My Mother’s Family — Part 16

The situation of the Jewish refugees in Damascus was extremely bad. After the Turks got hold of Naaman Belkind and Yoseph Lishansky they sentenced them to death for spying. The Damascus prison filled immediately with a large number of Jews who were under suspicion of spying for the British. The bitter winter cold in Damascus and the little food which he had made it almost impossible for grandfather to recuperate from the dysentery. However, the problems of existence and the need to care for his family put him back on his feet. After they sold half of the merchandise which they brought with them wholesale uncle Boris took the second half and sold it piecemeal by himself and so cared for his wife and daughters. Grandfather went idle and was sorry for not staying -on in Petah-Tikva for had he done so he would no doubt be back in Jaffa already (he did not know that the British retreated from Petah-Tikva several days after they conquered it and it took several weeks before they finally conquered it again). In his distress he found tools for working as a goldsmith or silvermith but there were no clients in Damascus in those days for such items.

A refugee from Jaffa called Markus told grandfather that he found out that the German and Austrian soldiers were looking for soap and were ready to pay well for it. They send the soap to Germany and Austria where soap is very scarce. Grandfather sat with Markus and they invented a special kind of soap which suited perfectly the German requirements and they started producing it in large quantities. But this source of income as well enabled grandfather and his family to live very frugally. My uncle’s situation was better for the shop which he opened and even succeeded in enlarging brought him the necessary funds to feed his family.

Passover 1918 found my grandfather in a worse condition than he was during his first year in Israel. One day grandfather met Dizengof in the street. Dizengof was wearing a tarboosh (a Turkish red hat) which was worn by all the Jews who accepted Ottoman citizenship. Dizengof cared for the Jewish refugees in Damascus. He held the few money contributions which succeeded in getting to him from American and European Jews who sent them to Damascus and with this money Dizengof rescued the refugees from hunger. Grandfather which was very friendly with Dizengof could have told him of his difficulties but was too proud to do so.

My aunt Leah used to go every day to the prison at “Chan-Bashy”. The Turks allowed her to visit the Jewish prisoners for she was an Austrian citizen. She brought them food, medicine and clean underwear. How did this young girl who was very beautiful (she looked very much like her mother but was much taller) find all these commodities while at her father’s house there was hunger – remains a mystery. A typhus epidemic broke out at that prison. On April 28,1918 aunt Leah became ill. About one month later, during Pentecost, in May 1918, my aunt Leah died. She was 22 years old.

My grandfather was not consoled until he himself died. He tells about her burial in his autobiography in a most awesome manner: In Damascus the Jewish Burial Society was Sephardi. The burial was carried out at night. Everything was done by shouting. Because of the dark they shouted for candles but candles were very scarce in Damascus during those miserable days. Part of the shrouds which grandfather gave them were stolen and the grave which was dug was too narrow to contain the corpse. Instead of laying the corpse into the grave in an honorable and careful way it was thrown in. My grandfather almost went out of his mind. He used to go after the burial daily so as to put flowers on the grave and he also placed a provisional tombstone over it. When he returned to Jaffa he transferred the remains of aunt Leah from the Jewish cemetery of Damascus to the old cemetery of Tel-Aviv.

Among other effects which my grandfather moved with great efforts from Neve-Zedek to Petah-Tikva and from there to Damascus was my mother’s piano. My mother was 15 when she arrived in Damascus and had her 16th birthday there. My mother learnt to play the piano since she was 5 years old and became a good pianist. Grandfather did not want for her to remain without the possibility of playing piano daily. The neighbors of the Schönberg family in Damascus were honorable and respected townspeople. When they heard the beautiful music that my mother played they decided to teach their daughters to play the piano. They came to my mother and asked her to give piano lessons to their daughters. My mother could not refuse this modest revenue to the family’s meager cash-box and became a piano-teacher. The family could look from the balcony of their flat into the yard of the Austrian Army barracks. The Austrian Army had a big military band which used to practice and hold their rehearsals in this yard and my mother used to stand on the balcony and listen. Many years later she told me that this was the best brass-instrument band which she ever heard. The musicians were all experienced musicians with a good ear and rhythm. On Sundays this orchestra used to play in the city’s main square and during the few marches which they still held that year the band used to lead the march.

Ten months after the conquest of Jaffa the British cannons which were advancing on Damascus were already heard and a few days later the Turks and the Germans started destroying their ammunition dumps and their heavy cannons so as to lighten their panic-stricken flight from the city northwards.

The British Army was divided into two parts and while one part pursued the enemy towards Aram-Tsova the second part which was composed entirely of Australians and New-Zealanders entered Damascus. My mother who was standing with the rest of the family-members on the neighbors’ balcony which was facing the main-street told me how, at the head of this force rode a large unit of horsemen.These horses were much bigger than the Arab horses of the Turkish horsemen. The Australian and New-Zealand horsemen who must have been riding their horses for several days and nights were covered with a thick layer of dust and looked like the horsemen of the apocalypse. At the head of this cavalry rode a Colonel holding his gun in his hand with a stretched arm forward without moving it one inch. Silence reigned in the city. You could not even hear a flying fly. You could only hear the crackling of fire which was set during the terrible previous night in barracks and other houses of the city.

The preceding night to this wonderful morning was a night of deadly terror: As soon as the Arabs of Damascus saw the Turks, Germans and Austrians fleeing the city in a terrified flight, all of them came out with guns and knives, swords and axes and attacked the last soldiers who lagged behind.While shrieking ” aleihum” they killed and butchered cruelly every Turkish or German soldier and every European civilian which crossed their path, they burnt the barracks and other military installations and looted everything which they found in them. Grandfather gathered all the family-members, including uncle Boris and his family into his flat. He blocked-off the door and windows with furniture and wooden boards which he found in the yard. He made everybody lie down on the floor of the inner room and split the loaded rifles and revolvers and the extra ammunition between him and his son. This is how they passed this long and terrible night, listening to the cries of those who were being butchered and to the cheers of the looters. Early next morning, as soon as the horizon started to light-up they heard loud knocking on the entrance door. The knocking was fast and did not stop for one moment. My uncle approached the door while grandfather covered him and asked in Arabic: “min hada?” (who is it?) From the other side of the door they heard a weak voice trembling in German and saying: “Um Gotes Vilen, Hilfe, Asile, Asile!” (With God’s Will, Help, Refuge,Asylum!) Grandfather signalled my uncle to open the door which was locked with lock and bolt. In the open door there emerged an Austrian Lieutenant, without a helmet,his face was blackened with soot and scratched and his uniform was crumpled and torn, his knees were knocking against each other and his hands were stretched forward, entreating. Uncle Boris grabbed his shoulder and pulled him into the house and immediately shut the door behind him. He smelled awful. Out of fright his bowels gave-in and he shit in his underpants. He was led to the bathroom and my uncle gave him clean underwear and trousers. He was laid down on the carpet at the corner of the room and covered with warm blankets. When he calmed down a little he was given some food. After the Australians entered the city and the city was full of British forces who drove away the rabble from the streets and set down order and peace in the city, in midday, grandfather gave the Austrian officer a short stick to which he knotted a white pillow-cover and asked him to go and give himself up. But the Austrian started shaking all over again and pleaded for help. There remained no other recourse for grandfather but to take the young man’s hand and go with him to the Australian Headquarters where he handed him to one of the officers who took him prisoner.

This was October 1,1918. On the 3rd of this month the Arab Army entered the city with Emir Feisal Ibn Hussein at its head. Meantime the British Generals who sat at the conquering army’s headquarters promised the delegation of Jewish exiles that they would hasten the repair of the roads which were hit and crushed in the battle so that the exiles would be able to return to their homes soonest. Grandfather used to go to headquarters every day so as to find out if travelling was already allowed and he told the British that the condition of the roads was of no importance to him as long as they let him return to Jaffa.

My uncle, aunt and their two daughters remained in Damascus but my grandfather, grandmother, my mother and Yosaleh left Damascus on October 26,1918. One could not travel by train for the Turks blew-up all the railway-bridges before they retreated. Therefore they joined 10 other Jewish refugees from Jaffa and all of them hired a large cart with a coachman who agreed to drive them to Jaffa. Even before they left the city the shaft of the cart broke and the cart had to be repaired. They finally arrived at Kuneitra at midnight All along the road they saw large amounts of arms and ammunition which the Turkish and German soldiers left behind when they fled. Armament in great quantities was rolling on the roadsides. At noon of next day they arrived at Mishmar-Hayarden and went on from there to Rosh-Pinna On October 28 they left Rosh-Pinna for Tiberias where they remained for the night.They left Tiberias for Nazareth the next day, where they equipped themselves once more with food. Having left Nazareth they lost their way and arrived at a British Military Camp which was situated between the mountains. The British mistook them for Germans and wanted to take them prisoner but finally discovered that they were Jewish refugees from Jaffa and let them go while giving them accurate instructions how to get to Karkur. On October 30 they got from Karkur to Tul-Karem and from there to Kalkilieh and having crossed over the Batria bridge which lay over the Yarkon they arrived at Jaffa. Their journey from Damascus to Jaffa took six days which was a very nice achievement.

When grandfather arrived at Neve-Zedek he found out that his house was half destroyed. The destruction was caused by the concentrated shelling of the British and French warships which “softened” Jaffa before the assault of the ground forces on the city. Meantime my grandfather found out that his son-in-law Henry Amzalek returned to Jaffa with the British Army and was residing in the Salant Hotel, so he went there as well and there the family lived until they found a permanent solution. Next day grandfather found out that the damage was much greater than he reckoned: Furniture and different belongings were missing from the house and the shop was ransacked and left completely bare. Grandfather did not have money to buy new merchandise and even if he had there was no merchandise to be found. Travelling abroad so as to purchase new merchandise for the shop was not possible for the British Military Government posed great difficulties on those who wanted to leave the country. No other choice remained but to return to the old profession. On November 20 my uncle arrived with his family from Damascus and grandfather and son started working as goldsmiths and silversmiths, watchmakers, gravestone engravers and stencil-producers. There was a large market for gold and silver products as well as watchmaking: The soldiers bought large quantities of souvenirs and jewelry and paid handsomely. This was a sated and rich army. After a long period of hard work they managed to save enough money for rehabilitating the business and buying new merchandise.

But grandfather did not feel as if he returned home with his entire family. He missed those of his family who died, mostly his daughter Leah which remained buried in Damascus. He therefore decided to gather the bones of all the family members from their temporary burial places to a family-grave. This was the reason for his buying a large plot of land at the old cemetery in Trumpldor Street. This cemetery was established in 1902 (four years before the founding of “Ahuzat-Bayit”) so as to serve as the new Jewish Cemetery of Jaffa. In 1902 a cholera epidemic broke out in Israel and since it was not advisable to bury the dead of the epidemic within the city’s boundaries as well as due to the fact that very little space was left at the Jewish Cemetery in Jaffa the Burial-Society bought this land which was far from the city of Jaffa. The plot of land which grandfather bought there in 1919 was to hold 10 dead in graves built in stone and centered in an underground burial-room which could be reached by a few stairs which were covered by a trapdoor which could be opened. The whole surface was paved with a marble floor which contained the tombstones of the departed and in its center there stood a marble obelisk. Over this whole space grandfather erected a pergola over which he grew flowery creepers and around the plot he made flower-beds where he used to plant seasonal flowers as well as annual flowers and he also installed a watering system.

Once he completed building this beautiful family-grave and preparing it for burials grandfather traveled to Damascus, went to the Jewish Cemetery and by himself, without any help, all alone he opened the grave of his daughter Leah, gathered her bones and took them to be buried in a respectable religious burial at the family-grave in Tel-Aviv. After her burial he went to the Jewish Cemetery in Jaffa. He found this old cemetery in a totally destructed condition. During the war the wicked Commandant of Jaffa, Hassan Beck, ordered trenches and fortifications to be built there and he used the tombstones to build the “Jamiah” which was built during the war and named after him. Grandfather found the graves of his father, grandfather and his baby-boy Arieh-Leib who died on August 25,1906. He gathered their bones all by himself and transferred them for burial at the family-grave in Tel-Aviv. By the end of August 1919 they all rested in their new graves. May they all rest in peace.


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