What Life Was Like in the Leper Colony That Sowed Fear in Jerusalem

A 120-year-old diary offers glimpse into Jerusalem's Hansen House, a leper asylum that now serves as a cultural center

Patients at the Hansen House, at the turn of the 20th century. A close look at their faces reveals the ravages and suffering caused by their disease.
Patients at the Hansen House, at the turn of the 20th century. A close look at their faces reveals the ravages and suffering caused by their disease. Credit: Courtesy of the Schubert family
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Hansen House, which Jerusalemites know also as the “leper house” – and now as a cultural center – is a magnificent historical structure, large and walled, in the Talbieh neighborhood not far from downtown. During the coronavirus lockdowns its blossoming garden became a place of refuge for many residents who sought a place to breathe fresh air and to work quietly amid a setting of urban nature. Just two weeks ago, before the snow fell, the site was abuzz with families and children romping among the blossoming almond trees.

The garden was also in bloom 120 years ago. “The fruits we ate were wonderful and abundant! We had two lovely vineyards,” Anna Marie Schubert wrote in her diary. “In Jerusalem, I tasted for the first time different beautiful vegetables.”

Schubert resided in the building at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Her diary, from which the entries dealing with Jerusalem have been translated into Hebrew from the original German, sheds light on life among the European pilgrims living there at the time. “For Christmas we had a splendid lettuce, in February a huge cauliflower,” she writes. “There was an Arab vegetable, bathenjan, something like blue-colored cucumbers [eggplant]. Pods that were hanging on thin stalks [apparently green beans], which we picked gently and cooked in butter with onions and tomatoes. Ful [fava beans] was also a cordial food.”

The diary was located by chance thanks to a woman named Rivka Regev, who also has a close personal association with Hansen House: Her father, Dr. Moshe Ber Goldgraber, worked there as a physician beginning in 1964, and the family moved into a small structure abutting the compound’s wall. In 2004, Regev – who is 70 and still lives in Jerusalem – began to investigate the site’s history, in the course of which she visited the central archive of the Moravian Church in the United States, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There she discovered a photocopy of a painting of Hansen House.

Hansen House today.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Regev discovered that the original painting had been donated to the church’s archive in Germany by the daughter of a man named Johannes Schubert, who died in Germany in 1996 at the age of 97. How did the painting come to be in Johannes’ possession? Regev’s investigation led her to his parents, Anna Marie and Karl Schubert. They had come to Jerusalem at the end of the 1800s to serve in the asylum on behalf of the Moravian Church, a German Protestant sect that ran the hospital. It was there that Anna Marie wrote her diary and where her six children were born, two of whom died in infancy. Johannes was one of the four who survived, and the painting came into the possession of his daughter. Regev contacted the descendants of the family in Germany, and they gave her the diary, together with a trove of historical photographs of the family and the asylum in the period of their residence there.

For Regev, who had the diary translated into Hebrew, it was the closing of a circle. She, too, grew up in the place that everyone knew as the “leper house,” though for her it was simply home, quite ordinary.

“I used to meet with patients and speak to them up close. My father’s only rule was to wash our hands with soap when we entered the house,” she told Haaretz. “One time I left the house, and a class with their teacher passed by, and he said, ‘Look, here’s a leper girl.’ So I told them that I wasn’t a leper and that there were no lepers – there are lepers in the Bible. Leprosy in the Bible is a punishment from God, a disease caused by sin. But here people were suffering from Hansen’s disease, and it’s very important for me not to call it the leper house.”

Rivka Regev with a model of Hansen House, which was donated by Germany's Moravian Church and placed at the Jerusalem compound, in 2018.Credit: Michael Horton

Jesus’ help

Tzora’at, the term used in the Bible, is thought to denote the infections known today by the common term leprosy and also called Hansen’s disease – after Gustav Hansen, the Norwegian doctor who identified the bacterium that causes leprosy. Those who contract the disease, one of the oldest ailments known to humanity, suffer from grim skin infections and damage to various organs, the face and the limbs. The disease has disappeared from most of the modern world (thanks in part to integrated and effective antibiotic treatment), but still exists in developing countries, particularly India and Nepal, and hundreds of thousands suffer from it. However, the disease no longer generates the hysteria it once did. At the time, however, fear of infection from Hansen’s led to the establishment of asylums surrounded by a wall, a distance from the city. In 1885, the Jesus Hilfe (Help of Jesus) asylum was established in Jerusalem in an isolated area. In time the institution, composed of several buildings, became “Hansen House.”

The last patient was discharged from Hansen House in 2000 (although it continued to operate as an outpatient clinic until 2009). Dr. Goldgraber died in 2007, at the age of 94, and Regev’s mother died a year later. Regev then found herself entangled with the Health Ministry, which wanted to evict her from the premises. “They claimed I wanted millions for the smaller house there, but all I wanted was to know that it would not be demolished,” she says. In 2012 she vacated the house, which today houses the Offaime Café.

By then Regev already knew the history of the place, as described in Schubert’s diary. Anna Marie expresses her longings for Germany there, and an Orientalistic frustration and anger at the behavior of the patients, but also a great deal of curiosity about the city, its residents and the local food. For example, of the first Christmas she spent in the place, in 1891, she noted, “We had a lovely ceremony of giving each other gifts, together with a small prayer. Afterward my husband went out to the balcony and said, ‘Today I feel yearnings… Christmas without snow!’ At night I woke up with a toothache, I looked toward the balcony, and what did I see? Everything was white. I didn’t say a word to my husband. In the morning I called to him, ‘Look outside, everything turned white’ ... What happiness it was that Christmas was white, after all.”

But the rest of that Christmas was less enjoyable, Schubert writes, because the makeshift Christmas tree the couple had put up in the hospital “was wrecked.” “It was awful,” she writes. “[The patients] hit one other wildly and destroyed the tree. In the wake of the event, I decided not to hang bags of sweets on the tree again.” But after that incident the family was invited to the German consulate for a remedial experience. “They had a wonderful, large Christmas tree that was brought from Germany. It was decorated with various chocolates, which were removed from the tree gently and distributed to the guests.”

Johannes, Anna Marie Schubert’s son.Credit: Courtesy of the Schubert family

Khalil’s device

Nineteenth-century medicine had little to offer sufferers from leprosy other than quarantine, nursing and fresh air. The result was that patients remained hospitalized for years, in some cases decades. One of those with whom Anna Marie Schubert became friendly was a man named Khalil, from Ramallah. According to the diary, when the Schuberts arrived, he was already a veteran patient of 17 years in the facility.

“He always made remarks about my high-laced shoes: ‘Let me see how many holes your shoes have.’ Or: ‘Give me a coin for every hole.’ He liked to smoke, and wanted the money to buy tobacco,” she wrote. “At first, when he was feeling good, he would get to the city by himself. He was compelled to do it secretly because of the prohibition on leaving the place. Later he wasn’t able to walk that distance. He was assisted by crutches, and when the condition of his legs worsened he slid on his rear end until a device was built that was pulled by two people.”

Schubert’s description of the disease’s progress in Khalil enabled Regev to identify him in two of the photographs she received from the Schubert family. In the first, he’s seen sitting and leaning on a wall, his legs amputated, but his arms whole. In the second picture, taken with the other patients in front of the hospital, he’s sitting on the device mentioned by Schubert, his hands also gone.

Khalil, the patient.Credit: Courtesy of the Schubert family

One of the finest passages in the diary describes a visit to Khalil’s father. “In the first year of our activity in Jerusalem, Khalil’s father invited us to his village of Ramallah, which is nearby, to eat grapes,” Schubert writes. “His fellah brought donkeys for us to ride to the village. The first time I rode a donkey – a few weeks after our arrival, on the way to the Mount of Olives – I slipped and fell a few times. Now I felt better while riding.”

Of the visit she wrote, “After a time, a shirt that was very unclean was spread out on the floor, among the guests. On it they placed a straw mat, and on that, fresh pitas that had just been baked and small bowls with spring chickens fried in oil and hardboiled eggs, also swimming in oil. We were invited to eat. But how? There was nothing to eat with, not even a spoon!

“I looked at the others, I wanted to see what they were doing. No one laughed at the clumsy guests. Nurse Augusta tore off a piece of the bread and with it scooped out an egg from the oil. She took a chicken with her fingers, tore it to bits and served us. Finally strong, thick coffee was served, without sugar and without milk, in a small tin pitcher that was passed from hand to hand.”

The Schuberts at Hansen House. Credit: Courtesy of the Schubert family

Hairs in the milk

The wretchedness of the patients and their families can be felt between the lines of the diary. Some of the entries are shocking and perplexing: “On one occasion a mother appeared with her son, a large, strong, fair-skinned man, and said she had done all she could to treat the disease of her only son, in vain. Thus, she had cooked for him ‘a newborn baby in lentils, in the hope that he would be so frightened that he would get well.’ In despair the woman tore her dress, shouted loudly, pulled her hair, and it was impossible to console her.”

That patient, Schubert wrote, “was the only one with ‘white’ leprosy that I saw in my 17 years in Jerusalem. In a disease of this type, the patient has no lesions, his face is full and red, but suddenly his legs become dark red and are painful. When that inflammation disappears, the skin whitens and is covered with scales.”

The year 1898 brought the historic royal visit of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, accompanied by his wife, Augusta Victoria, to Jerusalem. It was a key event in the country’s history and in the annals of the German community in Jerusalem. “Our children got to school on a donkey, sitting in crates,” Schubert wrote. The emperor and his wife saw them being carried by the animal as the royal family passed by on the way to Bethlehem. “They were delighted at the meeting, and the empress gave little Lizbeth a bouquet of violets!”

A horse-drawn carriage at Hansen House in the late 19th century. Credit: Courtesy of the Schubert family

In the photographs Regev received, Anna Marie Schubert is seen in the kitchen, baby Johannes is in a baby carriage on the balcony of the hospital and the family is in their coach. Other images depict the patients. A first glance at the group photo doesn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary – it looks like a regular picture of a group of people on and below a staircase. A closer look at their faces, however, reveals the ravages and suffering caused by the disease.

Schubert’s diary goes on to tell about the various animals that were raised in the hospital’s courtyard as a source of revenue. In regard to their transition from courtyard to kitchen, her feelings are manifestly mixed. In her writing she is thrilled at Middle Eastern food but also revolted by it – not least by “the goat hairs floating in the milk” or the “smoky smell in the goat butter.”

In 1908, the father of the family, Karl, died suddenly. His death brought to an end the couple’s mission. “We were there for 17 years, and then the end came, with my husband’s death from a heart attack,” wrote Schubert, who died in 1949 at the age of 83. “The funeral was held the same day. He was buried on Mount Zion. Only when I arrived in Germany did my thoughts become lucid again. Those were terrible days.”