President Hotel: The history of one of Jerusalem's first luxury hotels

It doesn't hurt to know something about Jerusalem's historic President Hotel and its past and present owners.

 DEPUTY PRIME minister Abba Eban lunches with Icelandic prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson at Jerusalem’s President Hotel, 1965. (photo credit: MOSHE PRIDAN/GPO)
DEPUTY PRIME minister Abba Eban lunches with Icelandic prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson at Jerusalem’s President Hotel, 1965.
(photo credit: MOSHE PRIDAN/GPO)

OF THE many Zikaron BaSalon events that were conducted in Israel this week, one that was held in Jerusalem took place at the President Hotel. Yes, you read right. That old, neglected and dilapidated building which was one of the first luxury hotels built in Jerusalem after the establishment of the state was the venue for second-generation Holocaust survivor Ronit Lorch to tell her mother, Ruth’s, story.

But before going into that, it doesn’t hurt to know something about the President Hotel and its past and present owners.

The President Hotel was the brainchild of Haim Shiff, one of the pioneers of Israel’s tourist industry, who subsequently built more hotels in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Somewhat of a rough diamond, who was frequently in financial trouble and was unable to pay fees to suppliers or wages to staff, Shiff was nonetheless a fairly decent individual who had fought in the War of Independence and was a staunch Likud loyalist.

That did not prevent him from forming firm friendships with Labor Party politicians, including prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett. In fact, it was then-prime minister Moshe Sharett who cut the ribbon at the hotel’s inauguration ceremony on April 13, 1954.

Other than the YMCA – which was a multipurpose facility with a hotel, sports and cultural center, and in a sense, an ecumenical community center catering to Christians, Muslims and Jews – the President was the first hotel in Jerusalem with a swimming pool.

The site of the former President Hotel on Ahad Ha’am Street. In a comic twist, the derelict sign now reads ‘Resident Ho.’ (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)The site of the former President Hotel on Ahad Ha’am Street. In a comic twist, the derelict sign now reads ‘Resident Ho.’ (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

In 1957, Shiff also built a public pool in the German Colony, a factor that raised the ire of the haredi community – so much so that the President lost its kashrut license, even though it continued to maintain two kosher kitchens – one meat, one dairy.

It was conceived as a kosher hotel from the very beginning because Shiff understood that people who don’t keep kosher will eat anywhere if the food is good, but people who do keep kosher will be restricted if the food is not in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Shiff could not understand what a swimming pool had to do with kashrut, even though the Rabbinate had made it clear that mixed bathing was a big no-no in the Jewish religion. He was told that his kashrut license would be restored if he closed both his pools. He refused, and in 1958 he sold the one in the German Colony and went to court to ask that the Rabbinate be instructed to give him back his kashrut license because the pool had no relationship to the kitchens.

The German Colony pool remained open and was managed by Moshav Shoresh.

What most people are generally unaware of is that Shiff was also among the pioneers of imitation non-kosher food, and specially brought in a Thai chef to prepare fish in a manner to make it look and taste like shrimps, which are forbidden to the Jewish palate.

These days we have kosher cheeseburgers, kosher bacon, kosher sausages which are vegetarian or vegan but taste like the real thing, plus a bunch of other culinary imitations. But Shiff was into that more than forty years ago.

TWO OTHER things that captured Shiff’s fancy were art and crystal chandeliers. He had a very good eye for art and owned an impressive collection, some of which graced the walls of his hotels. As for crystal chandeliers, many hotels have them in the ballroom but not in the public bathroom. Shiff realized that when a woman says she’s going to powder her nose, she is not necessarily going to answer a call of nature but is in fact going to touch up her hair and her makeup, and feels much more comfortable doing so in a beauty-dedicated environment. Hence, the opulent crystal chandeliers. If he were alive today and still a hotel proprietor, Shiff would also install air conditioning in the bathrooms. Few hotels, including luxury hotels, have air conditioning in that particular area, and women who enter in order to refresh their appearance are so hot in summer that they come out looking worse than when they entered.

Shiff went bankrupt in 1988 and lost most of his hotels, including the President. It was acquired by Africa Israel, headed by diamond billionaire Lev Leviev, who had his finger in several other pies.

Leviev wanted to change the zoning regulations, tear down the existing structure and build a huge luxury residential complex on the site. The municipality did not agree, and there was a lot of wrangling back and forth for the better part of 30 years.

In the interim, the hotel was leased for several years to the Jewish Agency, which used it as an immigrant absorption center.

It was later abandoned and randomly populated by homeless people, drug addicts and alcoholics who broke into the premises, as testified by the many broken windows.

In 2014, Africa Israel reached a compromise with the municipality whereby it agreed to build a 180-room hotel plus a residential complex. But the plan was never implemented.

The Africa Israel hotels were sold to the Dayan family.

The President Hotel was not included in the sale. Instead, it was acquired in 2020 by a group headed by Nachum Rosenberger, the owner of the Osher Ad chain of supermarkets. The initial intention had been to destroy it and build another in its stead. But Rosenberger, a community-conscious person who wanted to cause as little discomfort as possible to the hotel’s neighbors, met with them and also sent representatives to meet with them. Several issues remained unresolved – most of them traffic related – but Rosenberger didn’t want the building to remain idle, and he didn’t want to tear it down until he was ready to build another.

So he reached an agreement with Social Space, known in Hebrew as Hamerhav Hahevrati, to completely revamp the ground floor and first floor for community use for cultural, sporting and other activities until such time as a decision was made to tear down the building and construct a new hotel.

THE ORIGINAL President Hotel at 3 Ahad Ha’am Street was much larger than the present structure. Part of it was sold or leased to the Israel Coins and Medals Corporation, which maintained a showroom and sales division there.

That part of the hotel has been sold to Samuel Bessade, the head of Ahuzat Bessade, a private development company which is building another hotel next door at 5 Ahad Ha’am Street.

The hotel will be called the Alef Hotel and has printed across its protective fence “The Roof of Hospitality.” Construction has been going on for more than a year, but there does not appear to be much progress. A fence has been erected around a large part of the premises to prevent passersby from seeing what’s inside, though people living on the third floor of number 7 can definitely see what’s happening below; and there’s a tiny opening in the fence to allow the curious to get a worm’s eye view from ground level.

With two hotels next door to each other on a street in which there is already far too much traffic, neighbors anticipate a nightmare. It will be almost impossible to cross the road, except at the traffic lights. One of the positive aspects of Ahad Ha’am Street is that motor vehicles coming out into Keren Hayesod can turn either left or right, which makes it a very convenient thoroughfare. Nonetheless, there is often a long line of traffic, stretching all the way to Jabotinsky Street. There is even traffic on Shabbat, though not nearly as heavy.

The Social Space project, which to some degree is supported by The Jerusalem Foundation, is one of three such projects operating out of the Alliance School in the Clal Building, and the old Shaare Zedek Hospital building.

There have been many social initiatives in both places.

At the President Hotel, preparations are almost complete for a coffee shop in the large entrance lobby, even though there is an existing coffee shop directly across the street. But the two may cater to vastly different clientele as indicated by the age group who came to hear Lorch.

Lorch remembers

Of around 50 people who sat in a large open rectangle, more than 70% looked to be under 30. More people might have come, but for the fact that the time clashed with the official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem, which was televised live.

Lorch, who has a tendency to swallow her words or to drop her voice to a whisper, as if talking to herself, would have been far more effective if the microphone was working – but unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Possibly because her mother was so reticent, Lorch read a lot about the Holocaust, took a trip to most of the places where her mother had been before and during the war, and worked for five years at Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot, which has a large Holocaust museum.

Her mother did not like pity. She did not want to be thought of as a poor Holocaust survivor or to talk about Poland, where she was born. She spent the majority of her life in Israel, where she caught up with the education she missed out on during the war, and became a highly respected teacher. That’s the way she wanted people to think of her, said Lorch.

Her mother, one of five siblings – four sisters and a brother – was born into a very bourgeois family in Poland. She had a delightful childhood until the war, when her family, along with other Jews, was forced to flee closer to the Ukrainian border. Conditions were far from pleasant. Neither the Ukrainians nor the Poles treated them well, partly because the Ukrainians and Poles were mainly farmers, whereas most of the Jews, including the ones who already lived in the townships, were white collar workers, so there was a degree of resentment on the part of the less affluent and less well-educated.

When the Germans came, the Jewish men were rounded up for forced labor; but after a short period, those who were not absolutely essential were driven in wagons through the town to the faraway forest and shot. The same thing happened to their replacements, including Lorch’s grandfather.

Food became increasingly scarce. Jews were ill and starving. Their Ukrainian and Polish neighbors could see what was happening to them but did nothing to help.

This absence of basic humanity is something that Lorch cannot fathom.

From occasional remarks that her mother permitted herself to make, and from what she learned from relatives who survived, as well as snippets of information she was able to glean on a visit to Ukraine, Lorch was able to piece together some of her mother’s story, but not nearly enough to know what her mother had been through.

Lorch learned that the Jews were enclosed in an area surrounded by barbed wire, which became a sort of ghetto.

She learned that people died of starvation.

She acquired snatches of information of how her mother, though seriously ill and on the point of collapse, had managed to flee and cross into Romania. She was so weak when she got there, that she was almost dead. As she lay breathing what she thought were her final breaths, a man asked what her name was, and when he heard it, he reeled in shock. He had been a friend of her father’s. They had studied together. The man took her home, cared for her, and more or less restored her to health.

After the war ended, she was taken to Israel by Youth Aliya and placed in a kibbutz. She later settled in Jerusalem, where she spent the rest of her life. She passed away a year ago.

If she was at all interested in her past, she gave no indication of that.

Although nothing emotionally tangible by way of a tombstone or a house remained, Lorch took photographs of the whole area and brought them back to Jerusalem. Her mother did not want to see them.

Lorch, who was born in the early 1950s, did not remember at what age she learned that her mother was a Holocaust survivor.

In those days, she said, people didn’t talk about it. No one wanted to know why someone screamed in the night. There was no such thing as second- and third-generation survivors or post-traumatic stress.

People who have heard Lorch speak before have queried why she never asked.

The answer is simple. If no one was talking about it, how would she know what to ask?

By the time she did know, there was no point in asking because her mother refused to discuss it.

A very pleasant woman named Ada manages the Social Space. She said that a similar gathering will take place on the evening of Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers.❖