Oni New Jewish Cemetery
The New Jewish Cemetery in Oni is in the centre of the town at the end of Baazov street, not far from the synagogue. This cemetery is an important source for studying the history of Jews in Oni. The inscriptions on the old gravestones, which date to the 19th century, reveal information about notable people from Oni’s Jewish community, such as rabbis who are buried in the cemetery. Some of the dates on older gravestones are illegible and, as such, the oldest legible one is dated 1954. The most recent tombstone is dated 2003. A monument dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust and the “Georgian Righteous Among the Nations”—Sergey Metreveli, (recognized by Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center)—was unveiled on September 2, 2020.
Oni is a town in the Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti region of Georgia, on the embankment of the Rioni River. Oni was first mentioned in the chronicles in the 15-16th centuries and was established in the 2nd century BCE. Many famous writers, artists, scientists, historians, doctors, public figures were born in Oni, most of whom emigrated. According to legends, Jews have lived in the area for centuries. The first sources of Jews in Oni appear at the beginning of the 18th century. According to local newspapers, 200 Jewish families lived in Oni in 1869. In the 1880’s, 3,000 Jews lived in Oni and accounted for about half of the population of the city. Once powerful and large, the historic Jewish community of Oni consisted of 3,500 people before the wave of Aliyah between 1972 and 1992. Only about 10 Jews live in Oni today. Owing to the small number of the Jewish population, services are no longer held in the synagogue.
The first Synagogue in Oni was almost destroyed in the 1960’s. The idea for a new synagogue was proposed by the young Rabbi Elia Amshikashvili, who was studying in Warsaw and was so inspired by the Great Synagogue on Tlomackie Street (exploded by fascists in 1943), that he decided to build a similar synagogue in his hometown. Elia Amshikashvili was supported by the Jews of Krakow and Warsaw, who advised him to meet with Nathan Rothschild in London. With Rothschild’s recommendation letter, Elia met Alfred Noble in St. Petersburg and got his full support. The construction of the new synagogue began in 1890 by Polish engineers and Greek masters from Thessaloniki with the financial support of Noble Brothers Petroleum Company and was opened in 1895. The synagogue in Oni, located on Baazov Street, is Georgia’s third largest synagogue after the synagogues in Tbilisi and Kutaisi. The Oni synagogue is a magnificent example of Neo-Moorish architecture. It is built of white limestone, has a quadrangle shape and a dome roof, and is distinguished by its size and artistic value in the Caucasus. The facade of the synagogue is quite beautiful too, with an arched portal with massive columns. The building is richly decorated with relief ornaments and a tent-like dome with an eight-point star. During communist repressions in the 1930’s, the synagogue came under the threat, but survived through the joint efforts and sacrifice of Jewish and Georgian mothers who protected it from destruction by locking themselves inside the building with their newborn babies. Following an earthquake in 1991, the old synagogue was totally destroyed, while the Great Synagogue was damaged, but survived and was repaired.
From 1903, the Rabbi of the Oni Synagogue was David Baazov, who initiated the opening of two Jewish grade schools where students studied both religious subjects, as well as history, Georgian, and Russian. Following this, a yeshiva was opened in 1919. David Baazov also established the first Zionist group in Georgia in 1910. As a result of his Zionistic activities, he was exiled to Siberia (1938-1945). He later returned to Oni, though he had developed serious health problems, and passed away in 1947. Baazov’s family and descendants were also of note, such as his son Herzel Baazov who was a famous writer, playwright, and public figure. His plays were successfully staged in Tbilisi and Moscow theatres. He was executed for dissent in 1938.