• In Search of Hidden Family History in the Late Ottoman Empire

    Alice Sparberg Alexiou on Love and Loss From Jerusalem to Izmir

    In late 1916, as World War I convulsed the Middle East, Moshe Kopp, a Russian-born Jew who lived in Jerusalem, ordered his family to sit shiva for his eldest daughter, Fanny. The teenager had just run off to Turkey with Midhat Bey, the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem, with whom she had been living for the past year in the governor’s mansion. She was pregnant with his child. For one week—shiva is the Hebrew word for seven—the Kopps sat in a circle on low stools, barefoot or wearing wooden shoes, and made tears—kriyah, in Hebrew—in their clothing, on a hem, perhaps, or a cuff, to symbolize their grief. Cloths covered the mirrors, nobody bathed, and Moshe did not shave. He recited Kaddish for Fanny three times a day, thereby conveying to her, you have killed us, your family, by running off with a goy, so now we are killing you, and therefore you are dead. Moshe was simply following the usual custom of the Ashkenazim in those days when one’s child married out of the tribe. Moreover, that Fanny and Midhat were not married only compounded the sin she had committed against Am Israel, the People of Israel.

    After the shiva, Moshe warned his wife, Ita, and their remaining five children never to utter Fanny’s name again.

    I first heard about Fanny in the 1980s from my Israeli cousins, all descendants of Moshe Kopp and my grandfather’s first cousin, Ita Sparberg. Although Fanny was only my distant relative, I couldn’t let go of her story, and its grip on me tightened further after my son Alex fell in love with a Turkish woman, Ayse, whom he married in 2008.

    Fanny left behind no diaries or letters, and, like most women, she was absent in the official annals of the past. We didn’t even know Fanny’s birth year for certain. But, on the night after my son’s wedding in Great Neck, New York, my third cousin Hasida—Fanny’s niece—showed us a photo of Fanny that she’d brought with her from Israel. It revealed a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl with heavy eyebrows and a milky complexion, with a serious expression on her plump face, who was standing in front of a clump of roses in the garden of the governor’s mansion, where she was living with Midhat. Hasida said she was already pregnant when the photo was taken, but it must have been early on because no bump is discernible under her delicately draped, pastel-colored dress. A string of pearls, surely a gift from her lover, adorned her neck.

    Rage mixed in with my grief at the thought that Moshe had forced his family to sit shiva for Fanny five years earlier, while she was still alive.

    After that evening, I set off to find out more about this Ashkenazi woman who lived in early twentieth-century Jerusalem, caught between the taboos of her ancient culture and her bold embrace of modernity. Fanny bore witness to the last days of Ottoman rule in the Middle East and then the violent birth of Kemal Atatürk’s modern Turkish Republic, but her voice was erased when her tribe exiled her.

    In the years following the night I saw Fanny’s photo for the first time, I’d combed through books and archives in English, French, Hebrew, and Ottoman Turkish—at times I needed translators—seeking information that would fill in the background of Fanny’s story. Through Hasida, I acquired three photos of Fanny. On the back of one, dated May 1912, Fanny had scribbled a note of concern to her brother, in French, about an unnamed “malheur” that he had suffered. “Nous sommes très inquièts,” she wrote, in the language that was then the lingua franca of educated Jews across the Middle East. The nature of that “malheur” is unknown. Another photo shows Fanny’s parents, in Kishinev, then Russia, holding Fanny as a baby.

    I also had oral testimonies from Hasida and several other cousins in Israel, and information from a memoir, Geriye Yazılar Kaldı (Only My Words Remain), by Midhat’s granddaughter, a celebrated Turkish journalist named Leyla Umar. Umar, who died in 2015, started her career as a newspaper reporter in the 1950s and became a leading Turkish public intellectual who interviewed world leaders such as Yasir Arafat and Nelson Mandela. She was also a powerful figure in Midhat’s family and left behind a grandson whom I came to know, Arda Eksigil. Thanks to Arda, I gained access to Turkish documents. For the previous five years, Arda had been on a parallel journey with mine, searching through archives in Turkey and Europe as he worked on a biography of his great-great grandfather Midhat. So far, a sort of silhouette of Fanny had emerged, but it had yet to spring to life.

    Going to the actual places, I thought, would reveal more of her. In the spring of 2022, I decided to trace Fanny’s footsteps from Jerusalem to Izmir, where she died of bone tuberculosis a hundred years earlier, leaving behind the five-year-old daughter she had with Midhat.

    *

    Within days of my arrival in Jerusalem, a new variant of COVID-19 hit the Middle East, and I succumbed. For a day I stayed in my hotel room as the virus began to run its course. It was early spring, but the freezing weather typical of Jerusalem winters was hanging on. Rain pounded on the windows. Miserable, I asked myself why I had come here. I had compiled an itinerary of sorts, but I didn’t know exactly where to find my story. I would have to go looking for it.

    The following morning, the rain stopped, and I wandered, feverish, around the neighborhood, masked and bundled up against the cold. In fact, Fanny was living with Midhat during a terrible winter just like the one now. But conditions then were so much worse. It was wartime, and people were dying of typhus and cholera, and there was no kerosene to fuel the little Primus stoves that provided the only source of heat.

    I found myself at the old Ottoman depot, Tachana Harishona, “First Station.” This was a relic of a railway line constructed between Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1892 that connected Jerusalem, long a neglected outback of the Ottoman Empire, to points throughout the Ottoman provinces of Palestine and Syria. For years it stood abandoned, until 2013 when a developer turned it into an outdoor mall and entertainment complex. It was exactly from here that Fanny and Midhat left Jerusalem in 1916. At least half of the retail and restaurant spaces were sitting empty, no doubt due to the pandemic, and those that were still hanging on had few patrons. In the middle of the complex, a carousel stood idle. I wandered about, trying to tease out some reminder of what once happened there, and became briefly distracted by one kiosk’s colorful inventory of rugs, pottery, and other tchotchkes. Most, I discovered as I perused them, came from Turkey, which has a perennially difficult relationship with Israel that at times erupts into hostility. But the two nations through it all maintain close economic ties, because they need each other’s business.

    I then moved on to study a group of enlarged photo reproductions from Ottoman and Mandate times that were displayed in front of the old station house, which now houses a restaurant. One of the photos showed a crowd of mostly Turkish dignitaries standing on the train platform seeing off Midhat’s superior and nemesis, Djemal Pasha, the mercurial and sadistic Commander of the Fourth Division of the Ottoman Army in Syria and Palestine. On the bottom of the photo, somebody had scrawled the date, 1916.

    In Europe at that time, millions of men were fighting and dying in the trenches of the Somme in an Allied offensive that lasted nearly five months. Three years had passed since a series of wars in the Balkans ended Ottoman rule in what is now Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria. The loss of its European provinces had weakened the central government in Constantinople, and in 1913, a group of ultra-nationalist Turkish army officers staged a coup. Among its leaders was Djemal, who emerged as one of the de facto heads of the new government.

    The following year, Turkey entered the European war on the side of the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. This was a disastrous tactical decision that further hastened the end of the long-expiring Ottoman Empire and led the Empire to implement policies designed to terrorize the populations still under Ottoman control, in order to discourage them from seeking independence. To this end, the new government oversaw the forced uprooting and genocidal killings of Armenians in Anatolia, while in Syria and Palestine, Djemal was ordering public hangings of Arabs whom he suspected of involvement in nationalistic movements. In Jerusalem the hangings often took place in front of the Jaffa Gate, and the corpses were left strung up on the gallows for several days. Braha, Fanny’s younger sister (and Hasida’s mother), remembered seeing them, and later she described the terrible sight to her grandchildren. They, in turn, described it to me.

    As for the Jews under Djemal’s jurisdiction, Zionism was a crime under Ottoman law, and one of the first things Djemal did when he arrived in Palestine in January 1915 was to warn the Jews that they would suffer the same fate as the Armenians if they proved themselves insufficiently loyal. He had Hebrew signs removed from public places (“Hebrew Not Wanted,” the Jewish Exponent reported from Jerusalem on July 4, 1915). In one case, a Jewish bookseller was arrested for housing Hebrew manuscripts in his inventory. Djemal ordered the arrest of hundreds of Jews suspected of Zionist leanings, among them a young David Ben Gurion—as well as Fanny’s brother, Itzhak.

    After several minutes of ruminating over the tableau at Tahana Harishona, I recognized one of the men as Midhat Bey. He was bespectacled and sporting the requisite fez of an Ottoman official. In 1916, Fanny was living with Midhat in the governor’s mansion. In the photo, Midhat is standing erect, dressed in a beautifully tailored suit, his black moustache carefully waxed. His expression borders on severe but with a soupçon of a smile. According to Arda, Midhat was known for having many love affairs.

    I recalled the European trope of the exotic, dangerous Jewess who wrecks the lives of the gentile men who fear, despise, and, most of all, desire her. The Jewess—la belle Juive—was a favorite subject of nineteenth-century French painters. Henri Regnault’s Salome—with her wild black hair, the smirk on her lips, and her burning dark eyes that stare directly at the viewer—seems to say, I dare you to come closer. Perhaps it was Midhat himself who took the picture of the daintily attired Fanny in the garden of the governor’s house. That Fanny was Jewish made Midhat’s liaison with her downright dangerous, given Djemal’s rising paranoia over Zionism. Ironically, though, Djemal Pasha, too, had a Jewish mistress.

    Conde de Ballobar, a Spanish diplomat posted in Jerusalem during the war years whose journals were translated and published in 2011, wrote in a diary entry dated May 31, 1915: “The month is ending, but not the more or less naughty comments being made about the projected wedding of Djemal Pasha with a beautiful Jewish lady named Leah Tennenbaum. The news seemed so unlikely to me that I gave it the least importance, but it persists, and there is no one in the city who is not commenting on it.” Such was the irresistible pull of la belle Juive. I don’t know if Fanny knew Tennenbaum. Perhaps so, Jerusalem was a small place. As for the wedding, it never happened.

    Later in 1916, Midhat was accused of stealing money from a wheat syndicate that had been set up to address an ongoing famine in Jerusalem. Djemal disliked Midhat, according to Arda, and ordered him to report to Damascus to undergo an investigation. This is why Midhat and Fanny left Jerusalem. Ballobar mentioned their impending departure in his diary, and added that Midhat, whom he’d thought at first to be an honest person, must have been corrupted by Fanny.

    After standing a few minutes longer in front of the station house photo, I sat at an outdoor table to have a drink. On my phone, I pulled up an old Ottoman rail map. I traced Fanny and Midhat’s route to Damascus. The couple crossed no national borders on the way, because what is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories then constituted a single province under Ottoman rule, and through it ran a network of railroads that extended from Constantinople to the Arabian Peninsula. From Turkish documents, Arda learned that in Damascus, Midhat was cleared of the graft charges and ordered to Constantinople to await his new assignment.

    Along the way to Turkey, Midhat and Fanny stopped in Aleppo, where she gave birth to a girl. I know from Hasida that Fanny then sent a postcard from Aleppo to her family in Jerusalem announcing that she had a new daughter, whom she named Suzan—“Rose”—for the roses (Hebrew shoshanim) that bloomed in Midhat’s garden in Jerusalem. The card has long vanished, and I don’t know in what language Fanny wrote it, but I imagine that it was in French like the note she wrote to her brother in 1912. It’s possible, though, that it was in Yiddish.

    When Fanny’s mother, Ita, received the card, she caught the next train to Damascus, with her youngest child, five-year-old Yehuda, in tow. From there the two would catch a connection to Aleppo. All his life, Yehuda would remember the trip, and many years later he would tell his young granddaughter about it, who would later tell this story to me.

    I’d wanted to get these five years back. I wanted to resurrect them, and therefore Fanny’s memory, by telling her story.

    When Ita and Yehuda got to Damascus, Ita learned that no trains were running to Aleppo that day on account of troop movements. Ita returned to Jerusalem with her son, grieving for her daughter, who, though still alive, was, in the eyes of her community, dead. The Kopp family never saw Fanny again.

    I finished my drink. I didn’t feel well and had had enough for one day, so I returned to my hotel room. The next day, I fled to my cousin Yael’s home nearby to ride out the virus, where she comforted me by cooking cabbage soup with kasha, a peasant dish whose recipe had been passed down to us from our Russian great-great grandparents. A week later, I finally tested negative for COVID-19 and returned to Jerusalem, to pick up the thread of my journey. The cold weather had finally departed.

    The next stop on my itinerary was Ethiopia Street, where the Kopp family set up their home after they arrived in Palestine from Kishinev, in 1905. This was where Fanny was living with her family when she met Midhat, in the fall of 1915. Leyla Umar mentioned Fanny and Midhat’s affair in her memoir, which was published in 2005. Their trysts took place at the governor’s mansion, which was a five-minute walk from Ethiopia Street. Umar wrote:

    Midhat Bey, living by himself at the Governor’s mansion in Jerusalem, was visited by a young Jewish girl one day. This girl called Fanny was one of the daughters of a family who migrated to Jerusalem from Russia. Fanny, volunteering at the Red Crescent during the war that was going on for the previous two years, invited the Governor to the Red Crescent Ball. My grandfather, upon learning the ticket earnings would be donated to war veterans, accepted the invitation to the ball. My grandfather, later telling my mother about their encounter, said: “I felt like my body was electrified when Fanny walked into the room. I couldn’t control my feelings even though I knew the dire consequences of a Jewish girl and an Ottoman governor getting together in this most fervent period of Zionism.” Fanny came to the mansion a few more times after the Ball to visit Mr. Governor, and after a short while, moved in, never to return back home.

    I didn’t know which house the Kopps lived in, but I told myself that maybe I would pick up some clues once I was walking along Ethiopia Street. I turned into a sharp curve off Street of the Prophets that marked Ethiopia Street’s entrance. At first, high stone walls covered with bougainvillea blocked the views of the houses nestled behind them, but after I rounded the curve, the tops of some old mansions became visible. I stood in front of a huge structure with hewn stone and lacy green ironwork. On its gate was posted the street number, 8. I stood there for a few minutes trying to imagine Fanny slipping out, then looking in either direction to see if anybody was watching her. She would have hurried down the street—at that time just a dirt path—and around the same curve I’d just walked on, across Street of the Prophets, and on to the governor’s mansion just a few minutes away, on what is now Rav Kook Street.

    All of Jerusalem was talking about the scandal of Fanny and Midhat, according to Braha. Ita had to keep reminding people that her daughter Fanny was not a prostitute. Fanny wasn’t like all those Jewish girls selling their bodies to the thousands of soldiers then passing through Jerusalem. When Turkey entered the war in 1914, Djemal had turned the city into a staging point for a campaign through the Sinai and across the Suez Canal, to take Egypt from the British. In fact, in October 1915, one month after the Red Crescent ball, Djemal ordered two Jewish whorehouses closed down in the nearby Nachlot Shiva quarter. On October 16, 1915, the Hebrew newspaper Aherout rejoiced: “For this, Djemal deserves praise! He took away the shame of the residents of Jerusalem!”

    Fanny, 1916. Photo courtesy of the author.

    A few doors down from number 8, at number 11, I found a plaque marking the former home of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the philologist who compiled the first modern Hebrew dictionary. Lithuanian born, he’d been possessed by the then-outlandish conviction that the Jews of Palestine should use Hebrew, the holy tongue, as their everyday spoken language. A photo of Ben Yehuda was affixed to the plaque, showing the bearded, spectacled scholar bent over a desk piled high with books. The ultra-Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem cursed the man now considered the father of Modern Hebrew for profaning the language of prayer, and in true Old Testament fashion they stoned his house, right from where I was now standing. It occurred to me that Ben Yehuda was, in their eyes, like Fanny, sinning against God and the Jewish people. Fanny and Eliezer Ben Yehuda surely walked past each other while both lived on Ethiopia Street.

    I kept walking, past the Ethiopian Church for which the street is named, to where it met the border of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, Mea Shearim, where I found a large sign posted on a stone wall. It read: “To Women and Girls Who Pass Through Our Neighborhoods. We Beg You With All Our Hearts, Please Do Not Pass Through Our Neighborhood in IMMODEST CLOTHES. MODEST CLOTHES INCLUDE: CLOSED BLOUSE, WITH LONG SLEEVES, LONG SKIRT. NO TROUSERS, NO TIGHT-FITTING CLOTHES.” Black-suited Haredi men with their broad-brimmed hats and peyot walked past, holding their prayer books and talking on cell phones, and there were women dressed in long skirts and head coverings in conformance with the laws of smiut (modesty).

    The sign marked the terminus of Ethiopia Street. I turned around and retraced my steps to Street of the Prophets, and considered taking it all the way to where it ends, at Damascus Gate, another spot favored by Djemal for public hangings of Arabs suspected of disloyalty to their Ottoman rulers. I could stand in the plaza in front of the gate, today often the scene of demonstrations by Palestinians against the Occupation, and imagine that I was Fanny, staring at the bodies. Afterwards, I could enter the souk and buy things I didn’t need: Armenian pottery, silver earrings, a bag of whole cardamom pods, a ceramic mezuzah decorated with a pomegranate motif, but I had visited Israel, and the souk, many times, and if I allowed myself this indulgence today, I would waste time better spent continuing my search for Fanny. I was afraid I would lose the trail.

    So instead, I crossed over Street of the Prophets, and after a five-minute-walk I was standing in front of the carved door that led inside the old governor’s mansion, on Rav Kook Street. This is where Fanny lived with Midhat for a little over a year, from the autumn of 1915 until the couple left Jerusalem the following November. The limestone brick structure, with its terra cotta decoration and touches of lacy ironwork, was built by the Italian government in the nineteenth century to house its consulate. During World War I, the mansion was appropriated by the Ottoman administration. Jerusalemites still call this structure the Italian consul. Today it belongs to the Catholic Church and houses the Association of Hebrew Speaking Catholics.

    I was greeted by the resident priest, the Neapolitan-born Father Benedetto di Bitonto, a slight, bearded man of perhaps forty. He invited me in for a cup of tea. His flock includes a few Israeli converts to Catholicism, but most are Catholics from elsewhere who live in Israel: diplomats and foreign students, for example, and American or European Catholics who are married to Israelis. There are also some Filipinos, of whom there are many living and working in Israel, and neither they, nor any children born to them there, can ever become citizens because they are not Jewish. “We try to keep a low profile,” Father Benny told me. “And we definitely do not proselytize.” He added that one of his priestly colleagues was once slapped across the face by a Haredi Jew while riding the tram.

    I told Father Benny the story of Fanny and Midhat. I showed him her picture. His soft dark eyes gazed directly into mine as I spoke. Then he asked me, in his fluent, American-accented English: “Do you believe there was true love between them?”

    I was startled by his question, which in fact was long bedeviling me. I wondered how to define love in such an unequal relationship, between a Jewish teenager and a Turkish governor. I told Father Benny that I didn’t know the answer.

    He showed me around the house, but, to my disappointment, it had been recently renovated into a sunny, blandly modern interior. The only vestiges of its past were the arched doorways separating two small offices from the main reception area, which led to a sanctuary at the back of the building. No trace remained of the scandal that once played out within its walls. These were painted an immaculate white.

    I asked if I could see the upstairs, but this was the clergy’s living quarters and off limits to visitors. I knew that Fanny’s bedroom was on the second floor, because Hasida and, later, her daughter Ayeleth told me that Braha, Ita, and the youngest child, Yehuda, sometimes visited Fanny there when Midhat was called away to Damascus or Beirut on government business. Braha, then eleven, would climb up the tree in front of the window of the room where her sister slept. She would knock on the glass, and Fanny then ran downstairs to the front door to let everybody in.

    Fanny could not visit her family on Ethiopia Street, because her father Moshe had forbidden her to ever enter his home again.

    That evening, back in my hotel, I did a bit of research on my laptop and discovered that number 8 Ethiopia Street was one of seven houses built by a family of Palestinian patricians, the Nashashibis, during late Ottoman times. I knew that the Kopp family lived in an apartment inside a Nashashibi house. I was getting closer, but I was going to Izmir in a few days, where Arda and I were going to meet face-to-face for the first time. I would have to leave it at that.

    *

    In 1917, Midhat was appointed chief inspector of the Tribes and Migrants Department, the same branch of the Ottoman government that had organized the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians from Anatolia, in which some one million died, most of them during death marches through the Syrian desert. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims displaced by the war were now flooding into the areas the Armenians had been forced from. Arda’s research revealed that Midhat’s new job consisted of traveling from town to town around Anatolia to oversee the living conditions of these new refugees. Midhat could not possibly have taken Fanny and their infant daughter along with him on such an undesirable assignment in the middle of nowhere. Conditions would be primitive, and the dangers many. So Midhat parked Fanny and Suzan with the large extended household of his father, Abdurrahman, a well-to-do bureaucrat in Izmir.

    After that, I don’t know if Fanny and Midhat ever saw each other again. I learned from Leyla Cohen, Arda’s cousin and the niece of Leyla Umar, that Suzan had once had a suitcase filled with letters that her parents wrote to each other during the time when they were separated. But somebody robbed Suzan’s apartment and stole the suitcase, so the letters were lost. Suzan died in Ankara in 2008.

    In time, Fanny became sick with bone tuberculosis and was hospitalized at a sanatorium in Izmir. Umar wrote in her memoir that her mother, Mihriban— Midhat’s daughter from his first wife, who died giving birth to Mihriban—lived in Abdurrahman’s house, with Fanny and Suzan. Mihriban took her five-year-old cousin Suzan often to the hospital to visit Fanny. “She used to tell me that she always remembered Fanny in bed, combing her hair. Fanny would burst into tears when she looked at her daughter,” Umar wrote.

    I want them to know about the cosmopolitan tapestry of our family history, and to pass down to them the story of Fanny.

    Within a few months, Fanny died. She was twenty-five, according to Umar. Arda’s research has revealed that shortly before Fanny’s death, Midhat married another woman. This was a political marriage, forced upon Midhat by Atatürk, and it proves that Midhat and Fanny were never legally married. Hasida told me that the Jewish community of Izmir then sent the Kopp family a letter informing them of Fanny’s death, and that she had been interred in the Jewish cemetery. The letter has long since vanished, but my cousin Ayeleth remembers her mother, Hasida, claiming that many years ago it turned up in the home of another family member. Who, Hasida said, then threw it away. I haven’t been able to confirm this.

    Fanny’s death corresponded to a terrible time in Izmir. In the aftermath of World War I, Greece embarked on an unsuccessful campaign to reclaim historically Greek areas of Asia Minor. As the Greek army withdrew, a spectacular conflagration broke out in Izmir—images of the burning city exist in film clips taken at the scene by British journalists. Afterwards, entire ethnic populations were expelled and resettled under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which formally ended the conflict between Turkey and the Allies. Some half a million Muslims from what is now Greece and Northern Macedonia were exchanged for at least 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians from Asia Minor. In the midst of the chaos, the modern republic of Turkey was born, under the leadership of Atatürk.

    As I was packing my suitcase to leave for Turkey, I wondered if any members of Midhat’s family attended the funeral rites in the Jewish cemetery. Afterwards, nobody in Izmir would have sat shiva for her, because Jewish law dictates that this obligation be performed only by the deceased’s family. Fanny had no family in Izmir save for her daughter. I grieved over Fanny’s lonely death, and the orphaned Suzan, but rage mixed in with my grief at the thought that Moshe had forced his family to sit shiva for Fanny five years earlier, while she was still alive. Moshe had stolen his daughter’s final years from her.

    Up to then I hadn’t been exactly sure what had driven my journey, but now I knew. I’d wanted to get these five years back. I wanted to resurrect them, and therefore Fanny’s memory, by telling her story.

    *

    Sitting at a café on a warm afternoon in the ancient city of Izmir, where Arda and I had agreed to meet, I sipped a Turkish coffee and thought about Fanny, one hundred years before, living in Abdurrahman’s large house up in the hills. She would have been nursing her daughter while murmuring to her in Yiddish, all alone among strangers who controlled every moment of her life and spoke a language she didn’t understand. The house, I would later learn, no longer exists.

    A few minutes into my daydream, Arda appeared. The young, auburn-haired man and I embraced. We then sat and talked, all the time expanding the instant connection that we had made the year before, on Zoom, into an unusual friendship between a young Turkish man from an old Kemalist family and a Jewish woman from New York, a friendship that had its roots in the love affair between Fanny and Midhat in Ottoman Jerusalem.

    Three hours slipped by before we went to dinner with some of Arda’s Izmir cousins, all of them descendants of Midhat. Arda was eager to find out what they remembered hearing about Midhat and his relationship with Fanny, and for the next few hours the cousins reconstructed their ancestor Midhat’s story in animated Turkish as we enjoyed a meal of mezze and fish accompanied by frequently refilled glasses of raki. Arda apologized to me that they were speaking in Turkish, which I do not understand. But in fact I appreciated the chance to withdraw into my imagination about Fanny’s life here and just listen to the soft tones of Turkish in the background.

    The next morning, Arda and I climbed into a cab to take us to the Jewish cemetery, in “the hill of the springs.” The cab wound its way up the hill, through derelict neighborhoods. Feral cats roamed about. At one turn, three plump Turkish women, all wearing heavy makeup, their hair teased and carefully arranged, sat at wooden tables in front of a café, staring glumly at glasses of tea.

    The cab pulled up in front of the cemetery. We pushed open the door affixed to the gate and entered. Immediately, Moşe Habif, president of Izmir’s Hevra Kadosha (Jewish burial society), greeted us. A short, wiry man perhaps in his early seventies, he gestured for us to follow him, along a path parallel to a caretaker’s hut bordered with flower beds, and past a small pool fed by the freshwater spring that gives Ğürçeşme its name.

    Moşe told us apologetically that he didn’t have much time. We were disappointed: our journey through Izmir’s Jewish necropolis had only just begun. To stall our departure, Arda started firing questions at Moşe in Turkish while I wandered about in the hope that Fanny’s name would pop out at me from one of the slabs in the ground that I was now examining. Some were so corroded as to render the writing on them illegible, and others had bits of Hebrew, or French. “ici repose l’ane du defunt samuel cohen, fils de Mazaltov. Decede le 23 avril 1918,” read one, “priez pour lui!” another. Along the periphery of the burial area, hundreds of old slabs, many of them broken, lay in neglected piles. I walked back to where Arda and Moşe were standing. “We must go now,” Moşe said apologetically. I picked up a stone and placed it on a random grave, and after Moşe quickly recited Kaddish, he rushed us towards the cemetery gates.

    Even before we exited onto the street, I knew that I would return to Ğürçeşme and continue my search for Fanny’s grave. Before Arda and I visited Ğürçeşme, we had approached the Jewish community of Izmir to see if they could locate Fanny’s burial record. But there was none, because all the Jewish archives prior to 1923 burned in the fire. Still, I knew for certain that a stone for Fanny existed, because Hasida once told me about her odyssey to find it.

    She and Suzan—the two women were first cousins—met for the first time in 1984. Together, they went to the cemetery in 1990 so that Suzan could show her where her mother was buried. But Suzan had forgotten to make an appointment beforehand, and when she and Hasida arrived at the gate, they found it locked. So Hasida never saw Fanny’s grave. Both she and Suzan are dead, so there is no one left to ask where it is. Next time, I told myself, I would take all the time that I needed. I would keep looking until I found it. From my son Alex, and his wife, Ayse, I now have two granddaughters, Arzu and Alara. I must do this for them. I want them to know about the cosmopolitan tapestry of our family history, and to pass down to them the story of Fanny, who was nearly forgotten as punishment for defying the conventions of her time.

    __________________________________

    “Fanny in Ottoman Jerusalem” by Alice Sparberg Alexiou appears in the latest issue of New England Review.

    Alice Sparberg Alexiou
    Alice Sparberg Alexiou
    Alice Sparberg Alexiou is a New York City–based historian and journalist. She is the author of Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary (Rutgers University Press, 2006), The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Extraordinary City That Arose with It (St. Martin’s Press, 2013), and Devil’s Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery (St. Martin’s Press, 2018). Among the publications where her articles have appeared are the New York Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, and Lilith Magazine, where she is also a contributing editor. In 2014, Alexiou coproduced a documentary based on The Flatiron for the WNET/PBS series Treasures of New York.





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