Israel travels

A German colony in Jerusalem

Persecuted and excommunicated, the Templers believed the Day of Judgment was near. Naturally, they headed for the Holy Land

Sandel House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Sandel House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

“It will be like when the harvester gathers the wheat, and his arm reaps the grain. Yes, it will be like when one gleans grain in the valley of Refaim.” (Isaiah 17:5)

In 1868, a large group of German Templers landed in Haifa. Although they bore the same name as the Crusaders who were based on the Temple Mount hundreds of years earlier, the two groups had nothing in common: the German movement was an evangelical sect, a splinter group that had seceded from the Lutheran Church in 1854. German Templers believed that the Day of Judgment was near, and favored Jewish settlement in the land of Israel.

Following the establishment of the movement, Templer leaders Christoff Hoffman and George David Hardegg were persecuted — and excommunicated — in their native southern Germany. Eventually, they decided to gather their followers and settle them in the Holy Land. Not missionaries in any sense, they hoped to establish a spiritual Kingdom of God together with the People of the Book. And they had faith that the ideal society they planned to create would set an example for the local population.

Three years after the first wave of German Templers landed in Israel, a second group arrived. Their agricultural settlement of Sharona would later become the site of Israel’s very first official government offices (HaKiriya, in Tel Aviv).

Last of all came the Templers, who founded Jerusalem’s quietly elegant German Colony, generally considered the most important of all. Upon arrival in 1873, they settled fairly close to the revered Temple Mount. Perhaps under the impression that they had settled in the biblical Valley of Refaim, mentioned eight times in the Scriptures and the site of two Davidic battles, they named their main street Emek (Valley) Refaim. Use of this name was just one more piece of evidence connecting them to the Holy Books.

German Colony yard (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
German Colony yard (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Houses were of a style hitherto unknown in Jerusalem, for they were at the same time both spacious and modest. The vast majority were one-family homes although a few were built for two-family occupancy. Metal fences generally surrounded the dwellings; inscriptions in Gothic German were often carved above the doors. In Jerusalem, the German design generally found among wooden structures was modified by the use of local materials — stone instead of wood — and by the artistry of local Arab builders. Of particular interest is a light-colored stone edging on many of the corners and windows.

Many of the houses still retain their original look, and are shaded by a plethora of tall trees. As a result the whole effect — if you ignore the traffic — is that of a quiet German village. That is, unless you happen to be browsing the goodies at an open-air arts and crafts fair, spending money at one of its quaint little shops, or dining in one of the street’s eateries! My personal favorite: the ultra-healthy Village Green, which just opened a branch along Emek Refaim.

Incredibly, the native-born third generation turned into enthusiastic Nazi sympathizers, setting up a branch of the Nazi movement within the Colony!

The Templers’ Beit Ha’am (Community House), located on the edge of the Colony closest to the Temple, was opened in 1882 in the presence of Jerusalem’s Turkish governor. Strong believers in simplicity and brotherly love, the Templers worshiped in this unpretentious structure in the colony and used it as a communal meeting place as well. So frugal was their lifestyle that taking cream instead of milk with their coffee was an almost unheard-of phenomenon — and it was unusual enough to mention in a letter.

Modest though it is, this house does have a decorative gabled entrance and a belfry. The bell called Templers to worship on Sunday mornings. One of the elders would preach a sermon at the conclusion of the prayer service and an organ accompanied the singing that followed. Today, the building belongs to the Armenian Church.

Frank House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Frank House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Also of unusual interest is the Colony’s earliest edifice, erected by Mattheus Frank. Called the Miller’s House, because of the steam-powered mill (and bakery) located on the property, it differed from the later structures in many ways. For not only was it two stories high and built on more than an acre, but it boasted a private swimming pool! The original wooden shutters on the ground floor are still intact.

Like so many of the houses, this one is graced with an attractive facade. Above the front door are the words Eben-Ezer (literally translated as “helping stone”). The name apparently comes from the biblical verseThen Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Even-Ha’Ezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.'” (1 Samuel 7:12). The date of construction (1873) is located over the entrance.

Two houses on the same plot belonged to the extensive Imberger family. Built in 1877, and restored in 2005, the dwelling in front is engraved with the following prophetic words — in German, like other inscriptions in the Colony:  Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” [Isaiah 60:1].  The beautiful entrance is slightly reminiscent of a Greek temple. Located to the rear of the building, the second house went up 49 years later.

Theodore Sandel was an architect who was at least partially responsible for all kinds of famous Jerusalem institutions. Among them: the Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital (the 19th century hospital on Jaffa Road, not the modern hospital of today), historic Lamel School, Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, and the Anglican School on HaNevi’im Street. A sculpted lion’s head resting on its paws sits atop the entrance of Sandel’s home; a lion was the symbol of the family’s chain of pharmacies back in Germany.

Templer home on Cremieux (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Templer home on Cremieux (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Several historic Templer structures are located behind Emek Refaim Street.  One was built by Abraham Fast on Cremieux Street, in 1891. Fast was to become famous as the proprietor of a fancy hotel across from Jaffa Gate — today the large and empty Peninat Dan.

Prior to the establishment of the Fast Hotel, overnight lodgers stayed in his home — giving him the hotel experience that he would need for the future! He had plenty of business, as 1892 was the year that a French company built the railroad that ran from Jaffa to Jerusalem. French surveyors and engineers needed lodgings and a place to eat, both of which Fast was able to supply.

Templer architect Gottlieb Bauerle put up a delightful dwelling on Lloyd George Street. All kinds of novel elements are incorporated into this structure: a covered entrance, several decorative balconies, circular windows in the attic, and designer balcony supports.

Bauerle, Lloyd George (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Bauerle, Lloyd George (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Bauerle Junior, a second generation Templer, constructed a building in the art-deco style popular in Tel Aviv at the time. Originally called the Orient Cinema, it was later renamed the Semadar and was restored in the early 1990’s. My husband and I often went to the movies at the pre-renovated Semadar, and remember with nostalgia that the antiquated wooden chairs were very simple and fastened together. As a result, when one person sneezed, a whole row of theatergoers would jump!

Despite differences in venue, and variations in the characters of their colonies, all of the Templers in Israel came to the same sorry end. The founders had been practically Zionistic in their belief that the Chosen People should live in the Land of Israel, and they vehemently opposed German nationalism. But when Wilhelm II visited the Holy Land in 1898, the second generation flew German flags and sang the German anthem. And, incredibly, the native-born third generation turned into enthusiastic Nazi sympathizers, setting up a branch of the Nazi movement within the Colony!

So it is no accident that a few decades ago, a family residing in Jerusalem’s calm and tranquil German Colony found a Nazi cache hidden away in a long-abandoned attic. Probably secreted there in 1939 during a British search for German sympathizers, the Nazi gear included a steel knife inscribed in German with the slogan “Blood and Honor.” A hat and patent leather belt carried the name of one Erich Imberger, a third-generation Templer. No doubt he came to the same sorry end as his fellow Templers: he either left the country before the onset of World War II to serve in the German army, or was deported to Australia by the British during the war. And by the time Israel became a State in 1948, not one of these resourceful German Templers remained.


For a comprehensive guide to Jerusalem see Avivas book Jerusalem Easywalks,” available from her website.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.


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