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Lost voices of the Georgian
Jewish communities in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali

When Silva Iosebashvili, 54, recalls her childhood, her memories are filled with the aroma of freshly baked matzah bread and fruit gardens. In her mind, she is walking with her grandmother through the neighborhood and can feel the heat of the bakery near the Tskhinvali synagogue.

Author: Lasha Shakulashvili

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Silva and her mother Luiza, Tbilisi, 2017
Silva remembers a diverse community, where neighbors of all ethnicities lived and worked together. Georgian Jews married Ossetians; families shared recipes and attended weddings together.

Silva traces her roots back to a prominent family in the once vibrant Jewish community of Tskhinvali, a small city in Georgia’s breakaway Tskhinvali region.
Georgian Jewish settlements in the area date back to at least the 17th century. Official data from the 1886 census indicates Georgian Jews were a majority in Tskhinvali—1953 of the town’s 3832 residents were Jewish. By 1922, 1651 Jews, 1436 Georgians, 765 Armenians, 613 Ossetians, and 64 Russians. During the USSR, Jewish collective farms were established in the Tskhinvali region and synagogues were allowed to function.

“I remember a smell of freshly baked matzah bread in the lead up to Passover… My father loved putting me on his shoulders and we would go to our synagogue’s bakery at night, at 02:00 am. People were surprised to see a man bringing a daughter, as most of the children there were boys. I have a clear memory of bringing matzah home and laying them on a white cloth. They were delicious and the smell defines my childhood,” she says.

By all accounts, it was a happy childhood, full of the rich colors and flavors of Jewish, Georgian and Ossetian traditions. People baked Khachapuri, Khabizgin and Sarakhajin.

“The most cherished memory of my childhood is watching my Grandmother Simcha comb her hair and make two beautiful braids, which she hid under a very elegant scarf. She wore classic dresses and I loved walking around streets of Tskhinvali with her,” she says.

During the Soviet Union, her Grandmother Simcha Shaptoshvili - Iosebashvili was a representative, elected in the Tskhinvali region. “She was the only Georgian Jewish female representative elected in the USSR. She acted as a liaison between wealthy and needy families, as she ensured as much social equality among the Tskhinvali dwellers as she possibly could,” Silva says.

Silva’s parents, Luiza Biniashvili and Khaim Iosebashvili, were natives of Tskhinvali. A few days after their engagement, Luiza’s mother passed away suddenly, and Simcha became a second mother to her. She even named her daughter after her: Silva’s Hebrew name is Simcha, which means joy and happiness.

Silva remembers a diverse community, where neighbors of all ethnicities lived and worked together. Georgian Jews married Ossetians; families shared recipes and attended weddings together.

“People were not afraid of repatriating to Israel [known as Aliyah]. The road was open and they left…Some of the repatriation stories were sad … there were split families … some people even stayed behind because they couldn’t leave their beloved dog,” Silva’s mother, Luiza Biniashvili, recalls.

Silva was a child when people started to repatriate.

“I remember watching them pack their whole life in a large wooden box; these boxes were shipped to Israel via Batumi,” Silva says.

“I was saddened to watch my best friends leave the country. I couldn’t understand their decision, as our family never considered Aliyah, because our life had been so complete in Tskhinvali and we deeply loved our motherland.”

At the time of the 1993 armed conflict, Tskhinvali’s Georgian Jews numbered at around 300. Eventually even Silva’s family was forced to leave.

Silva says they were one of the last Jewish families to leave the city. “in 1993, when the conflict started and tensions increased – people started leaving Tskhinvali and moving to Gori, Tbilisi or elsewhere. Georgians Jews started leaving with their families…The synagogue closed down. Our relatives and heads of the community also left,” she recalls.

“We lived in such harmony and peace with all of our neighbors that we never wanted to talk about the escalating situation.”

Eventually, however, the conflict came to them, in the shape of four armed men. The men, who arrived at their home one day, wanted their house, it appeared. Silva recalls that one promised that if the family handed over their home, he would make sure they had time to pack, and they had safe passage to Georgian-controlled territory. He also vowed to care for the grave of Rusudan Iosebashvili, a daughter who died young.

The family agreed. They turned over the house and land for $1,000 and safe passage to the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

Eventually most of the Tskhinvali Jewish community went to Israel, Luiza and Khaim joined them in 1998.