Back in Jerusalem by early evening, I rushed to the Hilton (today’s Crown Plaza) to meet my mother. She had flown in to Tel Aviv airport and had been transported to the hotel as part of her package tour. It was too late to do anything so we spent the evening in the hotel. Her room was in a top floor, so while it was still light outside we stood on the balcony to survey the area. She was eager to take a look at her hometown but the hotel was at the edge of modern-day Jerusalem so nothing looked familiar. In her days, this part of the city was probably not even developed.
We then went downstairs for dinner. After nearly a week of subsisting on falafel and shawarma, I was glad to be treated to a nice, juicy steak (those were still my carnivorous days). I’d had an exciting time full of fascinating experiences and adventures, and I couldn’t wait to tell Mum all about it.
It’s been more than a year since my last blog post at the end of which I had promised a second part would follow. It’s taken a little longer than I’d planned but here it is: fifteen months and about three quarters of a pandemic later. (This part is also split in two to keep the length manageable.)
The time has come to write about my first trip to Jerusalem – my first true encounter with my Palestinian family’s past, beyond the confines of oral history.
Part 2.1: Touring Israel – Aug 1986
In the summer of 1986 I went in search of roots. Somewhere I’d seen advertised a long weekend at the Hilton Jerusalem and floated the idea to my mother. She was immediately sold on it. It had been nearly 40 years since they fled their home in Jerusalem to escape the war that partitioned Palestine thus becoming refugees, and she was eager to go back to the city of her birth and to show me where all the stories I had so loved since childhood had unfolded.
Preparing to write about the Schtakleffs, my maternal grandmother’s family, the other night I finally had a close look at the photos I took of the ‘Register‘. Its official title is the Register of the Christian Orthodox Community in Holy Jerusalem. Its discovery is one of the big coups of my last trip to my mother’s birth town in the summer of 2015. Before I write about its contents, I figured I’d tell the story of how I got hold of it.
Looking to continue the previous year’s research in Jerusalem into official documents, I started by asking around about burial records and was told that Bajali, a jeweller in the Old City, was responsible for issuing licences for burials at the Greek Cemetery so he would have the records. I mentioned this to George Tsourous (a Greek social anthropologist who had spent more than a year studying the Greek Orthodox community in Jerusalem – mentioned in a previous post) in our first meeting so we decided to go check there.
On Wed 14 Sep 2016 the Greek Community of Jerusalem lost one of its oldest members, Vassos Triantafyllidis.
I didn’t know Vassos well nor do I know much of his story. I met him for the first time during my July 2014 visit to the Greek Club. A gentle man with a cane who upon hearing I was Anna Kassotou’s daughter was thrilled, in his soft, understated way, and told me he was her classmate. Which, I suppose, puts him at about age 87, give or take.
One of the things I tried and failed to do last year was find the place where Nouna Marika and her family lived. Nouna in Greek means godmother. Marika Schtakleff was my grandmother’s sister and godmother to my mother. We all called her Nouna Marika. She was married to Efthymios Gaitanopoulos, another Jerusalemite, and had two daughters, Feely and Jenny – mum’s first cousins. Feely now lives in Canada, Jenny in Cyprus. (I realise that at some point I’ll have to add a family tree to this blog but I think so far you can follow me.)
Their home, a rented flat in a quadruplex in the lower part of Katamon, was not too far from the Kassotis (mum’s) house but far enough to provide a somewhat safer haven when the ‘troubles’ reached their back yard. The Kassotis house was two doors up from the small, Christian-owned Semiramis Hotel which, in the dead of night of 5 Jan 1948, was bombed by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organisation that grew up to be the Israeli army. The bombing, in addition to killing 24 people (including members of the Lorenzo family – the owners – and the Spanish consul), had the desired effect: people got scared and started vacating the area.