Exploring the Palestinian side of my family

Graveyard Detective – Part I: Friday afternoon

First of a two-part post from last year’s trip, originally posted on Facebook on 14 Jul 2014. Lightly edited and with the addition of photographs.

One of the things I was hoping to achieve during this trip was to find the graves of two family members on my maternal grandmother’s side who I knew for certain were buried in Jerusalem.

The first one was my great-great-grandfather, George Schtakleff, who hailed from Tetovo, a town/village in what is modern-day Macedonia, and was, as far as we can tell, an ethnic Bulgarian albeit Greek-speaking. He came to Jerusalem as a pilgrim sometime in the mid- to late-1800s, felt there was a business opportunity to set up a flour mill and had his brother, Zachar(ias), join him. He married twice, ‘importing’ his wives from Tetovo, and built his life in Jerusalem. His first-born was my great-grandfather, John. (You still with me?)

George died under somewhat dubious circumstances. The most accepted version has him commit suicide as a result of which he had to be buried under the name Yerasimos (his father’s) as the church would not have sanctioned the burial of someone who took his own life.

One of his sons managed to find his grave back in 1974 and took a photo which another great uncle of mine, on the Zacharias side, included in his own history of the family a few years ago. And that’s all I had to go by.

Tomb of George Schtakleff. Photo taken by his son, Boris Schtakleff in 1974. Boris’s wife on the right.
Tomb of George Schtakleff
Photo taken by his son, Boris Schtakleff in 1974. Boris’s wife on the right.

The second family member was my great-grandmother, Eugenie (Evgenia) Agathopoulou. Her family were Greeks from Istanbul and her father, Anestis, owned an itinerant theatre troupe which is what brought them to Jerusalem. Eugenie was an actress (and I hold her responsible for all her drama-prone granddaughters!) John Schtakleff saw Eugenie perform and wasted no time in asking her father for her hand. She never really loved him, bore him five children – the eldest being my grandmother, Yiayia Vitsa – and died in 1942, and as far as I know was buried in Jerusalem although no-one could tell me much more about the grave.

My great-grandmother’s family. Top: father, Anestis. Middle: mother, Rosa. Left: sister, Marika. Right: Eugenie (my great-grandmother).
My great-grandmother’s family
Top: father, Anestis. Middle: mother, Rosa. Left: sister, Marika
Right: Eugenie (my great-grandmother)

Figuring out where the Orthodox cemetery is located was the relatively easy part. I was told it was on Mount Zion which lies just outside the city walls, to the south, so on Friday afternoon I went on a reconnaissance mission.

The imposing Church of the Dormition sits atop the hill and dominates the scenery. One approach to it gives you a glimpse of the building, reminiscent of the Treasury in Petra (Jordan) appearing as it does at the end of a narrow passage delineated by high walls.

But on the first pass, I veered away from it, weaved my way through a maze of yeshivas and synagogues, crossed the road and found myself at a clearing with two gates that led to cemeteries. On the right there was a sign touting the burial place of Schindler. He was not an Orthodox as far as I know so not what I was looking for. In any case, it was locked.

The gate in front of me was partly open and the place looked derelict. I walked in, half-expecting it to be what I was looking for. It wasn’t but proved to be fascinating regardless. The place had clearly been roughed up. Signs of destruction and abandonment everywhere and the only thing standing were about two dozen plaques of Britons who died during the Mandate years, most of them military, and a big family tomb marked Jean François Batato.

(I still can’t figure out what cemetery this was and wonder if it’s the Protestant one that was vandalised a few years ago, as Google informs me.)

On a larger, older tombstone under a tree I caught the name Chamberlain – and my heart leaped.

When preparing for my trip my mum and her eldest sister had tried to give me the ‘who’s who’ of Katamon, their neighbourhood. Opposite their house was an apartment building, the house behind them belonged to family friends, two doors down was the Semiramis Hotel (bombed by Jewish terrorists in 1948), in the corner opposite the house lived the Mushabbeks, on the other corner the Sinioras. One block up there was the house of Mrs Chamberlain. She was a Greek woman married to an Englishman who worked for the Mandate administration. My mum remembered a large garden and sure enough, in my visit to Katamon on Thursday, I was glad to find the house—one of the few left intact—and indeed it had a large garden.

And now I was standing in front of a Chamberlain grave and the name was of a Greek woman and I thought, I found Mrs Chamberlain! The tombstone read, Victoria Vraohxpedis, née Detankerville Chamberlain, 1847-1924. Only later in the evening did I realise that my excited mind had not been thinking straight. The Mrs Chamberlain who was my mum’s neighbour had been born Greek and married a Chamberlain. In the case of the denizen of the grave, it was the opposite. Besides, Victoria died well before my mum was born.

A Chamberlain tombstone: Victoria Vrahipedis, 1847-1924
A Chamberlain tombstone: Victoria Vrahipedis, 1847-1924

After exploring a little this eerie place, I headed out. I bumped into a young Arab guy who told me the Greek Orthodox cemetery was on the other side of the Dormition Church. So I backtracked to the church. I took the left fork, found a door and went in to explore. An old man asked me if I was looking for Schindler’s grave—I suspect it’s the main attraction here—and if I wanted to see the view from the top and was so insistent that I had a hard time communicating to him it was the Orthodox cemetery I was after and wasn’t interested in anything else. Then he appeared to understand, asked if I was Jewish, and led me through another room with candles burning in a corner. He asked me if I was prepared to light a candle for shalom and make a donation. I did that, gave him 10 shekels which didn’t seem to impress him much and after he showed me through an open door, he turned around and walked away.

A fork in the road
A fork in the road

I looked through the door only to realise that I was looking at the street I had just passed through. What a b*&^%$, I thought! But I figured I might as well make the most of where I was, doubled-checked to see the man was gone lest he ask me for more money, and climbed to the roof to take in the view. From the top I could see a small yard with tombstones but it was all locked up. I zoomed in with my camera and could see only Arabic writing. I doubted it was what I was looking for anyway.

Back at the fork of the church, now I went to the right. Just beyond it, a big door sealed an area surrounded by tall walls. Above the door, the symbol of the Holy Sepulchre which is the sign of the Greek Orhtodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Finally, I was getting somewhere! I walked till the end of the pathway and sure enough I was at the front door of the Greek Orthodox Cemetery. Hours of operation Mon-Fri 8-11, Sat 8-12. So the following morning would be my only chance to visit and try to find my ancestors. ❖

Entrance to Greek Orthodox Cemetery, Jerusalem
Entrance to Greek Orthodox Cemetery, Jerusalem

(To be continued….)


  1. Leorah Kroyanker

    Dear Marina,
    Just entered this website, and following your investigation with interest – and continuing on to part 2 – before I email you ….

    • MP

      Thanks for visiting, Leorah. It was a pleasure meeting you today!

  2. http://BusinessFirstFamily.com

    I have a powerful respect for your writing and advice.

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