The original Germans of the German Colony

Perhaps under the impression that they had arrived at the biblical Valley of Refaim, the German Templers named their main street Emek Refaim when they settled in Jerusalem in 1873.

311_German Colony house (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
311_German Colony house
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
In 1868, a large group of German Templers landed in Haifa. Although they bore the same name as the Crusaders who were based on the Temple Mount hundreds of years earlier, the two groups had nothing in common, Indeed, the German movement was an evangelical sect, a splinter group that had seceded from the Lutheran Church in 1854. German Templers believed that the Day of Judgment was near and favored Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.
Following the establishment of the movement, Templer leaders Christoff Hoffman and George David Hardegg were both persecuted and excommunicated in their native southern Germany. Eventually they decided to gather their followers and settle them in the Holy Land. Not missionaries in any sense, they hoped to establish a spiritual Kingdom of God together with the People of the Book. They had faith that the ideal society they planned to create would set an example for the local population.
Three years after the first wave of German Templers landed in Israel, a second group arrived. Their agricultural settlement of Sharona would later become the site of Israel’s first official government offices (Hakirya in Tel Aviv).
Last of all came the Templers who founded Jerusalem’s quietly elegant German Colony, generally considered the most important of all. Upon arrival in 1873, they settled fairly close to the revered Temple Mount. Perhaps under the impression that they had settled in the biblical Valley of Refaim, mentioned eight times in the Scriptures and the site of two Davidic battles, they named their main street Emek (Valley of) Refaim. Use of this name was just one more piece of evidence connecting them to the holy books.
Houses were of a style hitherto unknown in Jerusalem, for they were both spacious and modest. The majority were one-family homes, although a few were built for two-family occupancy. Metal fences surrounded many of the dwellings; inscriptions in Gothic German were often carved above the doors.
In Jerusalem, the German design generally found among wooden structures was modified by the use of local materials – stone instead of wood – and by the artistry of local Arab builders. Of particular interest was a light-colored stone edging on many of the corners and windows.
Many of the houses on Emek Refaim still retain their original look. As a result, the whole effect – if you ignore the traffic – is that of a quiet German village. That is, unless you happen to be admiring the wares at an open-air arts and crafts fair, dining in one of the street’s eateries or spending money at one of the charming shops.
Shaded by the German Colony’s tall cypress and pine trees, begin a half-hour stroll at Rehov Emek Refaim 1, on the corner of Derech Beit Lehem. This was the Templers’ community center, opened in 1882 in the presence of Jerusalem’s Turkish governor.
Strong believers in simplicity and brotherly love, the Templers worshiped in this unpretentious structure in the colony and used it as a communal meeting place as well. So frugal was their lifestyle, that taking cream instead of milk with their coffee was an almost unheard-of phenomenon. Modest though it is, this house has a decorative gabled entrance and a belfry. The bell called Templers to worship on Sunday mornings. One of the elders would preach a sermon at the conclusion of the prayer service, and an organ accompanied the singing that followed. Today the building belongs to the Armenian Church.
The German Colony’s two schools – which at the time were considered to have offered the best education in the country – were located down the street. The structure farthest from the community center, at No. 5, appeared in 1878. Templers added the edifice at No. 3 to the German Colony in 1882.
Of unusual interest is the house across the street, at No. 6. This, the colony’s earliest edifice, was erected by Mattheus Frank. Called the Miller’s House because of the steam-powered mill (and bakery) located on the property, it differed from the later structures in many ways. Not only was it two stories high and built on a large area of five dunams, but it also boasted a private swimming pool. The original wooden shutters on the ground floor are still intact.
Like so many of the houses, this one is graced with an attractive facade. Above the front door are the words “Eben-Ezer” (literally translated as “helping stone”). The name apparently comes from the biblical verse “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Even-Ha’ezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.’” (1 Samuel 7:12). Look for the date (1873) of this historic dwelling over the entrance.
House-owners in the German Colony took wise advantage of their land, and so did Mattheus Frank. Cellars were used for storage, and attics provided additional living space. This house’s side wings are far more elegant than those on the former schools across the street.
NEXT DOOR, the interesting structure at No. 8 was built in 1885 by Nicholas Schmidt II. Fortyfive years later, Nicholas Schmidt III turned the front portion of the house into a boarding school for out-of-town pupils, while at the same time lending it to the Templer choir for practice.
Built in stages by a rich and well-connected family that imported German goods, the sprawling house at No. 10 has a gable-topped attic. The year of its construction (1874) is displayed over the door, and the inscription is from Psalms: “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob” [Psalms 87:2].
Two sisters and their families lived together in the house at No. 12. Dating back to 1875, it is divided by a Roman-style column, with each family residing in half of the dwelling. Feast your eyes on the original wooden balcony, topped by an oval window and attractive gable. Look for the double arches at the entrance.
Go into the alley between No. 10 and No. 12 to reach Beit Yehudit. Completed in 2008, Beit Yehudit houses the Ginot Ha’ir Community Center, whose activities are enjoyed by Jerusalemites from all over the city.
The next two houses belonged to the extensive Imberger family. Built in 1877 and restored in 2005, the dwelling in front (No. 16) is engraved with the following prophetic words – in German, like other inscriptions in the colony: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you” [Isaiah 60:1].
The beautiful entrance is slightly reminiscent of a Greek temple. To the rear of the building is latecomer No. 14, constructed 49 years later.
No. 18 Emek Refaim is a quietly attractive residence built in 1878 and shaped very much like its neighbor – perhaps because that’s who designed it. The house belonged to Paula Paulus, the granddaughter of Templer founder Christoff Hoffman. This is more or less the end of the original colony, which had only one street.
Begin walking back, and as you do so, gaze across the street for a different view of the houses you passed on your way here.
While a high wall and a new, tall gate make it difficult to get a good look inside, what you can see of Emek Refaim 15 is lovely. This was a typical German Colony residence, with a basement (the service floor) and attic.
No. 11 stands on the corner of Rehov Cremieux, an absolutely charming little byway. Enjoy, then continue on to No. 9, where the entrance is embellished with a sculpted lion’s head resting on its paws. This was the Sandel home. A lion was the symbol of the family’s chain of pharmacies in Germany.
The man of the house, Theodore Sandel, was a talented architect and at least partially responsible for many well-known Jerusalem institutions. Among them are the Shaare Zedek Hospital (the 19th-century hospital on Jaffa Road, not the hospital that is used today), Laemel School, Dormition Abbey and the Anglican School on Rehov Hanevi’im.
During the early decades of the 20th century, there were only two taverns in Jerusalem – and the house at No. 7 was one of them. Enjoy the trees, a lovely fragrance, and the quiet ambience (unless you walk into the side entrance, you won’t see much of the building itself). This house is quite famous, for its early pub is mentioned in S.Y. Agnon’s famous book Tmol Shilshom.
Despite differences in venue and variations in the characters of their colonies, all the Templers in Israel came to the same sad end. The founders had been practically Zionistic in their belief that the Chosen People should live in the Land of Israel, and they vehemently opposed German nationalism. But when Wilhelm II visited the Holy Land in 1898, the second generation flew German flags and sang the German anthem. And, incredibly, the native-born third generation turned into enthusiastic Nazi sympathizers, setting up a branch of the Nazi movement within the colony.
So it is no accident that a few decades ago, a family residing in Jerusalem’s calm and tranquil German Colony found a Nazi cache hidden away in a long-abandoned attic. Probably secreted there in 1939 during a British search for German sympathizers, the Nazi gear included a steel knife inscribed in German with the slogan “Blood and Honor.” A hat and patent leather belt carried the name of one Erich Imberger, a third-generation Templer. No doubt he came to the same end as his fellow Templers: He either left the country before the onset of World War II to serve in the German army or was deported to Australia by the British during the war. And by the time Israel became a state in 1948, not one of these resourceful German Templers remained.