From orphanage to army base

The story of the Schneller Compound began in 1854. The Pilgermissionsanstalt (the pilgrim mission) of St. Chrischona, a small village near Basel, Switzerland, decided to send its major emissary, the German-born Johann Ludwig Schneller, to the Holy Land to rebuild the organization's small mission house located in Jerusalem. The heads of the organization deemed that Schneller, a strong, stern, humble married man, would be the best choice to provide the tiny Christian (Lutheran) mission a chance of survival amid a huge - and hostile - Muslim neighborhood. "In those days," writes Gil Gordon, then a PhD student, in his dissertation dedicated to the Schneller story, "Jerusalem was a remote, poor and underdeveloped place with few, if any, roads emanating from it, while some 15,000 residents - divided into many communities - lived in terrible conditions inside its walls." The Protestants came relatively late to the Holy City, and thus their status - and their living conditions - were not the best. At first, the Schnellers found a housing solution at the almost devastated Bruderhaus (brethren house) of their mission; but after the terrible winter of 1855 and after Magdalena Schneller lost their first baby, the couple decided to try something else. With their personal savings they bought a plot outside the walls, on the land of the Arab village of Lifta. It was some two kilometers from the gates of the city but close to the spring of Lifta and to the vineyard owned by the British consul James Finn, who had a guard on the site. At the beginning, the young couple had to return to Jerusalem every night, for the place was highly unsafe. But by the spring of 1856 the Schnellers, accompanied by four of their apprentices, decided to settle on their plot, thus becoming the first Europeans to live outside the walls of Jerusalem. During the next six years, the little house (which started as two rooms on one floor) became the core of what was to be the largest orphanage in Jerusalem. In the fall of 1860, Schneller himself managed to rescue nine refugee children from the massacre perpetrated by Muslims and Druse in the Maronite Christian communities in Lebanon. On November 11, upon returning to Jerusalem from his rescue mission in Lebanon, Schneller, with the support of his homeland mission, founded the Syrian Orphanage of Jerusalem. (The name was given in order to avoid, as much as possible, any problems with the Muslim administration. "Syrian," they reasoned, wouldn't sound too suspect.) Over the next few years, the little mission faced a series of terrible problems: the cholera epidemic of 1865, soon followed by locust attacks, illnesses brought on by cattle diseases, shortage of food and unbearable poverty suffered by all the residents of the city. Later on, the orphanage became an education institution, including dorms, classrooms, workshops. According to the Schnellers and their church, redemption would come as a result of hard work and the capacity to sustain oneself, thus all the orphans were taught various skills. The mission grew until, by the beginning of the 20th century, it reached its current size. At its peak, it housed more than 180 orphans. It supplied all their needs until they were married to young Christian Arabs, to fulfill the original idea of spreading Lutheran Christianity among the Muslim population of the region. In 1891 Schneller wrote that this plan had failed completely, since most of the graduates of the orphanage returned to their villages, where they were rejected (for becoming Christians), or ultimately returned to Islam. Schneller proposed that instead of fighting for nothing, the orphanage should become the center of an evangelical community, where the graduates would all live together and strengthen their beliefs. Schneller's project was eventually approved by his homeland community, and in May 1894 it was sealed in an official ceremony. Schneller died in 1896, but one of his three sons, Theodore, followed in his footsteps and headed the compound and the development plan created by his father. By that time, the compound was already surrounded by a wall, and two years later the decision to build a neighborhood around the compound was approved and initiated. But it was brought to a halt by World War I, which ended with the British army's arrival and the end of the Ottoman Empire. In the following years, the Syrian Orphanage and the whole compound still functioned; but with the outbreak of hostilities and World War II, all German and Austrian citizens were forced out of Palestine. The Schneller Compound became one of the headquarters of the British army, which in his turn handed it over to the new Jewish armed forced of the new State of Israel - the IDF. Before that, the compound, being a stronghold of the British Mandate, suffered repeated attacks from the Irgun Zva'i Leumi and Lehi. In March 1947, the compound was directly attacked by the IZL. Led by Yehoshua Goldschmidt, one of the local leaders of the organization, the group forced its way through one of the surrounding walls and burst into the compound, opening fire. One British soldier was killed during the operation, and eight others were wounded. In mid-March of 1948, about two months before the end of the British Mandate period, the compound was handed over to the Hagana and later became an IDF base. For many years it was also the medical center for soldiers serving in the region. Since 1992 it had been the headquarters of the Home Front Command for the country's central region. - P.C.