by Rahel Jaskow
It seemed like such a simple request: to photograph a grave in a nearby cemetery.
“She is buried in the American Cemetery in Jerusalem,” Robert Avrech wrote in July 2011 at the end of his post about Joan Winters, an American actress who was found murdered at the foot of the Mount of Olives in late 1933. “If any of my readers in Israel are so inclined, I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d visit Joan’s grave, make sure it’s properly maintained and perhaps send me a picture.”
The double murder of Joan Winters (which was her stage name; she was born Carol Vesta von Niedergesaess) and her companion, Mohamed Karamini of India, remains unsolved. They may have been random victims of the Arab riots that gripped pre-state Israel at the time. Another possibility is that they were victims of a love triangle: they had been traveling with a third companion, a man from India named Mohammed Ikram, who was detained and questioned about the murders and released for lack of evidence.
My name is Rahel Jaskow. I live in Jerusalem, where I work as a translator and editor. I’m also a singer and amateur photographer. Seraphic Secret has been one of my daily reads for several years, and I’d like to thank Robert for giving me the opportunity to write a guest post for his excellent blog.
In July 2011, Robert – whose stories of Hollywood history are a treat – published a post entitled American Showgirl Murdered in Gethsemane. He told the story of Broadway dancer Joan Winters – actually, that was her stage name. (She was born Carol Vesta von Niedergesaess and had another name besides, but see Robert’s post for the story.) In 1933, when Joan was a young woman of 23, she went on a trip to Europe and the Middle East. In late October 1933 she was murdered in Jerusalem together with her male companion, Mohamed Karamini. The case was never solved; both the murderer and the motive remain unknown. Robert ended his post as follows: “She is buried in the American Cemetery in Jerusalem. If any of my readers in Israel are so inclined, I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d visit Joan’s grave, make sure it’s properly maintained and perhaps send me a picture.”
When I read those lines, I thought: Well, that’s easy! I live about a fifteen-minute walk from the American Cemetery, which is now known as the Alliance Church International Cemetery. It’s located on the main street of my neighborhood, right next to a small shopping plaza with a popular pizza shop and mini-market. I’ve been to the cemetery many times and taken pictures of the tombstones, each one a snapshot of modern Jerusalem history. The cemetery is often open, and visitors frequently go in to look at the gravestones and learn a bit of local lore.
It reads like the plot of a movie.
A young, beautiful, restless American showgirl travels to the exotic east where she finds intrigue, romance—and a violent death.
As reported on November 3, 1933 in the Los Angeles Times:
(AP) Jerusalem, November 3 —Joan Winters, described as an American professional dancer, and an Indian Moslem were found slain at the foor of the Mount of Olives near the Garden of Gethsemane today.
The two bodies were found in an olive grove outside the city wall. Police found no clews as to their assailants.
Authorities said they are at a loss to account for a motive.
The slain Indian was tentatively identified as Mohamed Karaman, an Indian civil servant from Madras.
Over the next few days more details were revealed. Joan Winters was a stage name. Her real name was Carol Vesta Niedergesaess. But during the First World War the family changed its name to Godfrey and she became Carol Godfrey.
There were hints of a romance between Winters and Karaman. The couple met in Athens and from there sailed to Haifa. Her father, Bert Godfrey of Brooklyn, dismissed the idea of a romance between his daughter and Karaman as “a remote and absurd possibility.” Karaman, maintained Joan’s parents, was hired as a tour guide.