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11th November, 2012

My grandparents (both sadly no longer with us) spent a few years in Jerusalem at the end of the Second World War – a pivotal and challenging time in the history of this region.

Grandpa worked on the staff of the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem and Granny worked at the school that was attached to St Georges’ Cathedral, teaching German.

On a recent trip to Jerusalem, I retraced some of their steps using a short memoir that I have, written by my Granny, documenting some of her experiences.

They were newly married when they ventured out to the Middle East. My Granny worked in the code and cipher centre at Bletchley Park during the war and so she had to join my Grandpa 18 months after he had started. She talks about waiting to get one of first crossings from Liverpool to Port Said after D-Day.

She then talks about having to take a train journey from Port Said to Jerusalem and being ordered to keep the windows closed in case thieves tried to jump in. From her description, I think Jerusalem has changed somewhat:

“Jerusalem in the 1940s possessed not a single high-rise structure, so it looked very different from the city of today. My first, and abiding, impression was of a place of dazzling white stone. There was a quality of light – vibrant, brilliant – that heightened this impression. There were still large unbuilt-up areas of olive groves and undeveloped waste ground all over the city, giving a feeling of spaciousness.”

Their first house was in the west of the city in an area called Rehavia. It’s a leafy suburb now, quite close to the Israel Museum and the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament building).

Jerusalem

Rehavia

Jerusalem

Rehavia

Jerusalem

Rehavia

Their next flat was in the close of St George’s Anglican Cathedral, where my Grandpa worked. It is still there today – north of the old city. As she says:

“The Cathedral couldn’t have been more English: round its cloisters Banksia roses hung in yellow clusters and at the rear of the Bishop’s House stretched a well-watered, well-filled garden reminiscent of many a garden in the South of England.”

Jerusalem

The Cathedral Close

Jerusalem

Houses in the Close

Jerusalem

Houses in the Close

Jerusalem

Houses and offices in the Close

Jerusalem

St George’s Cathedral

Jerusalem

St George’s Cathedral

Next to the Cathedral sits the school where my Granny taught German:

“It was an interesting school, incorporating Christian, Muslim, Arab, Jew, Armenian and Greek Orthodox but all the teaching was given in English. Most members of staff were British, apart from one or two Jews and Arabs. Surprisingly, in the light of past and present racial troubles, relationships between the various traditions were happy and harmonious. If this were possible in a school community, why not in the wider community, of which those, who were schoolchildren then, are the adult members of the community running the country’s present-day affairs.”

Jerusalem

The outside of St George’s School

Jerusalem

St George’s School

Jerusalem

St George’s School

It’s interesting to note some of her other comments on Jerusalem, especially the ‘religious’ sites including the Holy Sepulchre (she was a devout Catholic) – today very much a tourist trap:

“[The Holy Sepulchre] was not what I had expected – so much masonry everywhere; so much human ‘intrusion’. This was the first of the Holy Sites that I visited; but as I visited – in turn Bethlehem, Nazareth – each time I experienced disappointment where I had expected elation. Where was He in all this? I found Him instead amongst the olive trees in Gethsemane, in the Valley of the Cedron, among the Judean hills, in the country around Galilee with its profusion of ‘flowers of the field’ and in Tiberias with its orange blossom.”

I was also able to visit the place where my Aunt – their first child – was born. It’s now an Israeli police station and sits very close to the Russian Cathedral in the Russian compound:

“The nursing staff was made up of British Sisters and Arab and Jewish nurses. They all worked happily together. Why isn’t this possible in present-day Israel, I ask myself? I had reason to be grateful to both Jew and Arab during my stay in hospital; I always remember the kindness of a little Arab nurse who returned early of her own accord from her day off to give me a massage to relieve excruciating back pain which struck after the birth of our child; or the Jewish doctors whose expertise got me on my feet again. One of them was later shot by an Arab sniper while crossing a Jerusalem street.”

Jerusalem

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral

Jerusalem

Jerusalem

The building where my Aunt was born

Unfortunately – despite her obvious love of Jerusalem, the situation deteriorated dramatically during their stay. On 22nd July 1946, they were in Jerusalem when a right-wing Zionist terrorist group placed a bomb under the King David Hotel – the HQ of the British Administration. One of my grandparents’ closest friends was among the 91 people tragically killed that day.

“Despite its beauty – and Jerusalem is a very beautiful city – there was always an air of tension. There was a current of underlying hostility between Jew and Arab which surfaced on occasion. I was assumed to be Jewish as I walked home one day and found myself pelted with stones by some Arab youngsters… I could understand their feelings. Watching a Jewish Youth Organisation marching down a Jerusalem street I could have been back in the Nazi Germany I had known well. This was the face of Western Europe, not Palestine.”

Jerusalem

The King David Hotel

Going to Jerusalem and retracing the steps that my Grandparents knew so well has been one of the many and varied highlights of this trip. My Grandpa went on to become one of the world’s leading authorities on Islam, writing a succession of books – one of which (an introduction to Islam) I have been reading during my stay here.

It must have been an incredible time to be in Palestine at a crucial fork in its history.

“By the time we were ready to leave in the September of 1946, it was with mixed feelings. Movement for civilians had become daily more restricted; coils of barbed wire had appeared on the streets. Beautiful Jerusalem was beginning to reveal a sinister underside. There was much I would miss: the shining brightness of her buildings, the clean transparency of the atmosphere. But above all, I liked the easy-going, unsophisticated lifestyle of the Arabs… It had been a privilege to live in a land with so many sacred and historic associations but at times one trembled for its future.”

More photos can be found here


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