No one knows why my grandfather chose Odessa for his place of birth. Like many children who immigrated to the United States at a young age, Max knew little of the place he left behind. Yet unlike his three other immigrant siblings, two older, one younger, he somehow knew something they didn’t – a specific place of birth – Odessa. How Max summoned the name of that fabled city to put on various government documents remains an unsolved mystery.
A scrappy deal-maker, Max would have fit into Moldavanka like a glove. His Prohibition-era experiences would have served him well in the underground markets. His love of being well-dressed, and standing out in a crowd, despite his diminutive size, would have found him strolling Derybasivska on a warm spring evening.
It’s hard to prove a negative, but I’m pretty certain Max was not born in Odessa. His origins are probably in Volhynia, near his father’s city of Novohrad-Volynskyi, or his mother’s town of Sudylkiv. With the essential help of an historian, genealogist and expert on Odessa, we scoured the vast archival records of Odessa, marking each Karol birth and death, looking for a connection. We even found a boy named Mordkho born at the right time, with parents who were originally from Volhynia, but those parents, and their patronymics, did not match the names for Max’s mother and father. Maybe they are cousins.
I traveled to Odessa in 2018, taking in the romantic, gritty city on the Black Sea and pondering why my grandfather chose Odessa. I walked to the Brodsky Synagogue, home of the Odessa State Archives and thought about the lives and the secrets held inside. Now I think about the lives and the people trapped in Odessa, and across Ukraine, while this madman wages war from the east.
Historians say write it down now, while the history is happening. To that I say, it’s complicated being two generations removed from a place I’m not from and feeling such strong emotions about it. The branches of my family who left Ukraine are the branches who survived WWII. But Odessa, the place my grandfather never saw, is a place I also chose. And while history is happening, I feel helpless.
It wasn’t easy, but he managed to banish his memories. Then, livening up, he began where he’d left off, telling the Chekists who’d been sent down from Moscow about the life of Froim the Rook, about his shrewdness, his elusiveness, his contempt for his fellow man – all those astounding stories that have receded for ever into the past…–Isaac Babel, from “Froim the Rook” in Odessa Stories, translated by Boris Dralyuk
Read more about Odessa and its history
- Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King
- Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel
 I am not putting this person’s name here now, out of an abundance of caution. When this horrible war ends, I will shout it from the rooftops.
 Mordkho is a Yiddish version of the Hebrew name Mordechai, Max’s Hebrew name.