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.
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.
I’ve picked up again The Club (Η Λέσχη), the first book of Stratis Tsirkas’ Drifting Cities trilogy (Ακυβέρνητες Πολιτείες, Στρατή Τσίρκα). I started it years ago but never finished it. Couldn’t appreciate it at the time and found it confusing. But after my last trip to Jerusalem, the book practically begged to be read.
Not only is the writing beautiful but I now have such a better sense of the place and even the time in which it is set: Jerusalem during World War II. And as one reviewer of the book has said, Jerusalem is the main character in the book.
In August 2012, my aunt Cynthia from New York forwarded me an email from a lady called Mona who in her turn was forwarding an email from a Dr Dana Olwan, at the time Assistant Professor in a British Columbia university (and currently at Syracuse Uni). Dana wrote: