Helping the last Jews of Oni, Georgia
By Oliver Knight
I had waited with great anticipation to visit Oni, a town situated 830m above sea level, high up in the Racha Mountains and therefore inaccessible for much of the year. Intriguingly it is also a town steeped in Jewish history, with the earliest Jewish settlers arriving 2,600 years ago!
As we wound our way around the steep roads, following the Rioni river upstream, I could understand why even when there’s a small snowfall, Oni becomes a very isolated place.
When we arrived three hours later, I was taken to the oldest part of the town where, taking centre stage, stood a beautiful synagogue, designed by a Polish architect and built by Greek Jews from Thessaloniki in the 1880s. I was sad to learn of the decline of the community in Oni which had once been home to the third largest population of Jews in Georgia, falling to 3,500 in the early 1990s and today, only a handful. The few elderly Jews I met and spoke to fondly recall a town bustling with Jewish life, the festivals and the noise of children playing around the synagogue.
The decline of the Jewish community is predominantly a result of post-Soviet Union aliyah to Israel. For those unable to leave or simply reluctant to leave their homes and the life they know behind, they’ve not only lost their community but the harsh conditions both physically and economically make every day a struggle.
World Jewish Relief have been providing the Jews of Oni with support each winter for over five years, ensuring they can keep their homes warm, but the main agenda of my trip was to consider the feasibility of extending our Home Repairs project to the town. Homes in Oni not only have to bear the brunt of the harsh winter but many remain damaged from an earthquake in 1991 that killed 270 people and destroyed 46,000 homes in the region.
I visited four homes during my visit, but two struck me most. I first visited Tamar. She is 94 years old, almost blind and extremely deaf and has lived in the same house since 1938! She has a home care worker and a neighbour that is able to care for her, without whom she may not be alive. As soon as it gets cold (the majority of the year) she has to move to a tiny, smoky room with a log burner at the back of her house, where she spends almost all her time. She had no inside toilet, nor running water.
The second lady I met, Maro, was 84. Her home reminded me of a tree-house, as we had to scale a wooden ladder to get to the first floor. This is how a lady who is extremely deaf and immobile enters her home. The house was wooden, the floor was in terrible condition and accessibility was a major worry. Her main concern however were the rats; she showed me the holes in the mattresses where they had eaten away or nested. The house also had no bathroom or toilet inside.
Thanks to donations of supporters, we were able to totally renovate both homes. Tamar’s home was properly insulated, repairs were made to the floor and walls and double glazed windows were fitted. The whole top floor of Maro’s house was dismantled and renovated, making sure it is now safe, accessible, warm and hygienic. Amazingly, both now have hot running water and indoor toilets for the first time. In Oni we made a total of five home repairs this year and 322 across the rest of Eastern Europe. Although Oni is a small, forgotten community that is hard to reach, our work there proves the strength of a global Jewish family and the remarkable significance of humanitarian relief.