized” in the euphemism of the time.  All that he was allowed to do to make a living was run a cheap canteen for theatrical workers in the basement of one of his former properties.  And, most importantly, in the spring of 1918 Frederick learned that he was slated for arrest by the “Cheka,” the notorious political police that Lenin had established shortly after the Bolshevik coup d’état in November 1917.  The Cheka’s standard punishment for infractions of any kind by “class enemies” like Frederick was death.


     Frederick Thomas looking prosperous in 1913


    Given the looming arrest, Frederick knew that he could never get official permission to leave Moscow, but he also knew that he could buy any document that he needed if he had the cash; in 1918, the going rate for a passport from a police station in Moscow was around 1,200 rubles.  With Soviet money replacing Tsarist and Kerensky (or Provisional Government) rubles, which were also still in circulation, and the situation in the German-occupied territory in the south even more confused because of yet other currencies, the surest value and safety lay in gold coins.  The Bolshevik regime had tried to confiscate all that it could get its hands on, but one could still buy gold on the black market.  In Moscow in 1918, tsarist ten-ruble gold coins, and even some German gold coins, sold for approximately ten times their face value.  These could prove invaluable if one needed to bribe a border guard, or buy one’s way out of an arrest or other threat. 

    Frederick was very lucky because he was able to get out of Moscow in a friend’s train compartment, which implies that the friend had influence or connections.  Travelers with neither had to manage with any space they could find and conditions were brutal.  One army officer who was hiding from the Cheka left Moscow in 1918 from the same Kursk and Nizhny Novgorod station that Frederick used, and recalled that the only space into which he could squeeze in one of the passenger cars was a bathroom that was already occupied by a woman and her brood of small crying children.  Whenever the slowly moving train stopped anywhere on its journey south, people on the platforms would try to climb aboard, but the passengers were packed together so tightly that there was nowhere for anyone to move.  Eventually, the officer was able to shift to the corridor, which was a great relief because even though he had to stand he at least had fresh air.

    What happened on the journey south also varied depending on one’s luck.  Some trains made it from Moscow to the border of German-occupied Ukraine in only a couple of days, despite the long stops at intermediate stations.  A political fugitive who was traveling under a false name in 1918 was surprised by the quickness and superficiality of the three searches to which he was subjected.  When Bolsheviks stopped his train and forced everyone off, he was able to conceal a matchbox containing his stash of gold coins in the grass near the rails and to pick it up after the search was over.  However, other trains heading south were blocked at remote road crossings by bands of armed men who were either Bolsheviks or criminal gangs—it was frequently hard to tell—and who would open fire on the cars to chase everyone out; they would then loot the passengers’ belongings before letting them back on.  Conditions on the trains themselves were miserable:  they were not only overcrowded but dilapidated and unsanitary; windows were broken; thefts were rampant; food and water were hard to come by; and stops at stations that were usually pillaged failed to provide relief.  Young women traveling alone were especially at risk. 

    The reactions of passengers once they reached the frontier of German-occupied Ukraine would typically be a mixture of elation and resentment.  On the one hand, they were finally getting out from under Bolshevik control.  On the other, the Germans acted like the conquerors they were:  soldiers herded disembarking passengers across the border with little wooden switches, as if they were farm animals; officers checked the passengers’ papers at tedious length; and then, in an attempt to stop the spread of typhus, influenza, smallpox, and other diseases, sent everyone off for days of quarantine in hideous temporary barracks before allowing them to continue on their way.  But this was a small price to pay for freedom from the Bolsheviks.

    Frederick Thomas at Gunpoint

    Frederick later described the hysterical scene that followed his unexpected arrival in the apartment of his estranged wife, Valli (I was very fortunate to find his handwritten letter to an American consular official in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland; I preserve Frederick's spelling): 

    the Woman forced her Bolshevik Lover to attempt to kill me and only my little Girl and my Son, who was a Child then too . . . saved me from beeing thus killed, because they screamed aloud and the Bolshevik let me go. 

    During the ensuing confusion and in his haste to get away, Frederick managed to take only Mikhail with him (where his oldest daughter, Olga, was at this time is unclear).  Irma remained in the apartment and Frederick would in fact never see her again. 

    Whether Irma stayed with Valli willingly or was kept by her (Valli had been the only mother Irma had known), and whether Valli kept Irma out of love or because of calculation, the little girl became the primary victim of the adults’ emotional battle.  Indeed, Irma would remain a pawn between Frederick and Valli for years after they parted.

    After the dangerous encounter with the commissar, Frederick realized that he had to put as much distance between himself and Valli as possible. 

    This is when the radical revision of family laws by the new regime played into Frederick’s hands (and as far as he was concerned, this was the only good thing that had come of it).  The Soviet government issued its first decrees on marriage and divorce just two months after the Revolution, on December 18, 1917.  These could not have been simpler or more “progressive”:  a court would grant a divorce even if only one of the parties wanted it; the request did not even have to be written but could be made orally; and no reasons or explanations had to be given.  Henceforth, the new Soviet state would also recognize only civil marriages, which would be performed by clerks in a new Bureau of Vital Statistics. 

    Another provision that was especially welcome from Frederick’s point of view was that the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children was eliminated.  (On the other hand, parents could no longer pass on an inheritance to their children, which was a deeply troubling prospect for a rich property owner like him.)  Frederick took advantage of these new laws and in a coordinated series of steps, at a courthouse near his home as required by the regulations, divorced Valli, married Elvira, and legalized the status of her sons Fedya and Bruce; thereafter, Elvira always used “Thomas” as her surname.  She and the four children could now set out on their long and arduous journey to Odessa. 


    Frederick Thomas shortly after his marriage on January 5, 1913, to his second wife “Valli,” together with his children by his first wife, Hedwig—Irma, approximately 4 years old, Olga, 11, and Mikhail, 6 ½.  The men with Frederick are unidentified; on the left may be a relative of Valli’s; on the right, Frederick’s business partner, M. P. Tsarev.