Memoir of Denise Mifsud
My father rarely spoke about his traumatic early childhood. He was among those who escaped by sea when the Turks invaded Smyrna, (now Izmir) the Aegean city where he was born. The year was 1922 and city was put to the torch as punishment for having welcomed Greek occupation and rule. In the civil war between Greeks and Turks that preceded the invasion hundreds of thousands of innocent people were massacred, raped and deported in what the history books now call The Smyrna Catastrophe. As I grew older I became more and more curious to learn about what happened leading to that terrible month of September 1922 when this great city was burned to the ground. This memoir is an attempt to piece together the threads of the lives of my family that were so brutally disrupted and then slowly rebuilt.
ONE – Exodus
‘The 1813 Plague of Malta had catastrophic consequences’
My story begins in the late 19th century with the emigration of my great grandparents from Malta. By the time of their departure Malta’s economy had been in decline for decades due largely to the 1813 Plague of Malta which had catastrophic consequences which lasted long after the pandemic had been contained. The epidemic is believed to have started in Ottoman Turkey before spreading to Egypt and arriving in Malta – then a British protectorate – on infected ships from Alexandria. The ships were quarantined but stolen goods began to circulate in the islands and led to outbreak.
Before the outbreak Malta was thriving thanks to the presence of the British navy during the Napoleonic wars and the relocation of British factories from Sicily and Naples to the islands of Gozo and Malta.
The main industry in 1813 was cotton. During the plague, which lasted a year and killed 5 per cent of the population of the two islands, quarantine restrictions stopped the production and export of cotton in its tracks as people were banned from gathering and moving between the villages, towns and ports.
Long after the outbreak, some ports imposed quarantines on Maltese ships until 1826 while other factors such as the growing popularity of Egyptian and Indian cotton, which could be produced far more cheaply, contributed to the economic decline.
As the economy started to spiral towards bankruptcy, people began emigrating from the archipelago at ever increasing rates. By the 1840s some 20,000 Maltese – about 15 per cent of the population – had left. My ancestors were among those who joined the exodus.
Most emigrants left for the North African coast, heading to Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt and in particular to the cities of Algiers, Constantine, Sousse and Tripoli. Significant numbers also went to the Levant (or eastern Mediterranean) to port cities such as Beirut, Smyrna (now Izmir) and Constantinople (Istanbul). Sizeable Maltese communities became established in these places. Just a few hundred emigrated to the Greek islands.
One branch of my family, the Cassars and La Cortez, who had British passports, went to Smyrna on the Aegean coast. The other branch, the Mifsuds, went to Tunisia. They all had British passports as Malta was under British rule.
TWO – Smyrna
” A wonderfully cosmopolitan city where East and West mingled in a spectacular manner”
Smyrna, the coastal city to which the Cassars and La Cortez families came, was a wonderfully cosmopolitan and mostly prosperous place. It boasted an ancient and impeccable pedigree, having been founded by the Greeks, taken over by the Romans, and rebuilt by Alexander the Great before becoming part of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.
Giles Milton has left a wonderful picture of Smyrna at the turn of the 20th century in his book Paradise Lost. In it he describes the bustling streets packed with people of all nationalities, the busy harbour, the magnificent seafront hotels, brasseries and cafes in one of which a Frenchman Louis de Launay recalled seeing a crowd dressed with: “Green turbans, Armenian hats, red fezzes, embroidered American hats and the gleaming brass of the hookah pipes.”
Gertrude Bell also left a picture of Smyrna’s bazaars which she visited in 1900: “….the bazaars are delightfully Oriental and of enormous size. Here and there you come out of the narrow covered streets into a square court surrounded by some old khan, the walls of it dating back to Genoese times and the deep verandahs housing a motley collection of Armenian Antiquity dealers, Turkish counting houses, store rooms, baths and heaven knows what. Bales of dried fruits were lying everywhere, ready for shipping, but all the business with the agriculturists of the interior, which makes the bazaars of Smyrna such a wonderful centre of trade, was over a month ago.”
This was of course the trade in figs and dates which are harvested in November and were a Christmas specialty.
“In no city in the world did East and West mingle physically in so spectacular a manner,” wrote the American consul George Horton. But later he was to witness scenes of horror that he would carry to his grave.
Smyrna had its rough side too. The Jewish areas were poor and tourists were regularly taken to enjoy the colourful poverty of the ‘picturesque’ Turkish quarter for ironically it was the Turkish population of this Ottoman city who were the most dispossessed of all its inhabitants and in the minority.
The majority of Smyrna’s population were Greek. By 1920 they numbered nearly a third of a million (according to Milton) and they dominated the trade in figs and fruit for which the region was famous. The remainder of Smyrna’s inhabitants were a mixture of Muslims, Armenians, Jews, Americans and Europeans. At the top end of the social scale were a number of very wealthy foreign families, which Milton calls the ‘Levantines’.
The Levantines, by far the richest community, had a stake in every commercial activity that went on in Smyrna. Though mostly of European descent they had lived here since the since the early 19th century and were fully integrated.
Most of these Levantine families lived in the garden suburbs of Smyrna such as Cordelio and Boudja or in Paradise, which was the name of the American compound. There was also a Levantine community at Bournabat, some six miles from the city centre, where the families occupied a series of palatial mansions set in vast pleasure gardens. Their lives revolved mainly around pleasure too – dinners, tennis, hunting, club days, boating, opera, theatre, balls – with endless visits to other families filling any gaps in the diary.
This complex city was governed by an enlightened Ottoman ruler, Rahmi Bey, a benign despot who managed to ensure that somehow this vastly disparate community generally speaking lived and traded in peace and harmony.
This then was the world into which my father Alexander Joseph Hector Cassar was born in 1903.
His father – my grandfather Polycarpe Cassar, was a businessman selling and exporting Anatolian Rugs. Polycarpe Cassar already had two children (Emmanuel and Baptistina) by a wife who had died in childbirth. His second wife, my Italian grandmother Victoria Folcolo, bore him three more children, my dad Alexander, Irene and James. Their home was in the Levantine community of Bournabat, which has been mentioned above. I do not know if their house was one of the ‘palatial mansions’ but they were well off and wanted for nothing.
My father use to address l his parents using the polite form. He called his Dad ‘Maestro Poly’ and his Mum ‘Kyria Victoria’ – kiera being ‘lady’ in Greek.
My mother, who was born seven years later also in Smyrna, came of mixed parentage; her mother Catherine Mangir, was Armenian and her father, Joseph Marie Cilia La Cortez, was of Italian origin.
Bearing children in those days was a perilous business. Once again tragedy had struck this side of the family at childbirth and Joseph’s first wife died as a result of giving birth to a boy, Michael.
Joseph’s period of mourning appears to have been short lived, for he soon proposed to his dead wife’s sister, my grandmother Catherine, and they were married. They went on to have six children: Yvonne, Alfred, Fanny, Maria (my mother) Louise, and Renee.
Joseph was a well paid official in charge of the main Cassaba train station at Smyrna. This would have been an important and lucrative job at the time for stations were very busy and station masters looked after all the business that went through them, and many tips were no doubt involved in doing so.
The couple lived in a big house in Cordelio, another Levantine district situated 6kms to the north of Smyrna. Here there were some 10,000 residents, half of them Greek, a quarter Armenian and the remainder Europeans and Muslims.
The La Cortez family also enjoyed a good standard of living, with a large house and servants. All the children had a nanny and, when they were old enough, they were packed off to boarding school one by one.
I do not know the name of the school but in his short history of Cordelio, Niko Kararas writes that towards 1922 the area had nine Greek schools, a Turkish high school and two Catholic schools including Notre Dame de Sion for girls. This may have been the school my mother and her siblings attended.
In a book On Being a Levantine in Izmir by Pelin Böke, a former pupil of the Notre Dame de Sion, Claire Kopri, born in 1912 described the typical education girls received as follows:
“The schoolchildren firstly had to go to the nursery school in Notre Dame de Sion, and later to the elementary school in the same school. We used to have a teacher who was called Mademoiselle Valentina. Teaching the pupils how to read well was not that much of a concern in the school really. For a long time Turkish did not play any role in my life. They taught us in French in the school. Five years of elementary school, three years of middle school and another year would make the whole typical educational experience of a schoolboy or girl. Then he or she had to take an exam held at the consulate and get a diploma.”
Whatever school they did attend, the fact that my mother and her three sisters were boarders is of particular interest in my story because when The Catastrophe happened in 1922 they would still have been at school.
In those days, they had no communication with their parents on a regular basis (mobile phones had not been invented!) and I am not entirely sure what happened next because the four girls were later found alive in an orphanage – but their parents along with their son Alfred – had left on the boats when Smyrna was burned down. It seems that they may have been told that their parents had died in the fires. At the same time it appears that Joseph and Catherina must have been convinced that their daughters were dead, otherwise they would not have left Smyrna without them. This remains a mystery. All I know for sure is that in the confusion the family were separated, with Joseph and Catherine leaving on the boats that came to the rescue those fleeing the Turkish invaders, and the four girls were later found at an orphanage run by The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent of Paul.
How this came about was quite by accident it seems. In 1932, when the girls had been at the orphanage for some 10 years, a cousin who had emigrated to Tunisia decided to return to Izmir to see the state of the city where he was born after the fire of 1922. At the same time he decided to try and trace the school where the girls had been boarders and he ended up finding they were alive and well at the orphanage.
On his return home to Tunisia he arranged and paid for the four girls to rejoin their mother Catherine, who had also moved to Tunisia. Her joy at being re-united with the children whom she thought dead can only be imagined but it must have seemed nothing short of miraculous.
CHAPTER THREE – THE CATASTROPHE
“No one noticed that twilight was rapidly approaching”
It must seem odd to most modern readers that I write of a Turkish invasion of the city now called Izmir. For if you look at a map it clearly forms part of Anatolia and to most people will be thought of as a tourist centre on the Aegean Sea. Few holidaymakers could imagine that just a century ago, things were very different and indeed the city was occupied by the Greeks.
Following the Great War of 1914-18 the Allied powers began to carve up the map of Europe and other parts of the world at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Defeated Germany and its allies, including Turkey, had no say in the controversial decisions which awarded German and Ottoman overseas possessions chiefly to France and Britain. Among the negotiators was the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George who was a passionate supporter of Greek ambitions to rebuild their long lost empire – the so called Megali Idea which would see all the Greek people of Asia Minor brought under the rule of a newly formed Greek Empire.
Dangling this promise over the prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos had persuaded the Greek government to join the war on the side of the Allies. Smyrna – and the fertile lands around it, was to be the prize.
Throughout this time Smyrna remained virtually untouched by the war. Business continued to flourish and it seems that most people did not regard the conflict which was raging on their doorstep as having anything to do with them. As Milton writes: ” In the genteel colony of Bournabat, the Whittalls and Girauds stuck rigidly to the old rules and conventions. Their daily lives retained the Edwardian splendour ….No one noticed that twilight was rapidly approaching. ”
Once the war was over and the Armistice signed, Smyrna did not have any say in its future and its fate was determined largely by one man – Lloyd George – who told his colleagues in Paris that in his opinion Greece should send troops to Smyrna as per his promise to Venizelos. The Greek Prime Minister was duly summoned to Paris and told that President Wilson of the United States, Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George had decided that Greece should occupy Smyrna. In light of what happened later, this casual disposal of the territory seems unbelievable.
Greek forces landed in Smyrna in May 1919 and trouble immediately flared up on the waterfront where jubilant Greeks waving flags and making tactless displays of Greek dancing inflamed the Turkish residents. A shot was fired from the Turkish barracks at this point and this led to brutal but short lived reprisals. Turks were bayoneted, beaten and many taken prisoner. The Turkish quarter was looted and hundreds died, some say 400 Turks and 100 Greeks were killed.
Order was restored soon after but the occupation of Smyrna had far reaching consequences and sent shockwaves through Constantinople, which was under British occupation. It was not long before a Nationalist movement headed by Mustafa Kemal (later Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) started that would culminate in the recapture of Smyrna by Turkish forces.
Nevertheless, the next two years saw a form of return to normality in Smyrna. Under the stewardship of Rahmi Bey, most important Turkish functionaries were kept in their posts to quell rebellion and business began to return to normal. Among the rich Levantine families, the Girauds, Woods, Pattersons and Whittalls, the gaiety of the pre-war years was recovered. In Bournabat, where my father was growing up as a teenager, life resumed as if nothing had happened.
It was a different picture in the countryside and outlying regions however where brigands roamed the Greek villages and not infrequently there were murders. The massacre of the Greeks of Aydin 50 miles south of Smyrna was particularly appalling but in the coming two years, the Greeks would behave just a s badly in Anatolia.
The year 1921 saw Smyrna’s economy go into rapid decline as a result of the Greek pushing ever further into Anatolia, for trade with the interior of Asia Minor ceased almost entirely. Public services stopped functioning and even the great Levantine families were affected, although their response to the decline seems to have been to spend all day at lunch!
The growth of the nationalist forces under Kemal brought the first major reversal of fortune for the occupying Greeks. The generals had decided in their wisdom to push deeper into Anatolia to deliver what they hoped would be a knockout blow to Kemal’s troops. The Greek forces did indeed enjoy a short lived victory – and this led to even greater ambitions.
By now the Greeks had welcomed the return of King Constantine, whose desire to restore the Greek empire knew no bounds. Despite the counsel of his brother Andrew, the King encouraged his army to push even further into Anatolia. “It is high time the [Turks] disappeared once more and went back into the interior of Asia, whence they came,” he told his sister in the summer of 1921.
The point of this little history lesson becomes more clear when you come to the eventual fate of Smyrna. When the 200,000 strong Greek army which had so unwisely pressed into the Anatolian desert was routed at the Battle of Dumlupinar in August 1922, a tidal wave of soldiers and civilians fleeing the Turks surged back towards the city.
Looking out of the window of her house in Bournabat in September, Hortense Wood realised that something catastrophic had happened to the Greek army in central Anatolia. “I saw endless streams of disbanded Greek soldiers. A miserable rabble, ragged, weary and wan and with them hundreds of refugees….plodding their way under a burning sun.” Behind and pursing them to their fate came the now victorious Turkish army.
Within a week, this tsunami of human misery would be camped on the waterfront of Smyrna. Hearing of the defeat of the Greek army, 21 warships were now stationed in the harbour. But if you think that the next stage would be a miraculous evacuation on the lines of Dunkirk, you would be much mistaken.
The Greek ships in the quay did embark thousands of soldiers but the refugees and stragglers were a different matter. This was only the beginning of their suffering as wave upon wave of people arrived in the city.
The scale of the impending disaster was soon apparent to the leaders of America and Europe.
The American ambassador warned that Kemal’s forces would follow their victory with a massacre. The British consul urged everyone with British nationality to leave Smyrna. One by one, the great families of Bournabat quit their palatial homes and moved into their townhouses in Smyrna – with the exception of Hortense Wood who refused to go.
On the 9th of September the Turkish cavalry swept into Smyrna making a powerful impression with their gleaming swords and magnificent horses. Orderly, smart and well-disciplined, people foolishly believed that all would be well.
“Everyone is inwardly delighted to have the Turks back,” wrote Grace Williamson who was head of the English Nursing Home and who has left a vivid account of the next few days. Her delight soon turned to despair as the Turkish forces, many of them irregulars, began the systematic destruction of Smyrna, pillaging, murdering and raping on a scale that it is almost impossible to conceive.
The rampages began in the Armenian quarter on September 10th. The same day the Orthodox bishop Chrysostomos of Smyrna was murdered by a mob. In Bournabat, now a ghost town, the churches were destroyed and the great villas ransacked.
The most distressing reports are of the murders and maiming and in particular the rapes. My aunt was just a girl when the chettes and soldiers came to their house at Cordelio. She and her mother were both gang raped in front of her father. There is little doubt that the horror of what happened contributed to the early demise of Joseph.
Many parents also died trying to defend the honour of their daughters who were subjected to violent and horrific rape and sometimes murdered afterwards.
It appears that some of these events were witnessed by the officers on board the ships still stationed in the bay, who watched through their field glasses. Yet still nothing was done to assist the refugees and soldiers left behind whose numbers had swollen into the hundreds of thousands.
The burning of Smyrna began a day later in the Armenian quarter, on 13th September. Some historians argue the Armenians started the fires – which were then carried by strong winds into the rest of the city.
To this day the question of who started the Great Fire of Smyrna is debated. As recently as 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said of Izmir: “The biggest blow given to this beautiful city is by the Greek soldiers who burned Izmir as they retreated.”
Milton – who quotes several eye witness accounts of Turks moving wagons of petrol and gunpowder into the city – is convinced the Turkish army and irregulars were responsible.
Yet if so, what was the point of it? As one of Kemal’s officers Colonel Izmet said: “We have taken Izmir. But what is the use? The city and half of Anatolia have been reduced to ruins.”
News of the Catastrophe had now reached the world press. ‘Smyrna Wiped Out’ was the headline in the New York Times. “Tonight’s holocaust is one of the biggest fires in the world’s history,” wrote Ward Price in the Daily Mail.
The quayside, which was two miles long, now became a refugee camp of abject misery. The flames from the fires were so hot that the miserable hoards were scalded by the heat.
In a chilling note, Oran Raber a tourist wrote: “There was a choice of three kinds of death: the fire behind, the Turks waiting at the side streets and the ocean in front…”
At first the ships refused to evacuate anyone, claiming it would violate their neutrality. The American Admiral Mark Bristol – who had only US interests at heart and hated “Greeks, Armenians and Jews” – was adamant that he would not lift a finger to help anyone.
People were in danger of being burned alive as the fire had reached the waterfront. The ships moved 250 yards further out to avoid the intense heat. The harbour and streets were filled with bloated corpses, people, dogs and horses. Everywhere there was a stench of burning flesh.
More homeless, terror-stricken, refugees continued to arrive and camp out in the streets. Many became victims of lawless elements of the Turkish army as Smyrna was plunged into anarchy with shooting, looting, and rape everywhere. It is recorded that the ships’ bands struck up tunes to drown out the screams and shrill cries of the frantic mob on the quayside.
One British admiral at this point had a dramatic change of heart and ordered all available boats to be lowered and dispatched to the quayside. There was total chaos as Greeks and Armenians swarmed the boats with many drowning. Room was found for 20,000 people and the British warships sailed to Athens, already crowded with refugees.
At this moment a local hero stepped onto the stage. The story of how a 5ft tall hunchbacked employee of the YMCA – Asa Jennings – single handedly mounted a rescue operation that saved hundreds of thousands of souls is so extraordinary that it is surprising it has not been made into a Hollywood film – although MGM did make a short which you can see on YouTube.
This diminutive Methodist from New York was aboard one of the ships in the bay witnessing the refusal of his navy to assist. Eventually using a bribe, a lie and a bluff he secured the help of the Greek merchant navy. He became an unofficial admiral and over the next fortnight rescued 250,000 Greeks and Armenians, taking them to nearby islands.
Jennings, who said he “felt the hand of God on his shoulder” was unable to do anything for any men of military age, most of whom were imprisoned and later force marched into the centre of Anatolia to suffer an unknown fate, some 100,000 souls in all. The forced marches were similar to those of the deportations of 1915. Ultimately, 100,000 people were killed and 160,000 deported to the interior.
This was the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of Anatolia which brought to an end the 3,000-year Greek presence on its Aegean shores. A year after the Catastrophe, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed and among other things led to the exchange of Christian and Muslim populations. It has been held responsible for the transference of people against their will throughout the 20th century by historian Norman Naimark. Another historian Ronald Suny goes even further stating the treaty “confirmed the effectiveness of deportations or even murderous ethnic cleansing as a potential solution to population problems” while Hans-Lukas Keiser thought that the tactic approval given to the expulsion and extermination of ethnic and religious groups was used by the Nazis to condone their actions.
One of the survivors of the Catastrophe was Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who was born in Smyrna. His father was a very wealthy tobacco merchant. Onassis was just 16 when the Turks overpowered Smyrna and his father was taken prisoner. He managed to flee and watched the city burn from the bridge of a Greek ship . He landed in Athens with other refugees and a year later travelled to Argentina on a refugee passport. Here, with $250 to his name, he began to rebuild the Onassis business empire making his first million in tobacco.
To this day responsibility for the burning of Smyrna remains very controversial. While Milton clearly lays the blame for the fires starting at the feet of the Turks, as recently as 2018 the Turkish PM Erdogan insisted that the Armenians and Greeks has started the fires.
The argument that the Turks would not have wanted to turn the multicultural city of Smyrna to ashes and ruin its infrastructure certainly carries some weight. What benefit to the Turks could this have been? The centre of Smyrna, which housed many vital commercial as well as historical buildings, had to be completely rebuilt.
FOUR – Refugees
“My father had miraculously escaped from the Turks”
The Turks closely watched the refugees as they boarded the ships taking all males European aged between 15 and 50 to be deported to the interior. I am not sure how my father, who was 19, managed to evade them but it seems that he made it out on one of the British boats which finally came to the rescue of the refugees and was taken to Malta. The refugees, numbering some 1,600, disembarked on the 15th September and were taken to Fort Ricasoli, which guarded the entrance to the Grand Harbour. About 1,400 of the passengers held a British passport and half of these were supposed to be of Maltese origin although only six were born in Malta. In due course many refugees were relocated to other countries, although a few remained in Malta.
The Cassar family went to live in Sliema at 16 Rue (Triq) d’Argens where they remained for seven years. The other side of the family, La Cortez, also remained in Malta but both branches eventually went to Tunisia.
My father, who had miraculously escaped from the Turks, was able to pick up the pieces of his life to an extent and he was taken on as an apprentice by a barber and a cobbler among others. He learned to speak English fluently. He also taught himself – and his brother James – the violin and the pair of them played from time to time on board the ships that came and went from Valletta. They used to play in front of the captains and were paid one shilling for their troubles.
He also joined a football club – the Sliema Wanderers or SWFC which is still very much alive and is in the Maltese Premier League. A photo shows him among team members when he was in the 1925-26 final as a midfielder.
Granddad Joseph, who changed his name from Cilia la Cortez to Cilia la Corte for some reason, died not long after arriving in Malta. There is no doubt that the drama of his escape from Smyrna, the horrific rape of his wife and my aunt and then the loss of his four daughters, whom he must have presumed dead, as well as his house and all his possessions, contributed to his poor health.
Another touching story concerns my father’s half brother Emmanuel. He had been engaged to an Italian woman called Anna. During the Great Fire they rushed to the church and asked the priest to marry them but he refused because the church itself was on fire. If Maria had been married she would have been able to follow Emmanuel onto one of the British ships but she did not have the right papers. So she dived into the harbour and swam to a ship and was taken on board but it was the wrong ship and she ended up being taken to Rhodes. Years later, Emmanuel discovered what had happened and went to Rhodes to find her. They married and had three children, all girls.
FIVE – TUNISIA
Tunisia, which from antiquity was inhabited by the indigenous Berbers, had come under Ottoman rule in 1574. In 1881 the French conquered Tunisia in order to protect their colony of Algeria and suppress Italian and British influence. In 1957, the monarchy was abolished and Tunisia became a Republic. Tunisia, the smallest country in North Africa, is world famous for its great number of historical attractions, including the Roman city of Carthage and huge amphitheater of El Jem near Sousse.
The Cassar and La Cortez families both came here in 1929 when the British government gave refugees from Smyrna the choice to stay in Malta or head for another country, the choice was usually Tunisia, France or England. The refugees were given a small amount of money by the British Government to help them to settle in their chosen country.
There was said to be plenty of work in Tunisia, which was the reason for the decision of the Cassars and La Cortez to move here. In fact is was a repeat of the 1840s to an extent as once again it was difficult to find a job in Malta.
My father’s half sister Baptistina – Polycarpe Cassar’s daughter by his first wife – had already moved to Tunisia after escaping from Smyrna with her Italian husband Bassi and their three children, Gemma, Ursula and Nicolas. The family lived in the town of Maxula-Radès (now Rades) south of Tunis where they had bought a house.
Tragedy was to strike the family later in the Second War, when Nicolas died at the age of 18. Though he was Italian, he had joined the French army in a pact agreed with close friends but only he was able to honour the agreement as the parents of the other boys refused to let them sign up. Nicolas died in Germany after driving there on a motorbike. His mother Baptistina was not told of the death because she had recently lost her husband Bassi and she died believing Nicolas would one day come back from the war. The street in Maxula-Radès where the family lived was renamed Rue Nicolas Bassi in memory of the teenage soldier.
Joseph’s widow, Cilia La Cortez, moved to the seaside village of Le Kram, on the other side of the Lake of Tunis, where mother and daughter were able to pay for a two bedroom house with extra money received from the Turkish government as compensation for having been victims of the Smyrna atrocities.
Catherine’s four daughters, including my mother, who had been found in the orphanage in 1932 as I have written earlier, were all able to find jobs in Tunis after they arrived.
My mother Maria started work as a fashion designer in Tunis as dressmaking had been her passion at the orphanage. Her brother Alfred, who had escaped from Smyrna with their parents, was working as a furniture maker in the city and so the two of them decided to rent an apartment together as the house was too small to accommodate seven adults. Mum stayed in the apartment after she got married in 1939 and I was born there.
My grandmothers, Victoria Folcolo Cassar and Catherine La Cortez, both refugees from Smyrna who had met in Malta, remained in contact and paid regular visits to one another in Tunisia.
After a while, both of the women decided it was time to arrange the marriages of their children. My father chose my mother from Maria’s four daughters and to his delight she accepted the proposal.
Her sister, my aunt Irene Cassar, became engaged to my uncle Alfred – who was Mum’s brother.
The engagements took place in 1937 and the two couples were married in a joint ceremony at a church in Maxula-Radès on the 23rd of February 1939, six months before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Mum and Dad’s first born was a boy who passed away at a very young age. Then came my sister Colette, who was born on the 30th May 1942 and then me two years later on the 11th February 1944.
Over the years my mother had built up a very large selection of clients and only worked at the homes of her clients. She designed and made at least 10 wedding dresses during these years. These dresses were all made as presents for girls whom she had known for a long time. Gradually however she lost her clients as one after another they left Tunisia after 1957 when Tunisia became independent and most European were gradually leaving the country, many of them in France, also Italy and England. I was very lucky that she did not stop making dresses, skirts and coats for me.
One of my mother’s clients was a well known painter called Genève Gavrel Bascou (1909-1999). My mother used to go to her house for dress making sessions several times a month. Bascou kindly did my portrait when I was 13 years old and only charged us for the materials.
I had to pose for several sessions but standing still for two hours at the time was not easy for me as I was giggling all the time. She was a very nice lady but she left Tunis in 1957 and we did not see her again. I saw some of her portraits on the internet some time later and noticed that one of them had the same frame as the picture of me.
My father, who worked at Mercedes in Tunis up till the time we came to England in 1965, used to make a little money on the side giving English and violin lessons and cutting hair. Sometimes he used to repair shoes for the family, especially for my mother and me whose stiletto shoes often needed mending. He was a Jack of all trades.
He joined the local orchestra in Maxula-Radès playing the clarinet and used to go to rehearsals every Wednesday after work. During my holidays I used to enjoy going along with him to listen. Every November, the band would march through the streets of Maxula-Radès to the war memorials and play at the commemoration services. I was very excited and proud to see him being part of it.
I used to call my Dad Hector as he never replied when I called him Papa. He kept telling me that was the name his mother used to call him by. He was very close to his Mum. People were surprised and this was very unusual but for me this pet name made me feel closer to him.
When I was 18 months old, in August 1945, I got an infection in my right eye and my Mum took me to hospital to have it treated. I had to have three operations which unfortunately left me with a loss of 80 to 90 per cent of the vision in the eye and also left with a squint. Unfortunately this made me prey to the bullies at school as I was an easy target – but apart from that I had a very nice childhood
We had to walk to the hospital and it was a long journey. Sometimes we had to go daily. My Mum was told that there was no option but to remove the tear bag of the right eye, as it was also infected and this caused tears to run down my face all the time.
By May, the situation was not getting better and my mother went to church and prayed and made a wish to the Virgin Mary. She pledged to light a candle every May for the rest of her life if my eye got better before the end of that month. When on the last day of May she took me to the hospital, everything was nice and dry.
She lit the candle every day until the end of her life and I carry on, to the day, to light a candle every day in May.
At the age of 6, I started school. I could only speak Greek so I had to learn French. The school was a 20 minute walk from our home and I went every day on foot which at that time was normal and safe. I used to come home for lunch, so in all I was walking for 80 minutes ever day. My Dad used to prepare lunch as Mum was sometimes still at work with her clients. My Dad insisted that I walk alone and not with school friends, so that I would not hang around with them and be late.
I started secondary school at a private half-boarding school run by the Nuns of St Bernadette of Soubirous (Lourdes). The school was situated not far from the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.
After my Brevet (O levels), I remained at the school and took a course in Secretarial and Business studies. After successfully passing my exams I found work within week as a secretary/accountant which I enjoyed.
I was very proud to hand my monthly pay envelope over to my mother – and to find out that I was earning a little more than my Dad! I felt that they deserved my pay in return for having funded my schooling, as the fees were higher than their rent.
Every March we went to Carthage where the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity is celebrated in the Roman amphitheatre annually. It is the biggest celebration for many Christians and young people who come from all over Tunisia to witness the spectacle.
The event begins with a procession from the Cathedral of Carthage to the amphitheatre with prayers in Latin and loudspeakers telling the story of the two Saints, who are represented in the procession by two girls dressed in white robes.
Perpetua and Felicity were Christian martyrs of the 3rd century who were martyred at Carthage in 203 AD. Their feast day, which falls on March 7th, is celebrated even outside Tunisia.
Vibia Perpetua was a recently married well educated noblewoman, said to have been 22 years old at the time of her death, and mother of an infant. According to the Passion narrative, Perpetua’s dreams in prison (which she believed were prophetic) offered visions of her entry into heaven, her deceased younger brother Dinocrates, and her ordeal in the arena.
Felicity, a slave imprisoned with her and pregnant, was killed with her at the military games in celebration of the Emperor Septimius Severus’s birthday when the gladiators opened the doors to the arena to let in the wild beasts.
Although we used to go to the passion every year, every time we found it very moving.
The Cathedral from which the procession departs was built between 1884 and 1890 when Tunisia was a French protectorate. It acquired primacy for all of Africa when the title of Primate of Africa was restored to the French Cardinal Lavigerie, titular head of the Archdioceses of Algiers and of Carthage.
After Tunisia gained independence, I believe that the Cathedral was used as a mosque but since 1993 it has been known as the Acropodium and is no longer used for worship but instead hosts public events and concerts of Tunisian music and classical music. Currently, the only Roman Catholic cathedral operating in Tunisia is the Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul in Tunis.
We had a large choice of fantastic beaches in Tunisia. Now when looking for a holiday with beaches I realise that we rather took then for granted.
When I was in secondary school there were many coach trip to the famous amphitheater at El Djem. Built around 238 AD it is one of the best preserved Roman stone ruins in the world and one of the biggest amphitheatres in the world. It has survived in an exception state of preservation given its past history. In the Middle Ages, it served as a fortress protecting the population from attacks by the Vandals in 430 and Arabs in 647. It is believed that the amphitheatre was used as a saltpetre factory in the 18th/19th century and in the second half of the 19th century the structure was used for shops, dwellings, and grain storage.
We made many coach trips to the amphitheatre to watch open air plays.
When Tunisia became independent from France in 1956 it was very difficult for people who had been settled for many generations to abandon the country as they did not know what to expect in other parts of the world. They were allowed to sell their property and were able to transfer their money to their destined country – but the only buyers were the Tunisians. All properties and businesses were sold at very, very low prices – which benefited by the Tunisians and this allowed the Bedouins who had lived in the deserts of the south of the country to move north into the towns. Sometimes they brought their herds with them and installed the animals in their gardens and even indoors in their apartments when they did not have a garden, using some rooms for sheep and goats.
By early 1960, a lot of people had left Tunisia left taking all their cash with them, in very large amounts as they needed the money to open a new bank account and buy a new business and property.
As a consequence, the Tunisian Government decided overnight to make the Dinar a closed currency that is to say it became a criminal offence to import or export in or out of Tunisia. So everyone who left the country with money found it suddenly had no value – and this also affected all banks which held Tunisian dinars and which lost their money. No bank in the world will exchange money against Tunisian Dinars and even if you find someone to do it, it is illegal to take the money into the country.
To be able to carry on working I needed a work permit and the only way me to get it was to change my nationality, as only Tunisians were allowed to work. As far as I was concerned, this was not an option and I lost my job. My Mum also lost a great number of clients as they began to leave the country.
Just before independence, my parents had bought a piece of land on which they were planning to build a house. Sadly, when we left, they lost the land.
In 1964, my sister got married and moved with her husband to the South of France. Being British subjects, we had no choice but to head to England. In March 1965 we arrive in London. Dad was 62, Mum 55 and I had just turned 21.