Every morning in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City while other shops bake pita bread and squeeze fresh juice from pomegranates and oranges, the staff of the Austrian Hospice prepares apple strudel, linzer cookies, and sachertorte. These central European baked goods are served all day inside the Vienna-style cafe of the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, a grand stone building erected in 1863 to host Roman Catholic pilgrims from the Austro-Hungarian empire. The hospice is one of Jerusalem’s best-kept secrets: Today, the diverse residents and tourists of Jerusalem are surprised when they first visit the hospice, both by the Viennese pastries and the oasis of calm it provides in the midst of a bustling and often politically-tense Middle Eastern city.
On a busy thoroughfare just inside the Damascus Gate, a large brown door set in a stone wall leads to a staircase, which visitors climb to then find themselves in front of what looks like a large palace surrounded by gardens of palm trees and cacti. The noise of vendors hawking scarves, rosaries, and other souvenirs, and the chaos of motorcycles, three-wheel bicycles, and groups of pilgrims following the Stations of the Cross on the streets below disappears.
Just past the front desk, a hallway leads to the Vienna Cafe. The walls are painted a deep burgundy, the arched windows are framed in wood, and the espresso machine brews Julius Meinl coffee from Austria. Among the sweets in a glass display case is a sachertorte, a dense chocolate cake filled with a layer of apricot jam and topped with chocolate icing. It arrives with a dollop of whipped cream on the side. This Viennese culinary specialty traces its origins back to 1832, when a chef named Franz Sacher developed it for an Austrian prince. It has become so representative of the country’s cuisine that December 5 is National Sachertorte Day in Austria.
It was just three decades after the recorded invention of sachertorte that the Austrian Hospice opened in Jerusalem. At a time when colonial interest in Jerusalem was growing, Austria-Hungary was the first of several European states to build an institution here for lodging pilgrims, in hopes of increasing its power and influence in the contested Holy City. From its earliest days, it served central European food both to make pilgrims from Austria and Hungary feel at home, as well as share its traditions with locals and visitors from other places around the world.
“Austrian people really like their own food, and their own beer,” said Sister Bernadette Schwartz, the Austrian-born vice-rector of the hospice, who has lived here for 18 years, told me when I visited. “But, it’s also others that this food brings in. Later today, we have a group of Americans coming.”
But this task hasn’t always been easy amid the conflicts here over the years. When the British took over Jerusalem in 1917 from Turkey’s disintegrating Ottoman Empire, they turned the hospice into an orphanage run by the Anglican church, then later used it as an internment camp for German nuns and priests, as Britain considered any German citizens enemies during World War II. In the war that broke out after Israel’s founding in 1948, Jordan took possession of the hospice when it conquered Jerusalem. It was not returned to Austrian hands again until 1985, when the hospice could finally return to its mission of hosting of pilgrims.
“Now things are better, but we are still negatively affected by tensions in the city,” Schwartz said, Israel has controlled the city since 1967, and groups of Israeli police and soldiers can be seen patrolling the city, especially the Muslim quarter. The Vienna Cafe offers a respite from this.
“When you are in here, you don’t feel like you are in the Old City,” said Jack Hosh, a Palestinian from nearby Bethlehem who works in the hospice’s cafe, serving other Palestinians, Israelis and foreigners.
But even over a plate of apple strudel, with its handmade dough freshly sprinkled with powdered sugar, a glance out of the cafe’s windows or a look at the menu, written in German, Hebrew, Arabic and English, quickly reminds visitors that they are not in Vienna. Yet, the “neutrality” of the hospice prevails, Schwartz said, with people from different religions and national loyalties crossing paths here.
“We are not on one side or the other,” she said. “So we can bring people together, and that’s very important.”