Fanny in Ottoman Palestine

Last July, a few days after the marriage of my older son, Alex, and his beautiful Turkish bride, Ayse, we all — the young couple and various members from both sides of our astonishingly diverse family — gathered at the dining room table in my mother’s house in Great Neck, New York. There I was with my mother, Esther; my younger son, Joseph; and Alex — all New York Jews — and my Greek husband, Nick, originally from Salonika, who became a Jew soon after we married; and my cousin Hasida and her daughter Yael, who had come from Israel for Alex’s wedding; and Ayse’s sister, Cigdem; and their parents, Mehmet and Gul, from Ankara, Turkey. (Try to keep the cast of characters straight, because what comes next is a bit of a genealogical roller-coaster ride.)

We had gathered post-wedding to piece together the mysterious story of Hasida’s aunt, Fanny Kop, which seemed to link the disparate outposts of our newly extended family. In her late teens, Fanny ran away from Jerusalem to Istanbul with her lover, Midhat Alam, the last Ottoman governor — mustasarrif — of Jerusalem, and close associate of Kemal Ataturk, the brilliant politician and general who would found the modern state of Turkey in 1923.

Hasida, now 81, had never met her aunt, who died in her twenties, in Izmir, Turkey. What was this woman’s wild journey? “There were photos of my mother, Braha, and Fanny, her older sister,” Hasida told us. “I saw them, all my life.” But nobody ever talked about her, Hasida said. They were ashamed of Fanny. She had disgraced her family.

The Kop family was from Kishinev, and they left Russia in 1901, fleeing the pogroms. They went first to Cairo, where they spent one year before continuing on to Palestine. They settled in Jerusalem, where the father, an Orthodox Jew, had a small shop where he eked out a living making picture frames and restoring icons. By then the family had five children.

In 1914, as the world began to fragment into what historians would later call The Great War, the British declared war against Turkey. Fighting broke out between the British and Ottoman armies in the Middle East. In Palestine, relations between the Jews and the Turkish administration deteriorated. Seventeenyear- old Fanny was volunteering as a nurse in Jerusalem’s Italian hospital. Every morning on her way to work, Fanny passed the Turkish government offices (the structure still exists, and later housed the Jerusalem Post). There, she often saw Alam standing on the porch. According to Hasida, the two were formally introduced later, at Alam’s request, at a party given by the Red Cross. Leyla Umar, who is a granddaughter of Midhat Alam and is one of Turkey’s best-known journalists, tells a different version: Fanny visited Alam, expressly to invite him to the party. Umar devotes several pages to the “love story of Fanny and Midhat,” which, she writes, she heard from her mother, and all the elders of her family. Umar quotes her grandfather:

“I felt an electricity in my body when Fanny entered my room. I could not control my feelings, although I was fully conscious of the dangerous outcomes of a relationship between a governor and a Jewish girl during one of the most active times of the Zionist movements.”

Alam was twice Fanny’s age, and already married, in fact twice married. His first wife had died; his current wife was in Istanbul with his children from both marriages. Hasida tells us that Fanny moved into the government house with Alam, and soon became pregnant. Her Jewish family was outraged. Her father refused all further contact with her. But ten-year-old sister Braha sometimes came to visit, as did their mother, with her youngest child, five-year-old Yehuda, in tow.

It was now 1917. General Allenby’s British troops were advancing towards Jerusalem, and Ottoman rule there was coming to an end. Fanny, about to give birth, told her mother that she was leaving Jerusalem with Alam. The two would take the train, through Syria, for Istanbul.

“Her parents,” Hasida said to us as we sat breathless around my mother’s table, “tried to stop her.” The night before Fanny was to leave, they sent her younger sister Braha (Hasida’s mother) to her, with a basket of fruits and vegetables for the journey. Braha tried to convince Fanny not to go. Their mother, she told Fanny, would find a place on a kibbutz for her, where she could live with her child. But Fanny was adamant. “I want the baby,” she told her sister, “to have both its parents.”

En route to Istanbul, Fanny and Alam stopped in Aleppo, Syria. There, she gave birth to her daughter. Fanny named her Suzan, “after the roses — shoshanim — that were blooming in the garden of the Jerusalem house when she and Alam met,” Hasida said. Fanny sent her mother a postcard from Aleppo, informing them of Suzan’s birth. Fanny’s mother immediately took the train to Aleppo, hoping to find her daughter there. She took her little boy, Yehuda, with her. But by the time they arrived, the couple and their baby had left for Istanbul.

The grieving mother returned to Palestine. “The secret of Fanny,” my cousin Yael said, “was sealed.” A few years later, the Kops received a letter from the Jewish community in Izmir. In it was written that Fanny had died of tuberculosis in a hospital there. She was buried in the Jewish cemetery.

“As a Jew,” Hasida noted, “although she was a Muslim.” By Ottoman law, Fanny had automatically become a Muslim when she married Midhat Alam.

Suzan, only five years old when her mother died, simply, in Hasida’s words “disappeared.” Hasida’s mother, Braha, never talked about her older sister Fanny. She was, said Hasida, ashamed of what Fanny had done. But Yehuda, Hasida’s uncle, who remembered taking the train to Syria as a five-year-old with his mother, never stopped wondering what had happened to Fanny’s daughter. Yehuda eventually had a career in the foreign office. Over the years, he inquired again and again of people he met there, Did anybody there ever hear of an important Ottoman official who took a Jewish girl with him to Turkey?

One day in 1983, Yehuda was a guest at a dinner party at the Israeli Embassy in Ankara. Again, he asked if anybody had heard the story about the Jewish girl. This time, somebody––the Israeli ambassador — said yes. The story about Midhat Alam, he told Yehuda, is well known. In fact, he said, this house used to belong to him!

Then we pick up another thread of the story. Soon after Yehuda’s visit, the journalist Leyla Umar was invited to dinner at the Israeli Embassy. She told the ambassador that the house had once belonged to her grandfather, Midhat Alam. The ambassador, writes Leyla in her memoirs, “became red in the face. He said: ‘Do you know that we are searching for the daughter of the owner of this house? Her family has been trying to find her for years.’”

Leyla told her aunt, Fanny’s daughter Suzan, about the connection.

One year later, Suzan, then 65, flew to Israel. “She found her family,” Hasida said. “Even though she had family in Turkey from her father, we were from her mother.”

Suzan, Hasida said, told her Israeli mishpacha that she was a Muslim. Hasida continued: “This was a delicate subject, and we didn’t want to talk about it. She knew about her father, and that she had roots in Israel, but she never looked for us. But we didn’t care. We only wanted to find her.” Hasida then turned to Mehmet, my Turkish mechutan, adding: “And according to our laws, Fanny was Jewish. Because her mother was Jewish…”

The rest of the story emerged: After Fanny’s death, Midhat Alam married again. Suzan was raised by different members of her father’s large family. She rarely saw her father, who, being close to Ataturk, was a member of the first parliament of the new nation of Turkey in 1923. She became a psychologist. She never married. She had no children.

And after she found her family in Israel, she came to visit them almost every year. She and her niece Hasida became close.

But again Umar’s version of the story differs. In her memoirs, Umar also tells this version of Suzan’s reunion with her Israeli family: “All the living members of her mother’s family got together in the excitement of meeting her. While drinking champagne they said: ‘According to our beliefs you are a Jew since your mother was a Jew.’ I do not know what she felt at that moment, but she came back from Israel as soon as she went there…I do not think that she met them later (italics mine).”

Hasida told us that Suzan was very angry at Leyla after reading her version of what happened. Some of what she wrote about me, Suzan told Hasida, was not true. Afterwards Suzan did not speak with Leyla for a long time.

And there is more to this story. When my son Alex, got engaged to Ayse in 2007, I told Gul and Mehmet, my machutunim- to-be about Fanny, my grandfather Joseph Sparberg’s first cousin, who had run away from Palestine with her Turkish lover, had his baby, and died in Izmir. That baby, I told them, lives in Ankara. And so do they. The story fascinated them. And they were determined to find her.

I called my cousins in Israel, from whom I passed on Suzan’s phone number and address to Mehmet. He phoned her; no answer. He went to her apartment building; nobody answered the buzzer. He left an invitation for our children’s upcoming wedding — they had two, one in Ankara, followed by another in New York — in Suzan’s mailbox. Again, silence.

Finally, my mother called Hasida, who in turn called Leila Umar in Istanbul. Leila told Hasida that Suzan had died recently, several weeks before Mehmet began his attempts to contact her. I e-mailed him with the news. He replied to my message immediately, with deep sadness at the loss of this extraordinary chance to further connect us.

And now we were sitting around my mother’s table, talking about Fanny, who had run away in 1917, but who in 2008 was being folded back into an expanded family story.

Alice Sparberg Alexiou, a contributing editor at Lilith, is the author of the 2006 biography Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. She is currently writing a book about the Flatiron Building.