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.
A few weeks ago Dorit Naaman and myself were interviewed on the Jerusalem Unpluggedpodcast, “the only podcast dedicated to Jerusalem, its history and its people.” It kicked off in late January and is hosted by Dr Roberto Mazza, an academic whose focus is the history of Ottoman Palestine. He is also the new editor of the Jerusalem Quarterly (which, however, is not related to the podcast).
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.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, here are 18,000 words (plus change) – one K for each of the candles my mother would have blown out on her last birthday in her native land. Seventy years ago to the day, Anna Kassotou turned 18 . Given how things had shaped up in Jerusalem in the week preceding her birthday, I doubt there were many festivities planned for the day of her entry into adulthood.
I will then let these images be a celebration of her life in her beloved city.
Anna Kassotou was born in Jerusalem on 11 Jan 1930. Her father was Emmanuel (Manolis) Kassotis, a Greek citizen from the island of Samos who went to Jerusalem when his uncle, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Damianos I, took him under his wing. Her mother was Paraskevi (Vitsa) Schtakleff, a second-generation Jerusalemite whose father hailed from the Balkans and her mother was a Greek actress from Asia Minor. Anna was born somewhere in the Greek Colony. When she was about three, the family moved to the house her father had purchased in Katamon, only a block or two away from the Greek Orthodox church of St Simeon.
1/ Baby Anna Kassotou
The only baby picture I have of hers, it was taken by the well-known Palestinian photographer David (Daoud) Abdo, who was also a relative, having married into the Schtakleff family.
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.