It was a dark and stormy night. No, it truly was! ‘Torrential rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning fell in Jerusalem all Sunday night‘, wrote The Palestine Post on 6 Jan 1948 noting that the belfry of the Dormition Abbey had been struck by lightning and windows had been broken. ‘Throughout the night there was heavy rain and one thunder-clap at 3.50 a.m. awakened many persons in all parts of the city.‘
Like in most of the neighbourhood, in a corner stone house in upper Katamon, only a few blocks away from the monastery and church of St Simeon, the Kassotis family – my mother (just a week short of her 18th birthday), her parents and two sisters – would have been awoken much earlier, had the storm allowed them to sleep in the first place. To begin with there was the sound of grenade for at 1am on Monday, 5 January, 1948 – exactly 70 years ago – the Hotel Semiramis, two doors down the street from the Kassotis, came under attack by the Haganah, the Jewish militia.
On 15 May Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, the anniversary of the 1948 catastrophe – the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian lives brought about by the creation of the state of Israel. A few nights ago, a Palestinian friend posted on Facebook an Al Jazeera article regarding the Nakba. I started reading it until halfway through I was stopped in my tracks by the cover photo of an embedded video. It was a photograph of a band and I’d be damned if I didn’t recognise the man on the bottom-right corner playing the saxophone! It was a face I’d seen in photos more than once.
I gave up on the article and immediately started watching the video instead. A 50-minute documentary titled ‘Lost Cities of Palestine‘ made in 2011 by Ramez Kazmouz, it described the richness of urban life in Haifa, Jaffa and Nazareth in the 1930s and ‘40s, through interviews with old and some not-so-old Palestinians and lots of archival footage and photos. Fascinating and at the same time depressing as the history of lost homelands tends to be.
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.