The Makings of History / An Unsung Medical Hero

Max Sandreczky was a German doctor, the scion of Polish aristocrats; in 1868 he settled in Jerusalem. A new book depicts the man as a trailblazer who deserves to be known for having founded a children's hospital in Jerusalem. That was a revolutionary novelty; at the time there were not many children's hospital in the entire world.

"Dr. Max Sandreczky and the Marienstift Children's Hospital, Jerusalem" (Itay Bahur Publishing, in Hebrew ) is a book that seemingly belongs on the medical history shelf; its author, Shemuel Nissan, was the longtime director of the surgery department at Hadassah University Hospital, Mount Scopus. He wrote it together with Itay Bahur of Zichron Yaakov, who is also the publisher.

Itay Bahur Publishing

This biography of Sandreczky essentially lays bare the saga of intrigues and political and religious battles, the scheming and backroom deals that habitually rocked the cosmopolitan society of Jerusalem, which was still a small town in those days, a turbid puddle that pretended to be an ocean. Sandreczky made himself loathsome to many people thanks to another innovation he introduced in this zealous city: His hospital was open to children of all faiths.

When he arrived in Jerusalem, the city had some 21,000 inhabitants, almost half of them Jews. At first, Sandreczky worked at the German Deaconess Hospital, which had been operating for a few years in the city. Nissan and Bahur write that the head nurse did everything in her power to besmirch the new doctor and make him fail.

Sandreczky fought back. In November 1869, Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria, visited Jerusalem, on his way back from Egypt, where he had attended the opening of the Suez Canal. Sandreczky secured a donation from him for the hospital, and also tagged along on the tour given to the Prussian crown prince and his son, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II. In those days Jerusalem fired the imaginations of many European rulers; everyone wanted to establish a presence in the city. Sandreczky managed to get contributions out of them. He never had enough money, especially for himself and his family, but with the exception of a brief period of crisis, he always knew how to obtain funding for his enterprise. One day, one of the German grand dukes arrived in Jerusalem, Friedrich Franz II; he, too, didn't give Sandreczky everything he asked for, but he did support him for many years. The hospital was named "Marienstift" for the duke's wife, Marie. Bismarck and his government also lent their support.

At a certain point the German children's hospital was the only non-Jewish institution in the city to receive any funding from the Haluka, charitable donations from Jewish communities abroad that supported the poor Jews of Jerusalem. In the beginning Jews hesitated to hospitalize their children at Sandreczky's hospital because he did not offer his patients kosher food. But he did allow them to bring food from home, and as the years went by, the number of Jews increased.

The state of sanitation was terrible, ordinarily. Epidemics of measles and chicken pox that raged in Jerusalem in 1884 killed off half of the city's children. Sandreczky also specialized in treating leprosy. In 1872 he managed to rent a building that still exists, and its address today is 29 Hanevi'im St. It held nine beds, six for children and three for mothers. When it turned 20 the hospital was treating its 3,892nd patient. The number of patients continued to grow. In 1897 Sandreczky performed 17 operations there.

In October 1898 Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Jerusalem. Sandreczky was counting on his support; the archduke who had been his patron until then was no longer living. But the emperor was not interested in Marienstift, among other reasons, apparently, because Sandreczky treated Muslim and Jewish children as well. And so the donations came to an end.

Sandreczky was exhausted. Shortly after sunrise on Thursday, June 22, 1899, he left his hospital, and toward evening his body was found in the Kidron Valley in East Jerusalem. The inquiry concluded that he had died from a bullet to the heart; evidently he committed suicide with his own gun. In the months leading up to his death he had been sick and emotionally unbalanced. He was laid to rest in the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion; the tombstone on his grave bears the inscription "Blessed are the merciful."

In recent years the small stone house on 29 Hanevi'im St. has been serving an association by the name of Shevet Achim, which helps parents from the territories, as well as from Arab countries, including Iraq, to bring their children with heart conditions to Israel for treatment. The house was initially slated for preservation, but in light of rising real-estate prices a decision has now been made to tear it down.