Lutheran Church Altar Found at Ruin of J'lem Army Camp

For 60 years it did not occur to anyone to open the wooden chest in the main hall of Camp Schneller in north Jerusalem and see what was in it.

For 60 years it did not occur to anyone to open the wooden chest in the main hall of Camp Schneller in north Jerusalem and see what was in it. The chest, discovered by accident amid piles of garbage and the ruined hall's debris, was recently opened to reveal the altar of the German Lutheran church, on whose site the camp stood until two years ago.

Last Monday the altar was transferred to its new home, the Lutheran Church at the Augusta Victoria Compound on Mount Scopus.

Camp Schneller is familiar to almost every Jerusalemite who served in the army. It was where soldiers went for forms to apply for sick leave.

The camp's largest structure, once the Lutheran church, was turned into a gymnasium with basketball hoops replacing statues of Jesus. The soldiers playing there could not imagine the hall's history or what was in the wooden chest near one of the walls.

The compound, which German-Swiss missionary Johann Ludwig Schneller started building as a small mission in 1854, quickly became a thriving community. In 1939, with the eruption of World War II, the British Mandate authorities expelled all German nationals from Palestine, including the clergy. The compound was captured by the British army and taken over by the Israel Defense Forces in 1948.

Three years later Israel gave the World Lutheran Church 48 hours to remove artifacts from the site. Church people dismantled the bells, windows and the big organ, but left the altar, which was too heavy to take apart and move at such short notice.

"The altar is the heart of the church, it's the most important part of it," says , the provost of the Evangelical German Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem. "For us God is in the letters, and the altar is the place on which the Holy Book is placed."

The altar, erected in 1910, was made of heavy marble plates, decorated with a mosaic of gold-painted glass and blue stones. The movers built a wooden chest around it instead of taking it apart, Graebe suggests.

Whey the chest remained sealed for six decades remains a mystery. "When you're in the army you probably don't think too much, you do what you're told, " Graebe says. "They must have sat on it to watch the basketball games."

While the chest kept the altar fairly well preserved, the structure around it eroded over the years. A hole was drilled in the former church floor for a chimney, the ornate wooden doors were destroyed and the ceiling collapsed.

About two years ago the IDF evacuated the site and the city put together blueprints for a preservation and construction plan. After a struggle by the Site Preservation Council and architect Gil Gordon, eight of the compound's main structures were earmarked for preservation. They are to serve as public institutions for the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to be built nearby.

In October 2009, Gordon, the compound's preservation architect, took Lutheran Church leaders on a tour of the site. It was the first time Graebe visited the place. The hall, its walls in ruins, was filled with garbage and covered with bird droppings. Amid the garbage, Graebe noticed the small wooden chest. "An hour later I thought of it again and realized there must be something in it," he says.

He told Gordon, who returned to the site the next day with tools. He told the guard he "forgot something" and opened the wooden box, discovering the altar.

"The altar is the last evidence at Schneller for the Christian ritual there," Graebe says. "It's very exciting."

That posed a problem. Preservation principles stipulate leaving the altar at Schneller, but since the compound is earmarked to serve the ultra-Orthodox, an object of Christian ritual cannot be left there. As Gordon diplomatically wrote in his report to the city: "The altar's survival chances are zero in view of the compound's current neighbors and future users."

The altar's discovery was kept under wraps as the city and Lutherans negotiated its transfer.

Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Naomi Tsur, responsible for preservation, conditioned the transfer on the altar's not leaving Israel and having a sign discussing its history in its new location. The church agreed.

The altar was transferred piece by piece, exactly 100 years after it was built. Its marble plates, which were cracked, were placed in a stretcher to prevent them from breaking, lifted with a crane and moved out through the church window to their new home on Mount Scopus.

In the beautiful Augusta Victorian Church the altar was placed under a beautiful stone embossment of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. It will be inaugurated in November.

"I didn't sleep for two nights thinking of how they were going to take it out of the window," says Tsur. "But this is definitely a happy end."

Dr. Uwe Graebe
Emil Salman