In the wake of World War II, the work of German-run missionary associations, including the Augusta Victoria Stiftung, were transferred to the care of non-German organizations. LWF became the owner of the Augusta Victoria property, which was then being used as a hospital. LWF Jerusalem was one of the first projects of the Lutheran World Federation Department for World Service.
LWF Jerusalem was known then as “LWF-Middle East Office” and worked in Syria and Jordan as well as the West Bank. Over the years, the organization and the people whom it serves have weathered over a half century of conflict.
The Augusta Victoria Hospital: A History Shaped by Conflict
In 1898, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Jerusalem. For this visit, the wall of Jerusalem’s Old City was opened at Jaffa Gate so that the Kaiser and his entourage could process into the Old City on horseback with raised banners. Today this is the opening which cars drive through at the Jaffa Gate. After the Kaiser’s visit, he commissioned the construction of Dormition Abbey and the Augusta Victoria Guesthouse for German Pilgrims.
For the construction of the Augusta Victoria, all building materials besides cement, stone, and water were imported from Germany. In the 50-meter high church tower there are four bells, the largest of which weighs six tons. When these bells were transported between Jaffa and Jerusalem, the road had to first be widened and repaired. The resulting cost was more than double the cost of transporting the bells from Hamburg to Jaffa. When the building was completed in 1910, it was the most modern construction in Jerusalem. It was the first building in the Holy Land to have electricity (provided by its own diesel generator).
Augusta Victoria was originally a pilgrims’ hospice on the Mount of Olives. The building, which was named after the Kaiser’s wife, the Empress Augusta Victoria, only served as a hospice for four years before its destiny was altered by a major conflict. At the beginning of World War I, the Ottoman Army used the building as a headquarters under the leadership of Jamal Pasha.
In 1917 the British Army took control of the building under the command of General Allenby. The Augusta Victoria Stiftung served as British Army Headquarters, and it was there that the documents for the surrender of Palestine were signed. Subsequently, the British High Commissioner used the Augusta Victoria Stiftung as a Headquarters. At this time the Transjordan Emirate was created.
Abdullah, the son of Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, was called to the Augusta Victoria Stiftung, where Sir Winston Churchill, General Allenby, and the British High Commissioner met with him. The story goes that after keeping Abdullah waiting, and then blowing cigar smoke in his face, the British delegates pointed at him and proclaimed “You take Transjordan.”
During World War II, the British Army used the Augusta Victoria as a 1,400 bed hospital. Some of the barracks built over this period still exist on the property. Another sign of British occupancy can be seen in the 20 Lebanon cedars on the campus which had their tops removed and were used as Christmas trees.
With the end of the British Mandate period and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the International Committee of the Red Cross, under the leadership of Count Folke Bernadotte, established Augusta Victoria Hospital (AVH) for the Palestinian Refugees displaced during the war of 1948. The Red Cross rented the hospital from the Lutheran World Federation, into whose ownership it had recently been transferred. In 1950, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) took over responsibility for the Palestinian Refugees, and the Lutheran World Federation took over the operation of AVH from the Red Cross, with major financial support from UNRWA. At the time AVH, with 485 beds, was the largest hospital in Western Asia and more or less the only hospital in Jordan.
1967 was a disastrous year for AVH. The Mount of Olives was strategically important at the time for the Israelis, as a high ground looking over Jerusalem. During the war AVH was in the direct line of fire, and the top floor of the hospital was destroyed by shelling. The number of beds was reduced to 107. Rebuilding the hospital was not possible for a long time, and the roof was only rebuilt in the mid 1980s.
In recent years the hospital has faced financial challenges due chiefly to the political dynamics of the region. After the signing of the Oslo Accords, Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem were cut off from their West Bank clientele as the authorities struggled over the fate of the Holy City.
Historically, Jerusalem has been the location of most secondary and tertiary care facilities for Palestinians, but with restrictions on movement in place, the East Jerusalem hospitals found themselves cut off from their natural client base and utilization dropped.
Despite these difficulties, AVH is now thriving. The hospital offers many specialized services, and the number of patients seen at the hospital is growing every year. Despite the difficulties of traveling to Jerusalem, West Bank residents are constantly arriving at the hospital in search of high-quality care and professionalism at prices they can afford.