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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ethnic Germans Cut Adrift in Abkhazia

SUKHUMI, Georgia -- Lavrenty Gart, 71, remembers vividly when the secret police came for his mother after war broke out with Nazi Germany in 1941. He himself wouldn't have survived were it not for his neighbors.

His neighbors -- Poles, Armenians and Georgians -- hid him and family members even though they were Germans.

"It saved us," said Gart, now head of the Society of Germans in Abkhazia. "Nobody asked what nationality you were. There was that kind of friendship among different peoples."

Abkhazia has long been known as a land where an array of peoples, cultures and ethnicities overlap. As early as the sixth century B.C., historian Edward Gibbons noted, 132 tongues could be heard in the marketplace here.

"We have always been multinational," said Maxim Gunjia, Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister. Unfortunately, he added, many groups have fled the region since the 1992-93 war with Georgia.

The exodus of ethnic Germans has been expedited by a government program in Berlin enabling the people -- who have to trace their "German-ness" through one parent's side of the family -- to return.

A handful of German speakers remain, with Abkhaz, Armenians and Georgians making up the bulk of the population. "We used to have 71 members," Gart lamented. Now there are 31.

The Society of Germans in Abkhazia works mainly as a support group. Most of the Germans here are pensioners struggling to make ends meet.

The society meets in the Lutheran Church, which Germans built in Sukhumi in 1913 and was only returned to the community in 1999: For nearly 80 years, the Communists banned religious services there.

Every few months, a German priest comes to preach at the church. They also hold German history lessons there, and they collect information on well known German speakers who once lived in Abkhazia. A large map of the fatherland adorns one wall.

Most important, the society lends a hand to members when they fall ill, with one member being assigned to help whoever needs it.

"For us, it means a lot," member Nelli Nais said of the society.

Johannes Launhardd, the Bishop of the Caucasus for the Evangelical Lutheran Church, noted that the church worked closely with the broader German-speaking community.

"These are people who have to live on their pension, and the pension they get is not enough," Launhardd said in a telephone interview from his office in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Abkhaz pensions are 100 rubles per month.

Whenever the bishop visits, he said, the church donates dry goods to the ethnic Germans living in Abkhazia.

"Everyone is surprised," Gart said. "They ask how we live. This is how we live -- in poverty."

In the winter, the society meets less often, with Sukhumi residents still nervous about walking about after dark. Until recently, the city maintained a curfew.

The society was formed in the turbulent early 1990s, just a month before war broke out between Georgian forces and separatists in Abkhazia.

Now, one of the only things holding it together -- what's left of it, anyway -- is that few members have anywhere to go.

Indeed, the German government has refused entry to many German-speaking Abkhaz because, Gart said, they cannot prove their ethnic identity. Even Gart can't go back to the homeland of his forefathers, who, he said, came from Germany in the 19th century to Ukraine; later, they were exiled to Siberia, and in 1917, they settled in Abkhazia.

"During the war, many Germans hid their nationality before taking on Russian or Ukrainian identities," Gart said. "They did it to save themselves ... and now they feel guilty."

While Germany welcomed ethnic Germans from Abkhazia immediately after the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, that enthusiasm has faded, Gart said.

In fact, the immigration rules have changed, he said, complicating the process.

A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry denied that the rules had changed.

Given the current state of affairs, Gart is not planning on going anywhere and is now trying to do more here in Abkhazia.

To help in all this, Gart said, he's hoping the German government will throw in some money. He'd like to assist some more ethnic Germans trying to get by. And maybe buy some furniture.

"There isn't anything apart from a telephone," Gart said.