While documenting one of Jerusalem's mysterious sites, the Hansen lepers' hospital, photographer Yuval Yairi gained some insight into his own life story

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

About four years ago, Yuval Yairi received a tidy sum of money. Yairi is a graphic artist who has produced PR films for groups like Zionism 2000 and the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism. Yairi, 44 and a father of two, decided to fulfill an old dream and bought a state-of-the-art Sony digital video camera (PD 150). It changed his life.

Yairi studied graphic design at WIZO-Haifa College of Design, where he met his wife, Noa. The two, who live in Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood, ran an independent graphics studio; Yairi also produced and directed films. As a lover of old buildings, he wandered around with the new camera in the German Colony. There, he became enthusiastic about the premises of the Israel Fiber Institute, originally the school of the Templer community, a 19th century religious society that build German colonies throughout the Holy Land. Afterward he also filmed at the beautiful abandoned railway station in the Emek Refaim area, near the Jerusalem Cinematheque. He would document the sites with the video camera, using the stills mode.

This was the continuation of a hobby he had enjoyed as a child. "From childhood I've been strongly attracted to abandoned places," he recalls. "I grew up in the Neveh Rom neighborhood in Ramat Hasharon. I was never a good student, and I liked to wander near the railroad tracks, where there were deserted ruins of Arab houses. I used to rummage in the piles of garbage that accumulated there, which came from the army base at Glilot among other places, and look for something that belonged to some distant and undefined past."

In the 1970s, Neveh Rom was a neighborhood of Israel Air Force personnel, and the Yairis were the only "green" (infantry) army family. But not just any green - Yuval's father was Colonel Uzi Yairi, commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, who became famous as the commander of the Paratroop Brigade in the fierce battle at the Chinese Farm in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He was killed during the rescue of hostages taken by terrorists at the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv in March 1975. Yuval's mother is the Israel Radio presenter and journalist, Dalia Yairi.

While he was looking for unique buildings, Yairi discovered that there was an opportunity to film at the "lepers' hospice," whose official name is the Hansen Government Hospital for Lepers. The building, which was constructed in 1887 and designed by Conrad Schick - a leading German architect and theologian, who also designed the first hospice for lepers in the Mamilla neighborhood, is located on Marcus Street in the Talbieh neighborhood - and is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the capital. Yairi jumped at the chance.

"The place is a paradise for me, because it symbolizes the lepers, those same shunned sick people who lived on the furthest margins of society," he says. "It is also a place that preserves within it quite a bit of evidence about the past of the building."

Yairi saves the varied documents he has gathered in the course of his research about the lepers' hospice and leprosy [see box] in a crammed loose leaf notebook. He found rare photographs of the institution and of the lepers who lived there in the early 20th century. He discovered that each bed in the institution had a different Christian name. He studied the history of the Moravian Church, whose members ran the place, and in its archives in Herrenhut, in southern Germany, he found annual reports from the late 19th century, as well as photographs of the institution.

That was the background for his obsessive project, in the course of which he photographed the hospital premises repeatedly over two years. The impressive result is on display at a solo exhibition of his work in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art that opened last week, curated by Nili Goren. The name of the exhibition, "Ad Olam" ("Forevermore") comes from the short story by Nobel Prize laureate S.Y. Agnon, which takes place in the historic building. The hero of the story is a kind of historian named Adiel Amzeh, who wants to publish a certain book about the history of the city, and is searching for a book in the lepers' hospice for his research. In the end he remained there, "and didn't move from his place, and sat there forever," without publishing the anticipated book. (Interestingly, in his last book, "Shira," Agnon also reserved a role for leprosy and the lepers' hospice: This is the place where Dr. Manfred Herbst reunites with Shira, his lover who had disappeared.)

A thousand photos

At present, the Hansen Hospital (named for Henrik Armauer Hansen, the Norwegian physician who discovered the leprosy bacillus) serves as a clinic for treating the disease, but is not operative for the most part. Yairi, who at first received a permit from the Health Ministry to photograph on site for a month, was pleased to discover that some of the rooms had remained as they were left by the last patients and the staff. On the first day he "`fired in all directions,' thinking that my time was limited and that I had to get as much done as possible," as he puts it. Eventually, he started to spend longer periods of time in each room.

"The longer I stayed in the place, the more I wanted to know about it. I read Agnon's `Shira' for the first time in my life. I read about tzaraat [a disease generally - but apparently incorrectly - identified with leprosy] in the Bible, and about the history of the disease. I repeatedly read `Forevermore,' and identified with the hero and with his obsession, as a person who had decided to research something to the limit. Although in the end, what happened to me with the project was the complete opposite of what happened to Agnon's hero."

When Yairi arrived at the compound, he found a small staff headed by Ruth Wexler, the head nurse who runs the welfare services, and physiotherapist Hannah Melchior (the wife of Deputy Minister Michael Melchior). During the initial stages of the project, the two were photographed in the building, but later on Yairi decided, at the recommendation of Prof. Mordechai Omer, director of the Tel Aviv Museum, to remove the people from the photographs.

The photographs on display in the exhibition are large prints composed of hundreds of small ones. They feature quite a few items from the early 20th century - furniture, a typewriter, the clinic's medical equipment. Yairi frequently moved these objects and planted them within the spaces he had photographed. "In my work, only the isolated frame reflects reality," explained Yairi. "The combination of the frames is my interpretation of the place and of the light, and with this technique I can create something that cannot be described in one photo."

His technique was born of a technical limitation inherent to using a digital video camera in the stills mode. "As opposed to conventional photography, with this type of camera, in order to obtain a picture that includes a great deal of information, you are forced to photograph it piece by piece, frame by frame. I discovered that this restriction has advantages, and that it's like seeing and thinking about a painting. Not to take the thing with one click, but to record things in detail, and to compose them into one picture that includes hundreds or thousands of frames."

The work process therefore took many hours, during which he precisely documented each and every detail that interested him, from one point of view. In the final stage, he sat in front of the computer screen, chose details, and combined them into one mosaic photographed image that contains a rich variety of details and information (one of the pictures in the exhibit is composed of 1,400 frames). In her essay for the exhibition catalog, curator Nili Goren writes that the effect achieved by the photos "therefore has a realistic effect on the one hand, and a surrealistic or symbolic effect on the other. On the one hand, the picture is wide, slow and subtle; on the other it contains allusion and dramatic tensions that are created by the composition of the mosaic, an operation that is sometimes precise and indiscernible, and sometimes obvious."

Why did you get involved in this project?

Yairi: "It was something of an escape. I started it during a difficult period in Jerusalem, with all the major terror attacks, and here I was suddenly closed inside a place surrounded by a wall, cutting myself off from the world and doing something of absolutely no use to humanity. On January 29, 2004, just when I was unloading equipment to enter the hospital compound, I heard a tremendous boom from the direction of Gaza Road, a distance of about 300 meters from the hospital, and I had a camera in my hand. For a second I faced a dilemma as to whether to run to film the attack, in other words, what was really happening, but after half a minute I entered the compound and disappeared inside, with everything that implies. It was a type of escape from the harsh reality, and later on, it was accompanied by curiosity about a place that is considered forbidden and dark. I had empathy for the sad life that existed there for about 120 years. The deeper I delved into the project, the more things I discovered, and I understood that it could be a never-ending project. This week I was there, and I discovered the source of the red armchair that appears on the invitation to the exhibit."

It turns out that the armchair belonged to Dr. Moshe Goldberger and his wife Devora, who have been living in the compound since 1964. The doctor, who is 92 years old, returned to Israel with his family from the United States in 1964, and began to work at Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem. Later on he joined a research group that worked in the Hansen hospital, and served as an in-house doctor for the institution. The compound included a neglected house that was supposed to be the guard's residence, and in the 1950s it was occupied by the director of the Health Ministry. When the building became available, the doctor, his wife and their daughter Rivka (today Regev) moved into it. Regev, who was 14 and a half years old at the time, remembers how "strange and interesting" it was to live in that house, which few of her friends dared to visit. Her father became so attached to the patients, she says, that he continued to work as a volunteer there until the age of 85, and did a great deal to preserve the beautiful garden. "It was about six dunams [1.5 acres] of a wonderful, primeval paradise inside Jerusalem," she says.

At present Regev is taking care of her father and her 85-year-old mother, and is making an effort to restore the garden with the help of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).

`Lucky breaks'

Yairi displayed previous works in galleries in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 2002 and 2003; last year he participated in a group exhibition at the Israel Museum called "Old and New, Recent Acquisitions in Photography," after the museum bought two of his photographs.

He also got an opportunity to exhibit the photographs of the lepers' hospital for the first time in a big city abroad. "The truth is that I fell in love with the hospital, and I couldn't leave it, and I wouldn't have left had there not been the opportunity to display the photos in the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York."

Meislin once worked at the Israel Museum as an assistant curator, and about a year ago opened a photographic gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, where she displays the works of a great number of Israeli photographers. She is showing Yairi's photos of the Hansen hospital until the end of the month. Sales are going well: So far, about 13 photos have been sold, at prices between $2,000 and $8,000. Yairi has finally paid back his overdraft of the past two years. During this interview, Tel Aviv gallery owner Alon Segev called him and suggested that they meet.

Yairi looks as though he is not really taking in what's happening. Up until less than a year ago, he was an anonymous rookie photographer, and now his star is rising in the international art capital. But for him, the exhibition in the Tel Aviv Museum is the high point. Omer spoke to him about a year ago about a solo show. "Fortunately, I had time to continue working on the project. When I was in New York in May, he phoned and asked if I could be ready for the exhibition in July, and I agreed."

Short notice, wasn't it?

"Yes. Everything happened very quickly, before I had consolidated an identity as a photographer. Even now I do not define myself as a photographer. The truth is that if I knew how to paint, I would paint, and I don't reject this possibility. But there was something here that I can't explain. A combination of lucky breaks for me."

Doesn't it scare you?

"What can happen? That I'll disappear from the landscape? That those who bought my photos as an investment will lose? That is the dilemma of the hero of `Forevermore' - whether to issue his study as a book or to continue with his research. Agnon claims that it's good that things are delayed, and that you have more time to work and to bring things to closure. If I wanted to be at peace with myself, I would continue to work on the project for a few more years, but I couldn't withstand the temptation. The fragility of life and not knowing what will happen tomorrow make you do things now. My wife thought that it was right to display the works now. I got married in 1987, and I chose an assertive partner, who makes decisions."

What made you choose a place like the lepers' hospice, of all things?

"The technique that I could use to research and develop, the beauty and aesthetics of the place, all these may have spurred me to continue working there, but emotion is something beyond photography, and it was aroused by the subject that brought me back to my childhood and to my fears. After all, this is a place that deals with the most basic fears of death and disease, of rejection."

History of lepers' hospices

Leprosy has been known to mankind for a long time, and in the Bible it is depicted as a punishment for sin. Anyone who wants, like Yuval Yairi, for example, to avoid the use of the word "leprosy" because of its connotations, calls it "Hansen's disease," after Norwegian researcher Henrik Hansen. He diagnosed it in 1873 for the first time as an infectious disease caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae, which penetrates the skin and is located mainly on the nerve endings. Its clinical signs appear after an incubation period: a mild case involves skin lesions; in the severe version, there is an attack on the peripheral nervous system as well.

Whether by coincidence or not, Jerusalem has had a long involvement with leprosy. In the 13th century, when leprosy broke out and spread all over Europe, and led to the denial of the rights of lepers and the establishment of about 19,000 special institutions for them, a special order of leprous knights was active in Palestine, called the Order of Saint Lazarus. It operated a special institution, the hospice for lepers, which was built near the northern wall of Jerusalem, alongside a house of worship and a monastery. The order included both lepers and healthy people, and both groups fulfilled religious and military roles, and even fought together. The unique phenomenon of the leprous knights apparently stemmed from a shortage of fighters, but the attitude toward the disease became so enlightened that Baldwin IV, who was a leper from his youth, became the Crusader king of Jerusalem at the end of the 12th century.

Travelogues written by visitors to Jerusalem indicate that 700 years later, in 1838, there was a lepers' village in the city, near Zion Gate; the inhabitants intermarried among themselves and were cut off from the other city residents. A first institution for lepers was apparently built in 1875, outside the city, but a genuine solution to the problem was offered from another source. A German nobleman, who visited the city in 1866 and was shocked at the situation of the lepers, contributed a generous sum to the local bishop, and through him a large plot of about nine dunams (2.25 acres) was purchased next to the Mamilla pool, which was far from the city at the time. Here they constructed a building for those suffering from the disease; it was designed partly by Conrad Schick, one of the most important architects in Jerusalem in the 19th century, who also designed the Mea She'arim neighborhood. That same old lepers' hospice is now located on 20 Agron Street, and serves as a Lazarite Catholic monastery.

In his book "Architecture in Jerusalem," David Kroyanker writes about the German-Protestant building. The one-story building contained eight rooms, a kitchen and a washroom, he explains, and the lepers from the Zion Gate were not pleased about moving there, for fear that they would be imprisoned in it all their lives. The construction took place under the supervision of a public committee composed of the priest of the Protestant community, the German consul, a banker, the architect Schick and the doctor of the institution, Dr. Chaplin. In 1867 a missionary arrived and ran the institution with his wife.

Already in 1870, it became clear that the institution did not have room for the local lepers, and it was decided to construct a new building, in the isolated area northwest of the German Colony (the Germans demanded and received their rights to the building on Agron Street, and since then, as the property of the German Consulate, the building has undergone various incarnations, and served among other things as a hotel and a school of theology). On an area of about 40 dunams (10 acres), Schick designed a new structure, surrounding by a high stone wall. This is the beautiful building that is located on 17 Marcus Street in Talbieh.

A tough man

All his life Yuval Yairi has heard the theory that his father, in the wake of the bitter battle at the Chinese Farm (an irrigation project east of the Suez Canal), actually wanted to die in the Savoy Hotel. It gives him no rest. Recently he closed this circle.

Dalia and Uzi Yairi had five children. The eldest, Tal Fein, 47, is a social worker for Elem (an association that helps youth in distress); Yuval and his twin sister were born in 1961 - she is a photographer and a gynecologist; Gal, 34, works in special education; and Michal, 31, is studying industrial design. Until they moved to Neveh Rom (where Yuval's mother still lives with her second husband, Eran Dolev, a former chief medical officer in the Israel Defense Forces), the family lived in Holon, in Jerusalem and in Zahala. Yuval, who attended first grade in Ramat Hasharon, wasn't particularly fond of school, neither elementary school nor high school. He recalls a childhood with lots of friends, but also a tendency to seclude himself in abandoned buildings. He preferred the beach, the sailboats and roaming around, and finally he found himself in Ankori (a school for external high school studies), preparing for matriculation exams, which he didn't complete, either.

When Yuval's father was killed he was 13 and a half. He remembers his father as "someone who was often absent from home. Relative to my sisters, I spent a lot of time with him, because I joined his military exercises in the army, and I also remember hikes with him on Shabbat, dozens of kilometers on foot. He was an assertive type, a tough man, and only in his surroundings in the army did I sense his power, via the soldiers who surrounded him. Was he a good father? So-so. He wasn't there. We spent a year in the United States and then we were with him more, but in all he was not a father that I would wish for my children."

He remembers how important his bar mitzvah was to his father. "Twice a week he drove me to a military rabbi in Bnei Brak. It was important to him to give me some Judaism. I was called up to the Torah at the Western Wall, and he was very proud. My last photo with him was on this occasion, and he looks happy. For me, it was a treat to be with him. He was not open, and we never had heart-to-heart talks. Afterward he was killed. Actually, because of his death I didn't mature so much. Something in me was not completely formed, and I didn't do anything completely and seriously until I began the `Forevermore' project, which is the first thing that I've done thoroughly."

The Yom Kippur War "was the first time that I saw him weak and broken, when he came home for two days during the war, apparently shortly after the battle at the Chinese Farm. He didn't talk about what had happened there, and in my opinion, he didn't discuss it with Mother."

Before the events commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Savoy Hotel rescue operation, Yuval and his twin sister Yael decided to research and record on video the circumstances in which their father was killed. They wanted to know if he really wanted to die, as various people had repeatedly claimed over the years.

Yairi: "We spoke to fighters who were with him, and we pressured them to tell the truth. That was the first time that we directly confronted the facts, such as where and how he was killed. He did in fact join the force that was supposed to break in, and when he peered into the corridor and was exposed, he was shot and killed. The question of whether he had to be there or not is irrelevant, because this is not the first time we've heard about people who volunteer to do things that they weren't supposed to be doing. We wanted to know if he wanted to die, or whether he was killed during the course of the fighting."

And were you somewhat comforted by what you discovered?

"As a young boy it was easier for me to see in him the figure of a hero who died in heroic circumstances, but in the background there was always the assertion that he wanted to die, and as a boy I didn't deal with that. After Dad was killed, everyone in the family kept to himself. Mom was left with five young children, and for years, each one tried to deal with the tragedy separately. We didn't do it together. I went to all kinds of psychologists. Fortunately, two years later Mom married an amazing man, with whom we all fell in love. He was the closest thing to Dad, a man with a military career, who even looked a little like him."

In 1997, Yuval was drafted into the Tank Corps, and after about half a year he was transferred to intelligence, where as an aerial scout he discovered photography. He remembers the time of the Lebanon War as a shame and a disgrace. He is not allowed to provide details, he says, but he says he has come to understand that "crimes were committed there, and not everyone was ethical." After his discharge, he registered for the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, but he was not accepted; in 1984 he began to study at WIZO and met Noa. The two got married and went to live in Jerusalem, her home town. He thinks that the time has now come to make time for his wife, who "is a better artist than I," to do a project of her own, and not only to support the family. He will slowly but surely start to become involved with the next subject that he has chosen to deal with: abandoned property and the Palestinian refugees.

According to Kroyanker, the building - a square, two-story structure with an attic and a cellar - was constructed within a pine forest, and upon its completion, in 1887, it served about 80 patients and the medical staff, which enjoyed heating stoves made of molded iron. Above the entrance the name "Hilfe Jesus" (German for Jesus' Help) was engraved in stone. Schick, says Kroyanker, designed a very innovative element in the structure: two-story bathroom towers that were built separately, to improve sanitation. Those who were seriously ill were kept in a separate wing, and in the front of the main building there was a garden that provided employment for several patients.

The hospital operated in that format until the end of the British Mandate period. Although during the world wars most of the German institutions in Palestine were expropriated by the British, the "lepers' hospice" continued to be run by the Germans with the help of the Hadassah international women's organization. Since the 1990s, patients have been coming there once again, mainly natives of Ethiopia who have arrived in Israel carrying the bacterium of the disease; they come as outpatients for daily treatment. The building, which is situated on some of the most expensive real estate in the capital, near the Jerusalem Theater and at the edge of the most prestigious neighborhoods, is today quite neglected - especially its garden. (D.K.)n