Thursday 30 June 2016

My grandfather's exodus - part 2

The second in a series of blog entries in which my grandfather, Arieh Rabani (Lova Rabinovitch), tells his adventures walking from the Soviet Union to Israel (1927-1929). You'll find the first part here. In this part, Lova makes it to a sanatorium in Georgia, earns some money, and prepares to steal across the border to Turkey.

An interview recorded by my cousin, which I then transcribed and translated from Hebrew

Jewish Bazaar, Russia - photo by Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, 1913.
Picture signs are for customers who cannot read
Lova: Now, about half a year before I left Astrakhan, they had held a big fair there, and by chance I met a man from Akhaltsikhe. We got to know each other, and he told me, “Stop by if you ever get a chance.” And that’s how it was. When I arrived in Akhaltsikhe, I walked around, I looked for him, I found him, and he found me a place to live in. I gardened a bit in the landlord’s garden, and that’s how I paid him for the rent and also for the food he gave me.

Akhaltsikhe, Georgia - Fortress and Mosque
After work I would come to see the man whom I had met at the fair, who ran a tiling shop. He would tile in silver and gold. Once when I went to see him I met another man there, a construction engineer, and I asked him whether he worked there. I recognised him to be an engineer by his hat. In those days in Russia, engineers had a special kind of hat, with a green stripe all around it, so I asked him, “Are you an engineer?”

He said he was indeed an engineer, working in Abast’umani, a small town with convalescent homes for tuberculosis patients, 18 kilometers from Akhaltsikhe, where he lived in a very pleasant house. So I asked him if I could find any work there. He asked, “Can you do metal work for construction?” I said, “Why not? They give me a plan, and according to the plan I’ll do whatever they want.”

So he said, “If so, come, and you’ll get a job as a metalworker. They’re building a sort of a swimming pool there – a big reservoir.”

I was very happy, so the next day I took a special wagon that takes you all the way to Abast’umani, leaving at one o’clock in the afternoon. We drove on, and arrived 18 kilometers later just before evening, or late in the afternoon – anyway, it was getting late. So I got the job with the building crew from the engineer, and he said “Come to work tomorrow morning.” So I said, “But I didn’t bring my suitcase. I wasn’t 100% sure that I’d get accepted, or that I’d like it here. I wanted to look around first.” So he said, “Ok then, go back to get your stuff, and come back tomorrow. You’ll start working a day later.”

Horse-drawn wagon, Warsaw, September 1939
Meanwhile, since it was late and there was no way of getting back, I decided to spend the night there. Only, there wasn’t any hotel to sleep in. In this place they only had private convalescent homes, and apart from that three big sanatoriums for tuberculosis patients. So for lack of any better option, I decided to lie down on a sort of a bench that I found among the trees. The whole town was surrounded by forests, and a stream ran through the middle, with small walkways made of wooden boards to cross it.

As I lay there, I suddenly heard from the other side of the stream a loud commotion, and a throng of youths started running and singing. I decided to go to see what the commotion was all about. And it turns out it was a gathering of the Komsomol, the communist youth movement.

So I asked the secretary there if I could maybe sleep in their club house instead of sleeping outside. And he said, “Why not? After the people here disperse you can lie down on one of the benches.”

Abast'umani, tuberculosis sanatoriums in the Georgian mountains - the baths (from this blog)
I was very glad about this. And after they all dispersed I did just that – I lay down on a bench, and was just on the brink of falling asleep, when suddenly I heard somebody there, quietly sneaking inside. Then I heard benches getting moved. In the darkness I kept quiet, and didn’t say a word. But early in the morning, I asked one of them who he was, and he said he worked in the sanatorium, a really great job. They give you food, and an apartment to live in. And the other one tells him, “Oh, working with the building crew is terrible. They have an enormous shack, and all of the workers are dirty. It’s crawling with all sorts of lice. I really can’t stand this work anymore.”

So I turned to the man who worked in the Sanatorium and asked him, “Tell me please, mister, how does one go about getting a job there?”

He answered, “What do you mean? You go to the medical work office, and there they have a special department, and you ask them. And they’ll tell you what there is to do. They’ll give you a note.” And he gave me their address.

Nu, I went there just after eight o’clock in the morning, and I met the department’s secretary, and told him I wanted to work in the sanatoriums. So he said, “Fine, they need workers there.” Well, I kept working in these sanatoriums, first one, than another, than a third, for a total of eight months. Then I got two weeks’ holidays on the first of May. And I was supposed to return to work on the sixteenth.

Abast'umani, tuberculosis sanatoriums in the Georgian mountains -
the sanatorium constructed in 1924, so presumably the one Lova worked on (from here)
But meanwhile, not even one of them knew what I was planning on doing, and why I had come there in the first place. On the evening of the fifteenth of May, I took some food, some underclothes, two pairs of underwear and undershirts, another knife, and a long walking stick that the Arabs call a “nabout”, and let’s see, what else did I take? Oh yes, I also took a compass and a map. And binoculars for seeing at a distance. I started to walk, and I could see quite a distance away, because the village was on top of a hill. About forty kilometers away, or rather thirty-six, you could see some snow. And I knew that right on the other side of the snow was the Turkish border.

“And I knew that right on the other side of the snow was the Turkish border” -
picture of mountins near Dugur, Turkey (nowadays Posof)

A map of Georgia showing Akalts'ikhe, Abst'umani and Posof (Dugur)

Continued in part 3...

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