At least twice a day, Naim Shmuli walks up the four flights of stairs to his home – once following his work at the capital’s historic downtown Palatin Hotel and again following his evening synagogue services.
There’s also no elevator at the hotel, which was initially opened in 1936 by Todrus Warshavsky and is now run by his grandson of the same name – known to most as Tody – so Shmuli may have to climb those 24 stairs as well two to three more times on days when he needs to go out to buy supplies.
This wouldn’t be unusual, except that Shmuli is 102.
He has a hearing impediment but his eyesight is still quite good and he doesn’t wear glasses. His mind works well and he is still spry.
The hearing problem made it a bit difficult to interview him, because he doesn’t lip read, but people working at the hotel have found a way to communicate with him and served more as liaisons than interpreters.
Shmuli has been employed by the Warshavsky family for 67 years. Before working in the hotel, he worked in a restaurant they used to run on the ground floor. “When they closed it, I came upstairs,” he said.
Shmuli was born in Iraq in 1915. An uncle, the pioneer of the family’s aliya, came to the Land of Israel in the late ’20s or the early ’30s, and was followed by the young Shmuli, who accompanied his aunt in 1934. Other members of the family followed soon after the proclamation of the State of Israel.
In the 1930s, says Warshavsky, there were very few hotel options in Jerusalem. There was the Palatin, the Eden on Hillel Street (not to be confused with a newer hotel of the same name in the Arnona neighborhood) and a handful of other small hotels. The Palace, (now the Waldorf Astoria), built in 1929, and the King David, opened in 1931, were too expensive for most visitors to the city.
Until 1948, the Palatin and Eden hosted British and Australian military personnel and civilians. After 1948, they hosted Members of Knesset because the original Knesset building, which is now being turned into a museum, was just a few minutes’ walk away.
It’s hard to imagine a bus parking on Agrippas Street these days, but Warshavsky says that tourists were more inclined to stay in Tel Aviv than in Jerusalem, and would come in groups to Jerusalem on day trips. At lunch time, buses parked outside the hotel, the tourists trooped upstairs for lunch and then went back to the buses and returned to Tel Aviv.
Many visitors to Jerusalem liked to walk up and down the nearby Ben-Yehuda Street which, in February 1948, was bombed by three British army trucks and an armored vehicle driven by Arab irregulars and British deserters, injuring scores of people and killing over 50. The explosion tore up half the street and shook the whole area.
Shmuli, who was working at the nearby Palatin Hotel at the time, remembers the sound of the explosion vividly. The Atlantis Hotel on the corner of Ben Yehuda and Mordechai Ben Hillel, which was owned by Warshavsky’s uncle, was completely destroyed.
MEMBERS OF the Warshavsky family have been in the hotel business for many years and among the veterans in the Jerusalem hotel industry. Tody Warshavsky is a fifth generation Jerusalemite whose family originated from Berdichev, Ukraine.
Shmuli took time out of his hotel work to join the army during the War of Independence and served as a medic.
After he returned, he proved to be adept in different spheres arriving between 3-4 a.m. to check the bills, settle the accounts of departing guests and make breakfast. He also manned the reception desk until Warshavsky’s father Mordechai arrived to relieve him.
When Shmuli’s hearing began to interfere with his efficiency, Mordechai Warshavsky set up a loud speaker system so that he would be able to hear what was going on in the hotel.
As chief cashier, Shmuli is also the hotel’s accountant and, according to Warshavsky, has his own unique technique for working the numbers. He sits in the hotel dining room, places a cloth on the table, so that if anything should disturb the receipts and other pieces of paper he can simply bring the corners of the cloth together and save everything that he has to check. Although he doesn’t wear glasses, he can’t always read the small type and therefore works with a large magnifying glass.
“He does it all in his head down to the last agora,” says Warshavsky, “and he’s hardly ever wrong. When he does make a mistake he’s out by only a shekel or two.”
SHMULI SPORTS a large black kippa on his head. He wasn’t always religious, but after his daughter Tamar was killed in a traffic accident, he started going to synagogue to say kaddish for her “and I simply became more observant. Before that I used to work even on Yom Kippur.”
The Palatin is an intrinsic part of his life. His son, Zadok, had his brit mila and his bar mitzva there. Warshavsky also had his bar mitzva there.
Shmuli has been married to his wife, Shula, for 65 years. In addition to Tamar and Zadok, they have a daughter, Liora, 16 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
Shmuli does the family shopping, going to the market once a week. A woman whose name he doesn’t know can’t believe how independent he is, and insists on walking him home from synagogue and accompanying him to the market. “Maybe she’s lonely,” he chuckles.
Although the Palatin hotel has undergone significant changes in its 80 plus years, it has remained at its original address. In the interim, other hotels have sprung up around it, especially boutique hotels. Another is currently under construction across the road.
UNTIL 1967, the hotel served as a banquet hall for weddings and other events, but after that, larger and more modern facilities came into being, says Warshavsky, and people stopped having their celebrations at the Palatin. In light of this, the hotel stopped serving lunch and dinner and became a bed and breakfast facility. The dining room was made smaller and three new guest rooms were built in the space that had once been part of the dining room.
When the Palatin was built there were no bathrooms in the rooms. Guests had to go down the hall, but today every room has a toilet and shower stall.
Despite the growing competition, the hotel’s annual occupancy is around 60%-70% per year. “When things are good, they’re good for everyone,” says Warshavsky, “and we all get a share in the cake. When things are bad, we all suffer. There are ups and downs all the time in the hotel industry.”
Warshavsky has interesting history on both sides of his family. His maternal grandfather, Binyamin Eidelman, was a driver for Hadassah delivering supplies to the hospital, when in 1948, his convoy that was ambushed by Arab forces while taking supplies to the hospital on Mount Scopus. Seventy-eight people were killed, including doctors, nurses, medical students and patients. Eidelman was one of the few survivors. But that’s another story.