(published in German in book edited Ulrich Kadelbach, 2011, Bethlehem Zwischen Weihrauch und Tr�nengas, Gerhard Hess Verlag, original in german at Schneller Schule
How Schneller School Made A Difference in Palestine
by Mazin Qumsiyeh*
In a recent visit to Stuttgart, I mentioned that were it not for Shneller, I would probably not be here today nor would there be over 115 descendants of an orphan child taken in by this orphanage in Jerusalem. The story started on 2 October 1908 when my maternal grandfather was born. It seemed only natural to name him Issa (Jesus) since he was born to a Palestinian Christian mother named Miryam (Mary) and a father named Atallah (whose name literally means the gift of god) down the hill from where tradition holds that Jesus was born. It was the cool morning in a sleepy backwater village of the Ottoman Empire called Beit Sahour (the Shepherds' Field).
The young Atallah family grew with three other children: Mitri, Hilwa, and Elias. Life was harsh but simple and beautiful. In the early morning, the family would have a simple breakfast of bread, olives, olive oil and thyme, on special occasions an egg or a piece of goat cheese. Atallah would go to work making souvenirs to sell to pilgrims and tending a small farm. Life changed when Issa recalled at age six the talk of the "drum being beaten". He did not understand. Drums are beaten in weddings and other celebrations. The grave conversations finally revolved around a great war. A burly, heavily moustached officer of the Ottoman army asked for a meeting with village elders. Males ages 17-35 were to report to active duty in what was by then called "the great war". Atallah was taken with over 100 others from the area in the year 1914 when Issa was barely over 7 years old. Issa remembered that day well not because he understood what was going on but because of the sobbing of his mother which reminded him of another bad time (his burn incident). The land was more difficult to cultivate with only women and children. Famine set in. Rumors spread that situation across the Jordan was better because the Ottoman's had little abilities to control those vast areas. One said it was because of better rains in the Moab hills. Many decided to try their luck there. In doing so, they followed in the footsteps of generations before them who seeked refuge to the East (Syria and East Jordan) or to the West (Egypt). Their faith sustained by the fact that such refuge helped Jesus ad thousands of their ancestors. Stories were handed down generation after generation of hardships on the trails followed by better life elsewhere and a sweet return to the ancestral villages. Miriam decided to take her four little children (ages 1 to 7) and travel to the town of Madaba where rumor had it that people are kind to strangers. In Madaba, one family felt pity on these poor refugees and allowed Miriam and her children to stay in the abandoned cave (originally used as an animal stable) on their land. The place was damp and especially cold and wet in the winter months that came that year. Miriam and three younger children fell ill and Issa was left caring for them. He would go to where locals watered their animals, wait patiently till animals filled themselves of water and then fetch some water for his mother. For food, he scavenged and knocked on doors and did odd jobs. Alas it was not enough and his younger brother Mitri soon died followed by his younger sister Hilwa.
His mother felt the despair and after some weeks of deliberation and agony (and deteriorating health), she decided it is time to go home. She found a Bedouin (Arab nomad) who was traveling in that direction. He agreed to take her back to her village on his donkey in exchange for all her remaining worldly possessions (a few blankets, a couple of lamb skins, a couple of pots). Miriam rode the donkey with baby Elias while the child Issa walked along. Miriam's health kept getting worse as their treck continued. The last night on the road was spend in the Bedouin's camp. Early the next morining and on the outskirts of her village, word spread that Miriam was back. What Miriam did not know was that her husband had escaped from the Turkish Army, and had been frantically trying to find his family. Upon hearing that she is returning he ran as fast as he could to meet her at the edge of town. As young Issa watched, his mother, exhausted, fell into his father's arms. His father could hardly say a word as he looked into the sunken eyes of his pale wife. She could but utter one word as if in disbelief that it is her husband. "Atallah?" she said. Then she stopped breathing.
Atallah was devastated by the loss of his wife and two young children. He was still a wanted man (for desertions from the draft). The Turkish authorities were desperate for men as the war effort floundred. They even hung a few deserters (including a distant cousin of Atallah). Atallah with his two children, Atallah's younger brother, and several cousins decided to flee across the Jordan. Many of them settled in the town of As-Salt but had little luck with work. Unfortunately, the authorities captured Atallah and sent him to the front. Again, young Issa had to beg for food. A German officer took a liking to Issa and asked him to help him in his fishing.
Issa's uncle died suddenly one day from a massive infestation of Ascaris worms. The war raged on and Germany and Turkey were losing. Until one day, British soldiers arrived in town. Again, the remaining family members were unemployed and decided to go back to their village. Atallah decided to take a wife to care for his two young children. A few days before the wedding Atallah felt pain in his lower abdomen (what we now know is the common appendicitis). In the whole region there was one physician of Greek origin who rode around the villages on his white donkey providing needed medical services. His "prescriptions" ranged from slitting ears to vacuum pressure cups to drinking English tea or castor oil. This "doctor" could not be found. Issa and his blind aunt traveled to Beit Safafa near Jerusalem where a French doctor was found. They described the pain. He recommended hot pads on the area of the pain. Instead of decreasing the pain, this recipe increased the father's pain and he soon expired. This was the fall of 1918. The young brother Elias died shortly after. Issa was barely 10 years old when he was left an orphan with no family to take care of him other than his blind aunt. One evening, as Issa walked from the town area to the farm he met his cousin Michael. Michael told him that he is now studying at a German school in Jerusalem for orphans. The school was called Schniller (after the German guy who established it). Michael went on and on about how this school takes care of all orphans like they are and that he should come and join. Michael said he is walking back to the school in two days and would suggested Issa accompany him. The contrast between the description and his current desperate situation seemed to Issa almost unbelievable. He could hardly wait.
It took a day's walk to get to the school. Yet, Issa relayed later that he never felt tired. He felt like he was walking on air. The sun was setting as the 14 and 10-year-olds arrived at the guarded gate. The guard saw that the older boy had the school uniform and would let him in but he would not let Issa in. No begging or pleading was to change this guard's obstinance. As the trip back is a day's walk Issa begged to stay the night and the answer was still no because his instructions are strict to not allow any vagrants or others enter school grounds. Issa did not know what to do and, not knowing anyone or anything in this big city, started to cry uncontrollably. A number of the students whose boarding areas were near the gate heard the commotion and came out to investigate. Here was this ironic and pathetic scene -- an orphan at the gate of an orphanage with a local guard who was not authorized to let the orphan in. By chance, Ms. Maria Schniller (daughter of the founder) was heading out and stopped to see what was going on. When she heard his story, she was touched. She called for the school taylor and asked him to take the kid in for the night and bring him to see her in the morning. Issa did not forget that night when he laid near flour sacs, with mice running around him, and not knowing what tomorrow will bring.
As the sun rose and Issa came to see Maria in day light, she noticed how terrible he looked. What Issa was wearing at the time was nothing more than a piece of old tent cloth (army tents) draped over his head and tied with a piece of string at the waist; nothing more. He had not bathed in weeks. Maria again felt pity, called for an assistant and asked that he be bathed and given cloths. When he walked back in her office, she could hardly recognize the child. She called for the head of the education, a Palestinian Arab, who then gave Issa a verbal examination. As a result he enrolled him in third grade.
Life smiled on young Issa. He studied and worked hard. Kids were expected to learn trades while going to school, and he chose to learn repairing and making shoes. He did so well that the decision was made to take him directly from third grade to fifth grade the next year. He finished 6th grade in 1921. He applied to the new "Teachers College". Having passed the exam he thought he could get admitted. Yet, the committee met with all who passed and when Issa came before them, they told him he was too young to join (not yet 15). They asked that he retake the exam the next year. So Issa spent a year in Schniller making and mending shoes. He took the exam as instructed the next year and this time passed with distinction. Fortunately, the college decided his grades were so high that he does not need to take the preparatory year and can move directly to the actual first year of study.
Upon graduation at age 18, Issa tought at a school in Beit Jala near Bethlehem. There he fell in love with Emilia (Milia). Her family was originally from Nazareth and was a highly-educated and well-to-do family. Emilia, her two sisters and her father were all educators. It is not hard to see how Issa's love letters and poems to Emilia (which still survive to this day) swept her off her feet to marry someone who, in a very traditional family-oriented society, would have been otherwise highly undesirable. Their first modest apartment in Beit Jala quickly became crowded with children: eight in all in very rapid succession while the mother and father were only in their 20s. For every child born, Issa wrote a poem which these Children still treasure. Being a linguist, Issa, with the gentle consultation of his liberated wife came up with names that reflect a hopeful, optimistic vision of the future: Sami (noble soul), Bisher (blessing), Sana (guiding light), Humam (hard worker), Fauz (prize), Arij (blossom), Hayah (life), and Amal (hope). My mother was one of those children. She is now 78 years old. In total, there are over 115 grand children and great grandchildren from Issa and Emilia. Issa accomplished much with the life he was given by Schneller School. He became an educator, superintendent in the UNRWA schools, author of several books, family man, intellectual, backyard farmer, great father and grandfather, and much more. He died at the age of 91 in 1997 in the same village where he was born, where the shepherds saw a star and where angels sang about the great news of the birth of the prince of peace. Unfortunately, during the establishment of Israel in 1948, the fate of the school followed the fate of Palestinian institutions and hundreds of villages. The school was closed, the 70 acre land and the buildings were taken over and the orphans moved to Lebanon (http://www.schneller-school.org/ ). Still today, hundreds of Palestinians and thousands of their descendants remember Schneller, his family, and his school. The school now does its good work in Lebanon.
*Mazin Qumsiyeh is a professor at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities and author of many books, the most recent is "Popular Resistance in Palestine: A history of Hope and Empowerment" (Pluto Press).