Grapevine: The history of Hansen Hospital

Guide Rivkah Regev took the group along what she calls Reb Aryeh Levin’s path, named so because the fabled Levin spent so much time visiting the Jewish residents.

Hansen hospital (photo credit: WWW.PIKIWIKI.ORG.IL)
Hansen hospital
(photo credit: WWW.PIKIWIKI.ORG.IL)
♦ Touring a heritage site takes on additional meaning when the guide is someone who has actually lived there and knows things of which a professional tour guide might not be aware. That was the case last week when Rivka Regev took a group of people on a tour of what was once Hansen Hospital.
Regev’s father, a physician at Hadassah Hospital by day and physician to the residents of Hansen Hospital by night, lived on the premises with his wife and daughter. Hansen’s disease has often been mistakenly been called leprosy, and Hansen’s Hospital was long regarded as a leper colony. When it was built by devout German Protestants in 1885, it was on the outskirts of Jerusalem and not in the center of an upmarket residential area as it is today. Funds towards its construction were provided by Baroness Augusta von Keffbrinck Ascheraden, who during a visit saw people with faces terribly disfigured by sores who were ostracized by the rest of society. She provided funds for an asylum for them. The self-sustaining hospital with vegetable gardens, fruit trees and herds of cows and goats so impressed Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany when he visited Jerusalem in 1890, that he provided additional funds.
Regev took the group along what she calls Reb Aryeh Levin’s path, which is the original path leading from the street into the compound.
She calls it that because the fabled Levin spent so much time visiting the Jewish residents. Patients were Jewish, Muslim and Christian and were regarded as lepers because there seemed to be no cure for their sores and their disfigurement. One day when Levin was at the Western Wall, Regev related, he heard a woman weeping bitterly. Approaching her, he asked the cause of her grief. Bad enough that her son was in the leper home, she cried, but he couldn’t even get any kosher food. Levin went to the hospital on a Friday afternoon carrying two bulging baskets of kosher food. And he continued to do that every Friday and on the eve of Jewish holidays. Not only did he bring the food, but he also sat and ate a Shabbat meal with the Jewish residents, who adored him.
During the War of Independence, two Jewish soldiers who died in battle near the hospital were buried on the grounds because it was impossible to take their bodies to a Jewish cemetery. The bodies were not transferred after the war because the property had been taken over by the Health Ministry, whose decision-makers decided to leave the dead combatants in peace.
The Health Ministry made several changes in the structure of the building, including turning the area that had been a chapel for the nuns and Christian patients into a set of washrooms for males and females, not exactly a sensitive thing to do. More recently, the property passed out of the hands of the Health Ministry and was taken over by the Jerusalem Municipality as an arts and culture center.
Regev said she was cool with that. What bothered her were certain other structural changes and the disappearance of hand-chiseled flagstones and elements from stone fences, which she said are worth a lot of money. The extensive gardens, which were lovingly tended by her father, are all but barren today, and this too saddened her, though she said she was happy to see young artists flitting in and out of the building.
During the Six Day War, Regev’s father spent three days and nights at Hadassah, while Regev, her mother, 27 patients and some nursing staff were in what she called “the safest place in Jerusalem” – the underground shelter, which was well below ground with walls that were one meter thick. Fortunately, the shelter also had a long passageway so people were able to walk around and stretch their legs instead of having to stay in one place.
♦ Finance Minister Yair Lapid toured Jerusalem at the beginning of the week with of Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich, Mayor Nir Barkat, Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino, Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy, the former commander of the Jerusalem branch of the Police Force, and senior police officers. He was later briefed at Oz Station near Armon Hanatziv.
Also in Jerusalem on Sunday was former president Shimon Peres, who paid condolence calls to the families of the four rabbis murdered last week during morning prayers. Peres, whose grandfather Zvi Meltzer was murdered by the Nazis in a synagogue that they set on fire, was joined by an interfaith delegation that included Rabbi David Yosef, Sheikh Ameen Kablan of the Druse community, Ali Sawayid of the Beduin community and Salim Jaber, the mayor of Abu Ghosh.
They came not only to offer their condolences but also to denounce incitement, racism and terrorism.
“There is no room for hatred in Jerusalem,” said Peres, “and there is no room for racism among our people.” Even at such difficult times,” Peres underscored, “we must remain united.”