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Volume 18, Number 4July/August 1967

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The Story Of Bertha Vester

Written by Elias Antar
Photographed by Robert Mottar

It was Sunday, December 9, 1917. Rain had soaked Jerusalem all night, but the sun rose in a clear sky over the Holy City, drying out the steaming mud in the roads and glinting from the leaves of the dripping trees. A sense of expectation gripped the people of the city, and with reason, for the sun had risen on what was to be the last day in four centuries of Turkish rule. A Western army, was at the gates of the city for the first time since the Crusades, awaiting some sign that the Turks had retreated so it could capture Jerusalem as part of one of the most brilliant campaigns of World War I. That sign turned out to be a bedsheet from an American hospital, ripped in two and tied to a stick as an improvised surrender flag carried by the mayor to the British outposts. As the first British general rode into the city in mid-morning, the young woman who had supplied the sheet rushed down from her balcony and tearfully kissed his stirrup in thanksgiving.

The mayor died of pneumonia three weeks later, the bedsheet now hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London, and the British have long since gone home. But the woman who witnessed the delivery of the Holy City and who has been so much a part of its recent history is still in Jerusalem, her home for 86 years. Her name is Bertha Spafford Vester, but the people of Jerusalem, who have watched her care for the city's sick children for 42 years, have another name for her: they call her "mother of mercy."


Bertha Spafford Vester was born almost 40 years before that historic Sunday, in Lake View, Illinois, a quiet wooded suburb of Chicago so perfect in its serenity that the legacy of grief and suffering to which the child was born seemed incredible. It began with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, seven years before Bertha was born. In the fire Horatio Spafford, her father, a prominent lawyer and father of four daughters, lost his law offices, a valuable library and most of the money he had invested in real estate just before the disaster. But that was just a preliminary shock. Shortly thereafter, on the advice of the family doctor, Horatio sent his wife Anna and his daughters to Europe on the liner Ville du Havre. He had planned to go along but just before they were to sail, he received an offer from a man who wanted to buy some of the land in which he had invested. He stayed behind and Anna and the children sailed for France.

At two o'clock in the morning of November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre collided with a British ship in mid-Atlantic and sank. She dragged 226 souls down with her, including the Spaffords' four daughters. Anna was picked up by a rescue boat, unconscious. When she came to her senses, Mrs. Vester wrote later, "she lifted her soul to God in an agony of despair and humbly dedicated her life to His service." Once back in Chicago, Anna plunged into philanthropic and religious work to keep herself from going mad with grief.

And there was more to come. In 1879 a new baby, Horatio, who, with Bertha had seemed to promise a new life for the family, caught scarlet fever and died. A year after that the Spaffords broke with their church in a bitter public quarrel.

Although staunch Presbyterians the Spaffords, after what they had suffered, could neither accept the idea that their children could not have gone to Heaven—as Presbyterian dogma suggested—nor believed that their suffering was in retribution for their sins—as some of the church elders hinted. Horatio voiced his views openly, and, as a result, was expelled from the church. When some of his friends backed him they were expelled too. Soon the press took up the issue and subjected the Spaffords to a campaign of ridicule.

It was too much. Horatio decided to take his family to the Holy Land, hoping to renew and strengthen his faith. So, with several friends, he set out, arriving in September, 1881, when Bertha was three years old. There he began what was to be his and his family's life's work.

"I do not remember my first glimpse of Jerusalem. To me, it has always been home," Mrs. Vester wrote in her book, Our Jerusalem. The group lived together in a rented house on the highest part of the city walls near the Damascus Gate and soon became known as the "American Colony." In their first few months in Jerusalem, they made friendships that were to last for generations, through drought, famine, war and better times.

One of the earliest friends Mrs. Vester remembers was a stocky, blue-eyed Englishman with an authoritative bearing, who was spending a year studying Biblical history in Jerusalem. He used to bounce her on his knee and tell her stories while they sat on the roof of the colony's house and admired the view: the Mount of Olives on the left, the Garden of Gethsemane and the famous Dome of the Rock in the center, the huge dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the right and all the hundreds of spires, towers, steeples and cupolas that form the skyline of the Holy City. "I hero-worshiped him," she says of General Charles "Chinese" Gordon, the hero of Sebastopol, recently Governor-General of the Sudan and later to be England's martyred hero at Khartoum. "He was not very tall, and had fair, curly hair, and I remember how blue his eyes were, and the double-breasted suit he wore," Mrs. Vester wrote. "I did not know General Gordon was famous, only that he was my friend, and I loved him." One day she heard Gordon use the word "damn." A few nights later, young Bertha was asked what she wanted for supper and retorted: "Damn it, I'll have bread and milk." For many years afterward, she was puzzled why her mother smiled indulgently when General Gordon used the word but spanked her when she said it.

It was about a year later that Horatio took his family and members of the colony on a long excursion into Bedouin country, east of the Jordan River. They were the guests of the paramount chief of the powerful Adwan tribe. "I was the first Western child many of those tribesmen had ever seen," Mrs. Vester wrote. "They stroked my long hair, and some of them took off my shoes to count my toes. They liked me so much that I was initiated into the tribe." The Bedouins called her "Murtha," the nearest they could get to pronouncing her name, and ate salt and bread with her as a sign of lifelong friendship. Even today, occasionally a wizened old shaikh will come up to Mrs. Vester, peer at her with faded eyes and ask: "Is this not Murtha Adwan?"

Shortly after the colony settled in Jerusalem, the members began doing welfare work among the inhabitants. Palestine was then under Turkish rule and hygienic conditions were poor, doctors scarce, and ignorance widespread. The colony members taught mothers how to care for their children, began holding English and Bible classes, advised the farmers of the region on how to improve their crops, and cared for visitors. Horatio sent for seeds from abroad and planted the first potatoes and the first eucalyptus trees in the Holy Land, a welcome addition to the almost deforested landscape of those times. "It was settlement work, only the phrase hadn't been coined yet," explains Bertha Vester.

The increasing numbers of the poor and destitute that gravitated to the colony to be fed, clothed and lodged often left Spafford and his group in debt, and time and again he had to draw on the little money remaining in Chicago. In leaner times, the local friends of the colony would chip in with gifts of bread, mutton, sweets and other food, and foreign visitors, seeing the good work being done, would make financial contributions.

Horatio Spafford died in 1888, and the burden of heading the colony and supervising the welfare work fell on Anna's shoulders. When Bertha grew into a young woman, she became the principal of the only school for Muslim girls in Palestine and a leader in the civic affairs of the city—one often consulted by the Turkish authorities or the Arab mayor on improvements and innovations. Most important foreign visitors to Jerusalem stayed at the colony, and Bertha was usually delegated to show the visitor the sights. Among them were Gertrude Bell, one of the most famous English experts on the Middle East, and H. Rider Haggard, the then-famous author of She and King Solomon's Mines. Other visitors to the colony in those days were the German vice-consul and his wife, who occasionally came to tea. "Whenever they did," says Mrs. Vester, "they brought their son Rudolf along with them. He was a terrible nuisance. He meddled in everything and was very inquisitive, and there was no peace when he was about." There wasn't any when he grew up either. He was Rudolf Hess—the same Rudolf Hess who rose to the No. 3 position in Adolf Hitler's Germany, who parachuted into England during the war and who is now the only war criminal still held in Berlin's Spandau prison, where he is serving a life sentence.

As the years went by and the colony expanded, the members moved into a cluster of arched stone villas outside the city walls, the largest of which had been the palace of a pasha, and was one of the first dwellings built outside the walls since Roman times. There, after Bertha's marriage to Frederick Vester in 1904, they managed to get their operation on a sound financial footing. Mr. Vester, a Swiss-German member of the colony, put it on a business basis, with a gift shop, a hotel, a pig-raising venture, a car-rental agency, and a photography studio. The colony promoted handicrafts, dressmaking and tailoring, set up an insurance agency, imported the first steam roller into the Holy Land, introduced the first telephone to Jerusalem and used the profits from these ventures for its welfare work.

In 1898, city officials, many of whom had been educated at the colony, asked Bertha to help prepare for the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife. "The Kaiser entered the Jaffa Gate on a white charger, wearing the gorgeous white Uhlan uniform, with dazzling and burnished helmet surmounted by the German eagle," she recalls. "He was wearing a white and gold Arab headcloth under the spreading eagle, and over his white uniform was a white silk cloak with gold threads running though it that sparkled in the sunlight. He was not only an artist in his choice of a costume to impress his audience, but also an actor." Later, during the Kaiser's visit, the imperial party drove past the American Colony and stopped at a narrow bend near the gate. The Kaiser stepped down from his carriage and was seen in earnest conversation with his Turkish hosts. Bertha later was told he had been remarking that the bend in the road was too narrow to allow cannon to pass. Sixteen years later, Bertha looked on in anguish as German cannon negotiated that same bend to fight the British army in Palestine. It had been widened in time for World War I.

The coming of war, bringing with it misery, disease and death, proved to be the supreme moment of service for the colony, and Bertha Vester in particular. Jerusalem was crammed with refugees from the coastal cities, there was little food, and medicine and other necessities were in short supply because of the fighting. Mrs. Vester organized an embroidery industry among women whose husbands had been drafted into the Turkish army, hoping they could earn money by selling, the handicrafts in the United States, which had not yet entered the war. But it had to be closed down when the women became too weak from hunger to work. She then wrote to a friend in Michigan asking him to collect donations to set up a soup kitchen, which eventually was feeding 2,400 people a day. But one morning, a German major appeared and ordered the soup kitchen closed because, he charged, "It is American propaganda." The great battles of the Suez Canal and Gaza had filled Jerusalem with Turkish wounded and British prisoners, who were left lying in the roads for hours because there was nobody to take care of them. This prompted Mrs. Vester to go and see the dreaded Turkish general Jemal Pasha, who held life-and-death powers over Jerusalem.

"He kept us waiting in the anteroom, and when he arrived, his manner was not gracious," Mrs. Vester recalls. This was understandable; the United States had broken diplomatic relations with Turkey on that very day.

"We have come to offer our services to the wounded, Your Excellency," Mrs. Vester informed him. Jemal Pasha bristled, told them about the U.S. entry into the war, then thundered: "And now, after hearing what I have just said, are you still willing to nurse our wounded?"

"I told him we had offered to nurse neither friends nor foes, just humanity," Mrs. Vester says. Jemal Pasha was taken aback, but he turned over one Turkish hospital to the colony, then three more in rapid succession, plus a casualty clearing station. The Turks were so impressed by the colony's efficient work that they asked Mrs. Vester to run their soup kitchen. Soon the kitchen was feeding 6,000 people a day and there was food for even those at the end of the line. Some of Bertha's work was grisly: she once had to amputate both arms of a Turkish soldier who had had a grenade go off in his hands; another time she removed a bullet-torn eye. "I had to; there was no one else," she says. Once, three battle-crazed Ghurka prisoners sat down on the floor of the casualty clearing station and one of them pulled out a grenade, waiting for the right moment-to set it off. "To send in a man to disarm them would be the challenge they were waiting for. As a woman, I might appeal to them," she says. She walked in casually with a big smile, patted the Ghurkas on the back, gently took away the grenade and walked out again. "By the time I got rid of it, I was shaking all over."

When the British took over from the Turks after the surrender of the city, Jerusalem was in chaos. The colony had long since run out of funds, but needed help more than ever to care for the needy. The British military authorities gave the colony all the help they could, and in return received invaluable advice from Mrs. Vester on the affairs of the city. Field Marshal Allenby was a frequent caller at the colony, and so were Lawrence of Arabia and Colonel Ronald Storrs, military governor of the city. "Mrs. Vester was the uncrowned queen of Jerusalem," recalls one of her acquaintances. Mrs. Vester remembers Allenby as "a very nice, gracious, kind man," but found Lawrence difficult and curt. He was abrupt with her at their first meeting, "So I did not speak to him when I next met him at a dinner, although he was my partner at the table. At the end of the meal, just as we were getting up to go into the drawing room, he leaned over and said smilingly: 'Now, we're quits.' We were friends after that, but he was not an easy man to understand."

On Christmas Eve, 192S, Mrs. Vester was leaving for Bethlehem to lead the first carol singing ever held in the fields "where shepherds watched their flocks by night," when she met a young Arab mother and her husband, carrying a tiny infant wrapped in a bundle. The woman was obviously very sick and needed care, but her husband said Jerusalem's general hospital was closed to outpatients because of the holiday. Mrs. Vester got the sick woman admitted, but during the night the woman died and the husband begged Mrs. Vester to take care of his son. She agreed, not knowing that it was the beginning of what was to become her most important work: the care of the sick children of the Holy Land. In the 41 years since Mrs. Vester founded it, the Anna Spafford Memorial Children's Hospital has cared for thousands of sick babies from Jerusalem and its surroundings. It is still the only hospital in the Jerusalem area exclusively devoted to child care and it is still housed in the big house atop the city walls where Horatio Spafford founded the colony so many years ago. Before 1965, the hospital included an adult outpatient clinic that cared for an average 50,000 persons a year, but this department has since been closed so that all available funds and resources can be concentrated on the babies.

The hospital today has room for 60 beds and includes an up-to-date surgery and an infant welfare center, to which babies from Jerusalem and 60 surrounding villages come for regular care. A hospital nurse also makes the village rounds to give advice to mothers and periodically examine children who have been patients in the hospital. "We make the parents pay purely nominal sums so that they do not feel that the care they get is charity, so that they can feel they are human beings," says Dr. Mahmoud Dajani, the hospital's medical director. Dr. Dajani, a graduate of the American University of Beirut, is assisted by his cousin, Dr. Hassan Dajani, a specialist in children's diseases. The director shares Mrs. Vester's deep belief in prayer. "Whenever we have a particularly difficult operation, I phone Mrs. Vester and ask her to help me pray," he says. The hospital's work is maintained by funds collected in the United States and elsewhere by the American Colony Charities Association, Inc. In 1964, 1,710 babies were admitted to the hospital, and almost 1,000 mothers attended nutrition and infant care classes. Until she broke her hip a few years ago, Mrs. Vester, who was 89 in March, took an active interest in the hospital. Since the accident, she has reluctantly handed over control to one of her daughters, "although I still have to go there once in a while to make sure things are going well."

The colony, in the old sense of an organized religious group, no longer exists. The cluster of villas has become one of the most gracious hotels in Jerusalem and is run by Mrs. Vester's eldest son, Horatio. Mrs. Vester occupies herself with correspondence concerning the hospital, still her main interest. Despite her hip injury, she moves around aided only by a cane, and, with her snow-white hair, bright smile and slow walk, looks like a rather frail old lady. "But she's the toughest frail old lady you'll ever meet," says an American acquaintance. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale once called her "a curiously fascinating combination of gentle feminity and rugged force," and a friend confides: "She still goes to all the parties and gets furious if she isn't invited." During the visit to Jerusalem of Pope Paul VI in January 1964, everyone went up to the roof of the American Colony to watch. It was so bitterly cold, though," says a friend, "that everyone came down again—everyone, that is, except Bertha. She stayed."

Mrs. Vester spends most of her time now in her drawing room, whose walls are hung with oriental tapestries and pictures of the friends she has made through the years. In one corner are two photograph albums that contain invaluable pictorial documentation of the Holy City under the Turks and, later, the British. On a sideboard are two more recent photographs, one of President Kennedy and the other of President Johnson, both personally autographed. "They have a very interesting story," she says with a sparkle in her dark blue eyes. "I was very fond of President Kennedy, although I never met him, and I would never allow anyone to criticize him in my house. One day, I overheard a group of people in the hotel lobby making disparaging remarks about the President. I knew they would be coming to see me, and might say the same things in my presence. What could I do?

"I cut out a newspaper photo of the President and stuck it in a frame, and sure enough, when the visitors came in, they didn't say a thing against him. Later, when Hubert Humphrey, now Vice-President, came to visit Jordan, our ambassador told him the story, and Humphrey repeated it to President Kennedy back in Washington. The President very kindly sent me his portrait with a letter thanking me for my loyalty, and asking me to put it in the frame instead of the one from the newspaper."

Johnson's picture was sent to her after a 1964 visit by Sargent Shriver, then head of the Peace Corps. Mr. Shriver asked her why she displayed Kennedy's portrait and not Johnson's. "I told him no one ever gave me one. Mr. Shriver told President Johnson that the oldest American citizen in the Holy City did not have a picture of her president. So President Johnson very kindly sent me his picture."

In 1963, King Hussein awarded Mrs. Vester the Jordanian Star in recognition of her "praiseworthy qualities," as His Majesty's citation read. She is the only Christian woman ever to have received the award. But perhaps the most touching tribute is a cement ramp which partly fills in a street of steps leading from Herod's Gate up to the children's hospital. In Jerusalem, where hardly a stone is moved without official sanction, the government allowed the steps to be filled in so Mrs. Vester could be wheeled up to visit her beloved babies.

Elias Antar, now a reporter for the Associated Press stationed in Beirut, was formerly the assistant Middle East correspondent for the National Broadcasting Company. Educated in Cairo, he speaks and writes Arabic, Italian, French and English.

This article appeared on pages 24-33 of the July/August 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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