Diary from Georgia (4) – Wine first, DNA later

By Alex Engbers


Zaur Vanishvili is a bon vivant. He has filter cigarettes lying within reach all over the place. Despite his stout posture he moves smoothly through his marani, a beautifully furnished wine cellar where he treats his guests from The Netherlands to fresh bread, lightly salted cheese and delicious cold wine. As a small wine grower, and 72 years of age, he still sells many hundreds of bottles per annum of both white and red.
We have driven to Ateni, a village not far from Gori, in the heartland of Georgia. At one time Semyon Vanishvili lived here, a Georgian shot by the Germans in Beverwijk, April 1945. Ateni is just a spot in the landscape, so tracing the relatives of Semyon Vanishvili should pose no problems. But half of Ateni seems to be called Vanishvili. That is why Remco Reiding needs the DNA of a close relative to find out which Semyon lies buried in the Soviet Military Cemetery in Leusden.

As we enter the yard of Zaur we watch the soil beneath the vines being liberally coated with cow dung. Being a widower Zaur lives alone, but he calls himself fortunate that his children and grandchildren visit him regularly. Zaur was born in 1946 and never knew his uncle Semyon. But he is happy to cooperate with Reiding’s DNA quest, if only because aunt Elene, to whom uncle Semyon was married, has always meant much to him.
Semyon and Elene married just before the war and remained childless. After the war Elene refused to believe that Semyon had been killed. Until her demise in 2003 she kept waiting for her husband, so Zaur tells Reiding while the latter takes a cheek swab from the wine grower. Zaur does not have any photos of uncle Semyon. “They’re probably in her old cottage.”
Noting ventured, nothing gained, so Reiding decides to have a look at Elene’s place.

After some searching around we turn into a dirt road and come upon the deserted, dismal dwelling of Elene. It was inherited by a niece, but she lives in the capital Tbilisi and is hardly ever here.
As Reiding is busy photographing the old house, an iron door opens up behind him. It turns out to be the 85 year old Gogia Vanishvili. Same name but not related. Although he did know Semyon. “In June 1941, straight after the German invasion in the Soviet Union, thirteen young men from our village were called up for the army. Semyon among them. He was a bookkeeper. The evening before they left they polished off a large jar of wine. None of them ever returned.”

The bent old man looks fragile, but his mind is still sharp. He is very curious about the work of Reiding and finds it hard to believe what this Dutchman is doing for the bereaved of the war victims. He knows what he is talking about. “My dad also failed to return from the war. My mother always kept hoping he would show up one day. That’s why she would never allow me to honour his death with a kelechi, a wake, as we do in Georgia. When she died I held a double commemoration.”
He looks Reiding in the eye and confides in him his deepest wish, while the two of them are sitting side by side on a low wall. “If you can tell me where my father lies buried I will give you anything. I will give you the biggest party in the world.” Touching words from a man who for 78 years has failed to come to peace with the uncertainty about the fate of his father. Reiding puts a comforting arm around the old Georgian. There is not much more he can offer. Gogia’s dad certainly does not lie buried in The Netherlands, the Amersfoort researcher tells him, and to look elsewhere is a mission impossible. Gogia listens resignedly, yet grateful that at least his old neighbour Semyon may have been traced. He gestures to Reiding that he wants to give him something. Laboriously shuffling over the dirt road and the bumpy thresholds of his house he fetches a large sack of apples. “For you, for all the good work you are doing.”

This is part 4 in a series of stories from Georgia.

Read the travel reports from Georgia: the news beforehand, par 1, part 2, part 3.