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.
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.
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.