Hansen House’s past not forgotten

Thankfully, the introduction of 21st-century hi-tech content did not decimate the rich history that had unfolded there since the 1880s.

BANDAGING ROOM, 1910. (photo credit: EMMAUS ARCHIVE)
(photo credit: EMMAUS ARCHIVE)
Jerusalem has changed, and continues to evolve, at a rapid pace in recent times. Not that many years ago, the city was more like an oversized village – albeit very oversized – with nary a building over five or six floors to be found. Now the city center is awash with towering structures, and as the work near the western entrance to the city advances apace, there are plenty more lined up that will push the city skyline ever upward.
All of which makes the remnants of a slower-paced way of life in Jerusalem all the more precious. We are privileged to still have such fully active and well-preserved yesteryear gems as the YMCA and Artists House that have survived the march of time, not to mention constantly shifting regional geopolitics.
In architectural aesthetic terms, Hansen House can certainly be mentioned in the same breath as those illustrious edifices. The large building, with sprawling grounds spread around it, was conceived in 1885, when the cornerstone to the Jesus Hilfe (Jesus Help) asylum for sufferers of Hansen’s disease, also called leprosy, was laid.
The institution, which was known locally as Lepers’ Home, was planned by German architect Conrad Schick, whose many works around Jerusalem include Tabor House on Hanevi’im Street and several buildings in what eventually became Mea She’arim, as Jewish residents began to spill out of the overcrowded Old City to seek a better quality of life outside the ancient walls.
Last week a new-old exhibition opened that tells the story of the magnificent structure over the course of close to a century and a quarter. Visitors to Hansen House will probably have seen some of the exhibits and photographs before, particularly following the installation of the previous exhibition in 2009. But the revamped showing features a succinct time line and accompanying texts, which help to place the various stages of the institution in their temporal and chronological context.
It seems that Hansen’s disease was pretty rife in these parts in the 19th century, which was not at all to the liking of a certain German aristocrat by the name of Baroness Augusta von Kefenbrinck Ascheraden, who visited Jerusalem with her husband in 1865. Perturbed by the sight of lepers begging at the Old City gates, the baroness got a fundraiser going among her well-heeled associates back in Europe and, with the help of the Joint German-Anglican Protestant Church in Jerusalem, and the Moravian Church, a plot of land on Agron Street near the Mamilla Pool was duly purchased.
So lepers in Jerusalem finally had some sort of haven, although the venture proved to be only a partial success. The Monty Python crew must have done their history homework, as, like the bogus leper sufferer in Life of Brian, the sick of Jerusalem were wary of moving to the new asylum for fear of losing the income they scratched together by begging. That was compounded by the fact that the majority of the sufferers were Muslim, and they were concerned they would be forcibly converted to Christianity if they moved into the new refuge.
A second, less hospitable and even less successful facility was established in the district of Bir Ayub, by the Ottoman authorities in 1875. The lot of lepers in Jerusalem improved manifold with the establishment of the albiyeh.
Reluctance notwithstanding, the institution near Mamilla eventually proved to be too small to accommodate all the asylum-seekers, and in 1874 the Moravian Church, which had taken on responsibility for running the Agron Street center, purchased a vineyard from the Greek Orthodox Church. The new asylum was designed to take in up to 60 patients and members of staff, and when construction of Hansen House was completed in 1887, it is said that the inmates of the Agron Street facility “marched in a festive procession to their new home.”
By all accounts, it was a major event in the annals of 19th-century Jerusalem. The archives of the Moravian Church contain historical documentation of the event, which notes: It was a wonderful procession... those who could, walked by foot, the seeing led the blind, and the lame and crippled rode donkeys. They were cheerful since they were on their way to a larger, finer house in which their living conditions would be ameliorated.”
THE NEWLY opened, more expansive and informative exhibition is largely the work of Ruth Wexler, who also initiated the first display. If anyone knows anything about Hansen House, from the inside and the outside, it is Wexler. She joined the staff of the then-hospital in 1988, as head nurse, and stayed on after most of the patients were relocated in 2000, when the facility became a day clinic. Wexler suddenly found herself with more time on her hands, which she put to good use by digging into Hansen House’s past. “The place was far less busy. There were far fewer people there,” she notes.
Like many of her generation who spent their formative years in the neighborhood, now 69-year-old Wexler grew up with a sense of mystique, even fear, connected to the old building, which lurked behind the imposing stone walls and wrought iron gates.
“My father had an aunt who lived in the German Colony, and we’d go to visit her,” she recalls. “We grew up with the idea that the place was off limits. There were all sorts of old wives’ tales about it, and all sorts of fairy tales, like with any place you don’t really know. So I didn’t really know about it.”
That general childhood unease carried over into adulthood, and even impinged on the institution’s operational aspects, generating a reluctance among qualified medical professionals to join the staff there.
“When the head, male, nurse before me left – he was the first Jewish head nurse there, his name was Yaakov Kadosh – they looked for someone to replace him. It was very difficult to find someone to do that, because of the taboo,” says Wexler.
She was offered the position and, after weighing up various logistics, she took it on. “I lived not far from Hansen House. I had a young daughter at home, and I decided that instead of traveling an hour to work and back, and getting a head nurse’s salary, that was a good thing to do.”
It was a beneficial move for all concerned, and Wexler finally got to put her negative childhood baggage to rest. “When I started working at Hansen House, I immediately fell in love with the place.”
It’s not hard to see why, even if, back then, the edifice and grounds had gone a little to seed three decades ago, and the spot was far less well maintained than today.
“There had been lots of changes since the Jerusalem Municipality took the place over,” Wexler explains. That was 10 years ago, and followed the former head nurse’s initial informational spread, which led to bigger and better things for the aged institution. The first exhibition, which was suitably titled “Behind the Wall,” opened on Jerusalem Day 2009, and then-mayor Nir Barkat attended the launch. It was an eye-opener for the city hall honcho, who, like Wexler, as a child had also been told to steer clear of the mysterious-looking building.
Barkat was duly impressed with the exhibition, and things began moving along swiftly from that point. “He asked if the municipality could take over the site, and the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) began to administer it through the Ran Wolf offices. They sat down with the plans and deliberated over what should be done with the place and, ultimately, they turned it into a multimedia and technology center.”
Thankfully, the introduction of 21st-century hi-tech content did not decimate the rich history that had unfolded there since the 1880s. Quite the opposite. “The exhibition was left more or less in situ, which, as far as I was concerned, was a miracle in itself,” Wexler laughs. “The exhibition shrunk a bit, because there was less room left for it, but we were given two rooms, which is fine, too.”
Wexler deserves a couple of pats on the back for the way things have panned out on the historical side of Hansen House, and the fact that the public can still get a handle on the site’s fascinating time line.
After the downsizing in 2000, Wexler began venturing into parts of the spacious building that had not seen the light of day for many a year. “I started going into rooms that had been closed for a long time, and I collected all sorts of objects and artifacts. I didn’t know, at the time, what would come out of that, but I thought, let’s see.”
The matter took on a sense of some urgency. “There were all kinds of real estate development plans for the place back then – there was a preservation order, but, you know, that’s only really a recommendation,” Wexler notes.
She got stuck into the task. She learned of a master’s degree thesis about the first leper colony in Jerusalem.
“I went to Germany to do research, and I learned German,” she says. “Things had been stolen from Hansen House, and all sorts of things happened there.”
But it wasn’t all bad. Under the aegis of the JDA, modern floor tiles were removed, to reveal the original, far more aesthetic flooring, as were partitions that the Health Ministry had installed.
“I learned a lot about the place in Germany,” Wexler says. “I learned about what happened during the time of the British Mandate, which no one knew about here. I learned a lot. So the new exhibition provides a lot more historical data.”
One can only applaud Wexler’s efforts, as well as the work of the JDA and Ran Wolf. Today, Hansen House is a living, breathing center of technological and artistic advancement, with a café, musical and other cultural events – including the annual Jerusalem Design Week – with at least one foot firmly planted in its illustrious past.