Monday, 8 August 2016

My grandfather's exodus - part 7

The seventh 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 tells about his arrival in Beirut, and how he scares the daylight out of the contact he was given there.

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

Lova: And every day I counted, one day less, one day less, nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, until I reached zero. And there I was still sitting in jail. I didn’t have a father, I didn’t have a mother, there was nobody to worry about me outside. So I went to the barber in the jail’s barbershop and I said to him, “Listen, I’m already sitting here for twenty-one days, and they only gave me twenty.”

He talked to the manager, and the next day a policeman really came, and he took me to see the French commander in Aleppo. And he told me, “Now you’re free. You can stay to live here in Aleppo until you’re 120 years old. Your entire life.”

I answered, “What? You want me to stay here? Is that why I’ve been walking for almost two years? I don’t want to.”

So he says, “What can I do? It’s the law.” Then he says, “You know what, I’ll send a letter to Beirut.” Beirut was the capital of Syria-Lebanon back then. “I’ll write a letter, and we’ll see what they have to say.”

Aleppo, the Jewish quarter, Grande Rue de Djémilié (Jamaliya)
Another picture of the the Grande Rue de Djémilié (here Jamilié)
I was satisfied. I was glad to hear that he was going to write them a letter, and ask them on my behalf to let me get out of Syria. So I went to see the chief rabbi’s nephew, and I found him at home. He brought me to see Ezra Hamoi, the chief rabbi of Jamaliya. Ezra Hamoi had all kinds of rooms in his house, so he gave me a bedroom and said, “You can stay to live here for as long as you like.”

Then I went into town, and found work with an Armenian man there, and earned a Syrian lira every day. And so I worked every day and waited for the reply to come.


Syrian Lira, 1939
Twenty days later the reply came. I was allowed to leave the borders of Syria-Lebanon, but I had to do it within eight days. If they caught me there more than eight days later, they had to send me back to Aleppo, and there I’d have to stay.

This arrived on the evening of Tish’a beAv. The day on which I was born. So I didn’t want to leave on Tish’a beAv, to run away from the rabbi’s house on a high holiday. So I stayed, and I ate with them. They always fed me in the rabbi’s house. I ate with them, and got to keep the money I earned. I bought a pair of shoes, and a pair of pants from some French legionnaire.

Central Synagogue of Aleppo, in 2011
So on Tish’a beAv, I spent the whole day in the synagogue. Next to Ezra Hamoi’s house there was a small synagogue, and I went there to pray and fast. The next morning, when I woke up, I took some food, and all of my belongings: a blanket, and a pair of pants, and a pair of shoes. And I had also bought a kind of a cork hat, the kind that the English wear. A white hat with a thin blue stripe. And a chequered grey Arabic headscarf.

I parted with my hosts, and I started walking on the road southwards. I had a compass with me – I have it with me to this very day. The map I don’t have any more. I went along the road for three or four hours, when suddenly I heard a car coming up behind me. So I stopped the car – a big truck full of chickens in chicken coops. With a little roof. So I stopped him, and asked him if I he couldn’t take me to Beirut. He said, “Sure, climb up on top of the coops.”

Well, I spread my blanket on top of the prickly chicken coops, and lay down on top of it. A great pleasure – it wasn’t exactly. We drove all day long, and at one o’clock at night we arrived in the Beirut market. There I got off. By chance I had the address of a Jew who had a guesthouse there, and whose surname was just like mine, Rabinovitch. Nowadays my surname is Rabani, but back then my surname was Rabinovitch, just like his.

So I asked in the market, if anybody knew where I could find this Rabinovitch hotel. Somebody answered, “Sure, I know”. So he led me there. There where he led me, there was a metal staircase outside the house, leading up to the third or fourth floor, I’m not quite sure any more. I knocked on the door. Out of the door came an old Jew wearing glasses. He looked exactly like Mendele the bookseller. He had just the right kind of face, an old man with glasses.

Mendele Moykher Sforim (the bookseller), whom Mr. Rabinovitch resembled like two drops of water
And he asked me, “What do you want? Who are you?”

I said, “I’m a Jew. I’m walking from Russia to Israel, and they gave me this address and told me you could help me.”

He said, “Oy, I can’t. I’m afraid... You know, the police.”

So I said, “What are you afraid of? I have a letter.” And I showed him my letter. As he started reading the letter (laughs), his hands started shaking. I didn’t know what was written in there. It said that I was a dangerous element to the public, and that if they catch me in the borders of Syria after such and such date, they had to send me back there to Aleppo. This I found out for the first time at his house.

After he read the letter, he said, “Kum arayn.” “Come in, come in.”

I came in, it was the middle of the night already. He brought me into the kitchen and brought a ladder. Then he said, “Climb!”

I said, “Climb where? There’s only the ceiling up there.”

He said, “Climb, climb. Push a trapdoor with your head and climb inside. There’s a little room up there for illegals.” That’s where he always used to hide them.

So I climbed in, and saw two beds and a table. The table was covered with all kinds of books, journals, and newspapers. I didn’t look at anything. I didn’t even take off my shoes. I didn’t take off my clothes. I just lay down in bed and fell asleep like a dead man.

When I woke up the following morning, I opened the little trapdoor, and shouted, “Mr. Rabinovitch! Mr. Rabinovitch! Git mir dem leyter!” “Give me the ladder!”

He brought the ladder, and I climbed down. Then I said, “Thank you very much. Now I have to keep going.”

He said, “What do you mean, to keep going? Sit down!”

“Where?” I asked. He said, “Here!” And there he had eggs, milk, butter and bread. And we both sat down, he ate, I ate, and then he said: “Now you can keep going. Go straight,” he said, “and then left, and then another right, and there you’ll see a low kind of building. Only one floor. You often run into young Israelis there. Maybe you’ll find somebody who can help you.”

Beirut street market, 1925
So I went there. I arrived and I asked if there wasn’t anybody there from Israel. So a man said, “Oh yes, there’s a young man here. Khakla’i, from Metulla. If I’m not mistaken he’s the night-guard from Metulla.”

Ok, I walked up to him and said, “Are you Khakla’i from Metulla?” He says, “Yes. What do you want?”

I say, “I’m from Russia. I’m walking to Israel. They told me maybe somebody here can give me some advice, about the best way to cross the border, and so on.”

So he says, “No problem. Advice I can give you all kinds of. But do you have any money?”

I said, “What do you mean, any money? How much money?”

He said, “Twenty five Syrian Liras.”

I said, “Twenty five Syrian Liras I don’t have.”

“Ok, twenty liras.”

“Twenty, I don’t have.”

“Fifteen, do you have?”

“Fifteen I have.”

“Give me the money and come back here at one o’clock.” Then he said the money was needed for the taxi.

Fine. I gave him all of my money and he said, “At one o’clock sharp, you’ll find me here. Start following me. No talking, no questions, no nothing. Just follow me.”

“Ok.”

Continued in part 8...

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