When you write a story and publish it for the world to read, the story is then set free to follow its own journey. If you’re lucky, you can tag along for the ride and be richer for it. And sometimes the story comes back to you, asking more of you.
On the 70th anniversary of the January 1948 bombing of the Semiramis Hotel in Katamon, Jerusalem, by the Haganah, the Jewish militia, I published a blog post about the incident. Not only was it a story I had grown up with but also a milestone for the neighbourhood of Katamon. Katamon was the place my mother and her family – her parents and two sisters – called home until it was no longer so and they found themselves as refugees in Cyprus. The end of their lives in their neighbourhood began, as I wrote in that initial post, with the explosion at Villa Semiramis, two doors down from their home. And it was the beginning of the end for Katamon itself for it caused its residents, like my own family, to abandon the neighbourhood in search of safety elsewhere.
My post travelled as far as Spain to the screen of the nephew of one of the victims of the explosion. Last year it was also discovered by a young woman from Gaza who is related to another victim.
Those two encounters in cyberspace looped me back into the story, this time causing me to dig deeper and farther.
Until that time, the bulk of the information I had on the Semiramis had come from the book O Jerusalem! written by two journalists: Larry Collins (American) and Dominique Lapierre (French). It was first published in 1972 and had become an international bestseller and eventually a movie, too – not the first of either for the two friends and collaborating authors.
It can be classified as ‘popular history’. It follows a number of characters, weaving their stories together in order to narrate from the human perspective how the state of Israel came into existence. The authors spent two years researching and interviewing a multitude of people from all sides. In the bibliography, there are 37 entries listed as ‘Private and unpublished diaries, documents and correspondence made available to the authors by their owners’. (Two of them are anonymous.)
The book is also the only source in which the Semiramis incident has been given more than a couple of paragraphs – or at least the only one I’d been able to find that was written in English. O Jerusalem! dedicates about seven pages to the Semiramis, which include the background to the decision to make the hotel a target and, in the spirit of the book, the personal story of one of the survivors of the disaster.
I was in my early twenties and mostly ignorant of history when O Jerusalem! made its way into my hands. My interest in my Palestinian family’s story, which started at an early age, was beginning to expand beyond the standard tales that families pass down from generation to generation without much questioning. We had a copy of the book at home and I’m guessing that my mother must have given it to me hoping it would answer my many budding but… but… when… who.. where… why’s. It was a thick mass-market paperback and at the time I only managed to get as far as the chapter that describes the Semiramis incident – about a quarter in (Chapter 9 – Journey to Absurdity). I was enchanted by the sensational tale-telling which follows a large number of vividly-sketched characters, improvising their words, thoughts and emotions for the sake of impactful narration.
For the first time I realised how monumental this event was which my family had experienced. Their house was on the next block from the hotel. I remember going to my grandmother to ask her for details. She told me how shaken up they were and how in the couple of days that followed they would make tea for the British soldiers who were excavating the rubble looking for survivors and dead bodies. She also told me a story that’s in the book: how a dog wouldn’t leave the ruins until the body of his master was recovered. Only the book didn’t get the dog right…
In May 2020, as I was ‘sheltering in place’ in San Francisco during the Covid-19 pandemic, an unexpected gift arrived through cyberspace: an email from Spain with an attached pdf that felt like an early birthday gift! The sender was Alvaro Gomez Pidal, a young photographer and filmmaker from Madrid, who had first contacted me via my blog soon after I pubished my post in January 2018. His grandmother was the sister of Manuel (Manolo) Allende Salazar, the Spanish vice-consul who had been killed in the Semiramis explosion. Alvaro had started looking into the incident and was excited to discover my blog post with references to his great-uncle.
The pdf document he was now sending was a copy of the July 1949 issue of Destino magazine published in Barcelona. It included a four-page report on the Semiramis incident, written by a Spanish journalist, Juan Ramon Masoliver, who had stayed at the hotel, sharing a room with Manolo. The journalist left Jerusalem in early December 1947 – about a month before the hotel was blown up. His friend and roommate was one of the victims.
The article was written in the form of an imaginary eyewitness diary – imaginary only in the sense that the author had not been present for all of the events his diary recounted (Diario a Distancia). Rather, he had put it together based on survivor testimonies and, presumably, press reports. With my intermediate Spanish and assistance by omniscient Mr Google, I spent a couple of weeks transcribing the article and translating it. A generous Spanish-speaking friend who was all too happy for a lockdown project helped me polish the end product.
Masoliver’s article provided a lot of new information which in several instances directly contradicted the ‘facts’ of O Jerusalem! As Ozan Varol says in his book Think Like a Rocket Scientist, ‘You must know some answers before you begin asking the right questions. But the answers simply serve as a launch pad to discovery. They’re the beginning, not the end.’ Masoliver’s new answers launched me into a new cycle of research.
With plenty of time on my hands (courtesy of Covid) I spent hours on Google, digging through Israeli state archives and poring over old Jewish (English language) press. Not everything checked out but as I looked for answers, more questions emerged in my head and the web of search and discovery spread wider.
Before long I had put together a tentative spreadsheet of the survivors of the blast. The short reports in The Palestine Post in the days immediately after the explosion provided such an assortment of transliterations for people’s names, particularly Arabic ones, that it was sometimes hard to tell if they were referring to the same person. Furthermore some survivors were reported dead and vice-versa.
Then, based on documents from the Israeli archives dating back to the British Mandate era, I built a timeline for the life of the hotel. I was surprised to see how short it was – barely more than a year. It took longer to build the hotel than it had time to operate! I realised that there’s something about traumatic events that seems to sear the places they impact in memory, creating the illusion they’ve been there forever.
As serendipity would have it, around the same time I was also contacted, again through my blog, by a young Palestinian woman, currently studying in the US, whose uncle was also killed in the Semiramis at age 16. She too had a full story to tell with corrections and enhancements to the record – and to my survivor spreadsheet.
As my research picked up steam, I was put in touch with a relative of one of the survivors. Nadia Aboussouan is first cousins with late Dr Sami Aboussouan who, together with his two brothers, walked out of the Semiramis alive that fateful night while their parents lay dead under the rubble. Nadia was most generous with both her time and knowledge, and in our email correspondence she provided me with a wealth of information.
For starters, she clarified that the Aboussouan family had no stake in the Semiramis. The story according to what O Jerusalem! and many other sources claim as well as what many people believe is that the Lorenzo and Aboussouan families owned the hotel and that the latter family ‘was virtually obliterated’.
Only two Aboussouans died: Sami’s parents, Lutfi and Eleanora. The latter was one of the sisters of Rauf Lorenzo, the hotel’s manager. If there was one family about which one could say they were virtually obliterated, that would undoubtedly be the Lorenzos. Among the two dozen victims were Rauf, his wife, their eldest son, Hubert, and four of Rauf’s sisters (Eleanora being one of them). The other five of Rauf’s children survived.
Another suprise was discovering that Rauf Lorenzo was not the owner either. I found documents in the archives indicating who the owners were – brothers Yusef and Salim Shishan – and appointing Rauf to the position of Manager. This was confirmed when in another stroke of serendipity, I became aware that a grandson of Rauf’s had been following me on Facebook all along, having come across my original Semiramis post. We have been in touch and I hope to work with him to complete the portrait of his family. He explained that although the Lorenzo family owned a lot of property, the Semiramis wasn’t part of it.
But I can easily see how, being the manager of the hotel, Rauf had become identified with it. The Semiramis was not a big hotel or part of a big chain. It was a very small, neighbourhood hotel, and as such the manager would have been its public face. I could imagine people referring to Lorenzo’s hotel – and even himself talking about his hotel – without anyone being particularly concerned as to who actually owned it on paper.
In August 2020 Nadia wrote to report some ‘good news’: she could make available to me a diary that Sami had written about the event. I thanked her enthusiastically, replying: This is not good news. It’s amazing news! Having a first-person testimony is more than I could have hoped for.
Soon I was busy with yet another translating job, giving my dormant intermediate French a workout. The diary had been written within a few months of the incident and was published later that year in Lebanon in Les Cahiers de l’Est. A first look revealed that it had been the basis for Masoliver’s imaginary diary. Some sections were exact copies, others had been added to with information Masoliver received from Silvio Lorenzo (the eldest surviving son of the hotel’s manager), from Sami and from other sources. Masoliver credits both Silvio and Sami as sources. The latter is also credited as a source by O Jerusalem! and he was in fact one of the people featured in the story. The diary now in my possession is one of the 37 above-mentioned bibliography entries. To my great surprise, however, in more than a few instances the book was not consistent with the diary. Nadia told me that Sami had been very upset when the book was first published. Now I could see why.
For instance, in addition to the discrepancies regarding the ownership of the hotel and the number of victims from the two families, Sami confirmed something Masoliver also mentions: The dog that wouldn’t leave the rubble until his master’s body was recovered was not that of Manolo, as O Jerusalem! claims, but rather Brackie, the Lorenzo dog, who hovered over the area where the body of Hubert was found. But, I suppose, a touching incident like this packs more punch if a foreign diplomat is involved.
Getting the facts of a story right is hard on a good day. When it comes to major disasters that shake people up and cause rumours to fly all over, like birds in a shape-shifting murmuration, it becomes near impossible. A lot of time needs to pass before the dust can settle and a clear picture can emerge. O Jerusalem! stepped into a gap in time and, for whatever reasons, provided some erroneous information which in the absence of other sources has practically defined the Semiramis incident.
Before long I realised that the story – the story the way I and many others knew it, the way it had been told by O Jerusalem! and how it was altered by time in survivors’ and neighbours’ memories – was looking to be corrected and completed. It had come back to find me and was asking me to do so.
At first my idea was to write a revised blog post. As Semiramis-related data claimed more and more of my computer hard drive, I upgraded my plan, contemplating a multi-part blog post instead, since just one entry of reasonable length wouldn’t be sufficient. Along the way, a few people suggested I might write a book on the subject. I toyed back and forth with the idea but feeling a bit daunted by the prospect, I would always go back to the multi-part blog post approach. Except that the number involved in ‘multi-part’ kept rising. I could see that a three-part blog post could work, but a ten-part?!
I’m not an academic, certainly not a historian, but I am confident I can tell the story of the Semiramis more fully and accurately than it’s been told so far. Part of me looks at it as a challenge and a fascinating detective project (an aspect of family history I relish). More importantly, I feel that having had the benefit of the information this preliminary research has yielded, I owe it to all the people whose lives have been altered by this event – whether terminated, traumatised or impacted in one way or another – to tell their story. My own family is included in that list, as the bombing of the Semiramis marked the end of their lives in their beloved Katamon and their Jerusalem.
There isn’t a single person who lived in the area at the time who doesn’t remember that night. Memory is fickle though, and time takes a toll on it. Most people I’ve spoken to – who were children to young adults at the time – don’t remember or know all the facts accurately. Invariably the date is wrong. Almost everyone is convinced that the Lorenzos and Aboussouans owned the hotel. Regardless, the emotional impact remains strong in their psyche. What they were doing at the time and what they felt is not something that time can erase, even less so the aftermath. Some of them were thrown off their beds, most were filled with fear. All of them eventually had to flee. The Semiramis explosion was the epicentre of the Nakba of Katamon and the ripples that followed in its wake left no-one untouched.
So I’m on my way to writing a book. Or at least I’m going to try! The story I hope to tell is that of a neighbourhood and a hotel, and how the destruction of the latter precipitated the end of the former. This will also be a story of discovery: mine, Alvaro’s and perhaps Rauf’s grandson’s too.
My vision – for now – is to explore in more detail:
● The place: How the neighbourhood of Katamon came to be, beginning with the old ecclesiastical lore of St Simeon to the Iberian monks who lived there in centuries past (and who I looked for in Spain only to disover them in Georgia!) to how the Greek monk Avramios restored the church and cultivated the surrounding land in the late 1800s, to the full development of the area. The 1929 Beaumont map that accompanies the American Colony’s Palestine Guide shows only a couple dozen homes in the area (my grandfather’s being one of them) with huge swaths of land lying bare. By 1948 vacant plots were few and far between, the road system more or less what it is currently, and the neighbourhood, along with the adjacent neighourhoods which make up what today is known as West Jerusalem, buzzing with life. The Semiramis was a latecomer to the area: construction didn’t start until the mid-1940s.
● The people: Who lived in Katamon, how they got there, what the neighbourhood was like. My focus will be primarily on the Lorenzos, the Aboussouans, Manolo and the rest of the victims, as well as the immediate neighbours of the hotel, like my own family. But I’d also like to explore what everyday life was like, what businesses there were. There were other small hotels and pensions, grocers, a meat-processing factory opposite my grandfather’s house, the Schtakleff ice factory at the bottom of the hill. There were also consulates and the homes of people from all walks of life: doctors, intellectuals, business people and employees.
● The event: What led up to that night, what happened on 5 January 1948, who was staying at the hotel at the time, who lived, who died…
● The aftermath: How the destruction of the Semiramis set in motion the exodus from Katamon. By the time Israel declared itself a state, about four months later, on 15 May, there was hardly anyone left in the neighbourhood. And no-one was ever allowed to return. What happened to Katamonians? Where did they end up and how has life treated them since? How has Semiramis survived in history and in people’s memories?
I’m setting out on this journey, with a goal in mind but I can’t know for sure where the road will actually lead me nor when or how I will get there. But, like with Cavafy’s Ithaka, I have no doubt it will be a journey full of adventure and discovery:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
I intend this blog post to serve as my carte de visite, outlining what I’m trying to do and how, for people who can assist me in my research. So, please feel free to forward and encourage anyone who you think might be able and willing to contribute to my exploration to contact me.
And if you have a story or memory about the Semiramis or Katamon, or knew personally any of the victims or their families, I’d love to hear from you. ❃