From the Leprosarium “Jesus Hilfe” to Hansen Houe
Mamuta Art and Media Center also deals in part with the history of the structure in which it dwells. This is the Leprosarium Jesus Hilfe , founded as an isolated refuge for leprosy patients. It was created by the German-Protestant Moravian community in 1867 and operated for twenty years in a building on today’s Agron Street, Jerusalem. In 1887 the institute moved to a new building in the Talbiya neighborhood of Jerusalem, planned by Konrad Shick.
“High walls surround and hide the building, constructed in an isolated spot far from the walls of the Old City, and a focus for endless stories about what goes on inside” – these words appear on the page of the historical display inside the hospital. Until 1948 most of the patients were Muslim Arabs, and the nurses Christian. Tawfiq Kan’aan, a Christian Palestinian, was the chief physician from 1919 until 1948. He would arrive at the Leprosarium once a week and was responsible both for medical and research issues, and for international contacts.
Following the founding of the State of Israel, Kan’aan either left Jerusalem or was expelled. According to Selim Tamari Kan’aan took the Arab patients from the Jerusalem Leprosarium with him to Silwan village, where they stayed until he later founded a Leprosarium north of Ramallah. According to reports by the Moravian sisters Johanna Larsen and Ida Ressel, both of whom – in 1953 – led 15 patients to Silwan until the Leprosarium north of Ramallah was founded on June 12, 1960.
Either way, the community of leprosy patients who remained in the Jerusalem hospital turned from a Muslim into a Jewish one – a fact that is a powerful political phenomenon, with metaphoric force regarding the politics of separation.
The separation of Arab and Jewish lepers in the Talbieh Leprosarium, during the war of 1948, marked one of those defining moments in the annals of Jerusalem and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In its absurdity, the event encapsulated the depth of the process of ethnic exclusion and demonization after decades of conflict between Jews and Arabs, settlers and natives. It also signaled a turning point in which much of the intellectual debate, as well as popular sentiment, about the future direction of the country and its sense of nationhood began to crystallize around two separate and exclusive narratives of origin.**
In 1950 the JNF purchased the building and handed it over to be managed by the Israeli Ministry of Health. Its name, “Leprosarium Jesus Hilfe” was changed into the “Hansen Government Hospital”, named after the discoverer of the bacteria that generates the disease. As antibiotic treatment succeeded and gradually reduced the number of patients, most of them were released from the hospital during the second half of the 20th century. From 2000 the hospital functioned as an outpatient clinic, and was finally closed in 2009. The government then decided to pass the building on to the Jerusalem Municipality to be restored and turned into a cultural compound. When the site was opened in late 2013 it changed its identity once again and was named only “Hansen House”, embodying the spirit that replaced Jesus. Today Hansen House is a tourist attraction supposed to expose to its visitors one of the city’s most beautiful structures and its mysterious history. The compound is inhabited by the graduate study programs of the Bezalel Academy of Art, a cinema, Mamuta Art and Media Center and additional exhibition spaces.