Monday 25 July 2016

My grandfather's exodus - part 6

The sixth 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 crosses the border into Syria, then under French control, and is thrown straight away back into jail, where he has an unpleasant experience.

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

Lova: Meanwhile, what happened? When I left Malatya, of course they gave me a letter for the police. Each town I would reach, I’d have to report to the police, and they would see my letter and allow me to keep going. Until I reached Kilis. When I reached Kilis, the policemen, who knew I was Jewish, told me they had some Jews living there. So they brought me to see the Jews. It happened to be a Monday, the day on which you read the Torah in the synagogue. So they invited me to come up and read the Torah. And then they invited me for breakfast. I parted with them, and I kept going, until I reached a small town near the border, and then I crossed the Turkish-Syrian border to another small town called Az-Az.

The entrance to the Aleppo citadel
There of course I ran into the police again, and they brought me to the French commander of Az-Az. And he asked me “where from?” and “what?” so I explained that I’d been walking for such and such number of months, that I had spent eight months in Caucasia and thirteen months in Turkey, and now I’m here in Syria and I want to keep going.

He said, “I can’t send you onwards by foot. Do you have any money?” I answered, “Money, I don’t have.”

He said, “So how do you propose to travel farther?”

I answered, “Just like I travelled up to here, on my two feet. I’ve been walking for almost two years now. I want to keep walking.”

He says, “Maybe you want to, but I can’t let you keep going by foot all on your own. A policeman has to accompany you. And the policemen here don’t want to walk. Take a taxi.”

I said, “How can I take a taxi? I don’t have any money.”

So they put me into jail there. I stayed there for three days, and then I started banging on the door. There was nobody else there, I was all on my own in the jail. I started banging on the door, and shouting, until somebody heard me and opened the door and took me back to the officer.

I said, “I won’t stay here any more. Let me keep walking.”

So he says, “Nu, how can I let you keep walking if none of the policemen want to walk with you?”

I answered, “If they don’t want to, you’re the local authority. Give them some money, and let them take a taxi.”

So he finally agreed. He took out some money, and gave it to a policeman who brought me by taxi to Aleppo. When we arrived in Aleppo, he took me to the police station. He left me there, and then of course he went back to Az-Az. As for me, it was a two-floor building. So they locked me into the broom closet under the stairs, just like the one we have at home, to sleep for the night.

The next morning they told me to get up, and took me to court. There I was brought before the French judge, with a kind of a white ruffled collar, and a curly wig, and a wide sort of gown. He asked me, “Do you have a passport?” “I don’t.” “Do you have a visa?” “I don’t.” “Did you cross the border without permission?” “I did.” “Twenty days in jail.”

He didn’t need to ponder much. The trial lasted all in all less than a minute. Then they took me to the Aleppo jail, an ancient building up on top of a hill. An ancient building made out of rough-hewn rocks and very thick walls. That was the jail where they put me.

The Aleppo citadel, “an ancient building up on top of a hill... made out of rough-hewn rocks and very thick walls” - probably where Lova was jailed
And the rule there was: anybody jailed for over three months, he went into a little cell. Under three months, we were all together in one huge room. Since I was only there for twenty days, they put me into the huge room with another 130 men who had been jailed for short periods. Many of them were drivers who had been fined and couldn’t afford to pay. And other minor infractions.

And among us was also Khujey Effendi, a Muslim mullah, who had officiated over the wedding of a 14-years old girl. Now, according to the French law, you couldn’t marry a girl younger than sixteen. So they gave him 3 months in jail and he sat there with us in the room. Only he got a wide space, and all of the other Muslims would sit at a bit of a distance from him. And he had a carpet, and they would bring him food. They all honored him, after all he was a mullah, not just anybody!

And among them was also a Jew, the nephew of the chief rabbi, Ezra Hamoi from Jamaliya. The prettiest part of Aleppo is Jamaliya, the Jewish quarter. Ezra Hamoi was the chief rabbi there. And this man, being Ezra Hamoi’s nephew, had borrowed a car, and had had an accident, and they charged him too much money to fix it. He refused to pay, so they sent him to trial, and gave him three months in jail.

Then, while he was sitting in jail, he decided that maybe it was better to pay and not to sit there after all. But meanwhile he gave me his address– he knew I was a Jew from Russia walking all the way to Israel, and he told me to come to see him when I finally get out of jail.

Aleppo, the Nestle building on the Al Tellal Square, early 1920's
The same Al Tellal Square and building, at an earlier date
There, in jail, it was the first time in my trek that the authorities had fed me. Because if you’re jailed after a trial, they have to feed you. But those who sit in the police station administratively, they don’t get any food without a trial. Nu, even though they fed me, I didn’t feel so good. I was in a bit of a sour mood, because I was getting close to Israel now, and meanwhile here I was sitting in Jail, it wasn’t so pleasant, with one hundred and thirty other men.

Well, once I had an unpleasant experience there. Even though the food was good, I had a tummy ache, and I didn’t feel so good. So in the middle of the night I had to cross the room to the door behind which you could go to the toilet. But in the middle of the night, trying to step over people who are lying together like fish in a barrel, it isn’t so easy. And by mistake I stepped on a Christian driver, who was jailed for a few weeks. And he recognised me – everybody recognised me there. You could say I was one of the ones who stood out.

So the following morning he started cursing me, and said all kinds of rude things that didn’t exactly please me. I didn’t think a lot, and I punched him with my fist. He fell over. And his friends, the other drivers, they caught me in their arms, and he slapped me in the nose, and my nose started bleeding.

Now, the jailer responsible for our big room, and maybe even for the whole jail, was a huge Turk. We were in Syria, but he was, I don’t know, Turkish or what, but anyway he was huge. And strangely enough, they called him Kutchuk. “Kutchuk” means the little one. So he heard a commotion, and he came inside. You see, the Muslims were all on my side, and they started fighting with the Christians and beating them – it was an all out war. So he came in and he asked, “What’s going on here?” And he sees the blood flowing from my nose. And I told him that I hadn’t felt so well at night, I had crossed the room to the toilet, I had stepped on the driver, and he started cursing me. And that’s it. I punched him, and they caught me and held me, and he slapped me.

And Kutchuk, he lifted the Christian driver like a fly. He lifted him and he said, “Whoever dares to touch him again,” – him, meaning me – “Whoever dares to touch him, will get solitary confinement, down in the damp cellar with the rats, and everything, and no food. Do you know,” he said, “do you know who he is? He’s Hershnebi!”

I myself had no idea who this Hershnebi was supposed to be. But they told me afterwards that Hershnebi was a foreign guest. And I can still remember now, how he said it: “Do you know who he is? He’s Hershnebi! So you mustn’t touch him.”

After this they took me to the mullah, and sat me down next to him. And they gave me a long coat to wear, and I was honored even more than I had been up to then. And the Arabs they asked me, “What are you going to Palestine for? They kill Jews over there.”

I said, “A stick has two ends. So don’t you worry about me.”

Aleppo, 1912. The map shows a prison north of the citadel, another possible place for Lova’s imprisonment
Continued in part 7...

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