The Bertha Vester Diaries

By the first part of the 1900s, first-generation founders of the American Colony in Jerusalem had passed away or grown elderly. Esteemed matriarch Anna Spafford continued to offer inspiration to followers, but she focused primarily on religious guidance of the polyglot American Colony community of Americans, local converts, and Swedes.  Second-generation members who had come to Jerusalem with their parents as children or teenagers, or were born in Jerusalem, grew up and were educated as colony members in the 1880s and 1890s. They came of age in the beginning of the twentieth century.  As time progressed, they began to assume greater leadership roles in the administration of the colony and its business enterprises. They also promoted ties between the colony and the western world.

Young American Colony members picnic at Mar Saba, 1902. Image from members and activities of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 3, no. 3). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC, LC-DIG-ppmsca-15830-00003

Jacob Eliahu Spafford, the adopted son of Anna and Horatio Gates Spafford and convert to the American Colony cause, was for decades a mainstay in the business end of the community. He served in Anna Spafford's old age as her loyal lieutenant in managing the colony's economic affairs as well as a chronicler of its religious meetings. Swedish member and photographer Hols Lars (Lewis) Larsson—who would became Swedish consul for Jerusalem and a prominent businessman—followed Elijah Meyers as the head of the American Colony Photo Department. He led that colony enterprise throughout the heyday of its operation.

Jacob Eliahu Spafford at the American Colony. Image from portraits of the Whiting and Spafford families and other members of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 11, no. 20). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC, LC-DIG-ppmsca-18413-00020

John D. Whiting—the first baby born to the core group of American Colony pioneers once they arrived in the Old City and later a deputy American Consul in Jerusalem—used his Arabic-language skills and his extensive knowledge of regional geography to lead tours for visiting archaeologists, scholars, and religious travelers. He also entered into business partnership with German-Swiss member Frederick Vester to run the colony's most profitable commercial enterprise, the Vester & Co.–American Colony Store. The store was located in the Old City near Jaffa Gate and dealt in artifacts, crafts, and wares of the Middle East. 

Portrait of John D. Whiting at desk. Image from portraits of the Whiting and Spafford families and other members of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 41, no. 44). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC, LC-DIG-ppmsca-18413-00044

Whiting helped set up a branch store in New York City which was managed by Frederick Vester's son-in-law, Swedish colony member Nils Lind.  John D. Whiting married Grace Spafford, the youngest surviving daughter of American Colony founders Horatio and Anna Spafford, herself a teacher and a nurse volunteer.  Their marriage, like the weddings of Norman Baldwin and Lulu Meyers, Elias Habeeb and Emelia Cartstrom, Clarence Levy and Christie Larson, Furman Baldwin and Eva Henwood, Lewis Larsson and Edith Larson, Jesse Yantiss and Anita Baldwin, Olof Matson and Rachel Dinsmore,  Ruth Whiting and Maurice Goldenthal, Eric Matson and Edith Yantiss, Lars Lind and Effie Yantiss, Flora Page and Farid Nasef (Fareed Naseef) and other second-generation residents of the colony, followed the landmark 1904 wedding of Frederick Vester to Bertha Spafford, the founders' eldest surviving daughter. Soon a third generation of children were being born and raised within the community.

Wedding of Flora Page and Farid [Fareed] Naseef, October 5, 1904. Image from members and activities of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 34, no. 118). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC, LC-DIG-ppmsca-15830-00118

Bertha Vester (1879-1968) assumed primary administrative responsibility for the American Colony upon her mother Anna Spafford's death in 1923. Under her leadership the mission of the community was secularized and put on a business basis.  The American Colony evolved from the deeply religious communal sect it had been during the original founders' lifetimes to a collective community with established commercial and social welfare functions.

As the twentieth century progressed, the American Colony continued to offer its famous warm hospitality to visitors and travelers.  It functioned as a hostel, and later as a commercial hotel, while the Vester & Co.–American Colony Store and American Colony Photo Department thrived and won international reputations.  By the 1920s and ‘30's, the colony was operating a baby home, the American Colony Aid Association, and sewing and lace-making cooperatives involving the handiwork of local Palestinian women.

Left:Printed funeral notice of Anna Spafford. Loose insert from 1923 diary of Bertha Vester. American Colony in Jerusalem Collection, Manuscript Division, LOC.
Center, right:April 18 and April 19 entries from 1923 diary of Bertha Vester (pp. 107 & 109), re funeral of Anna Spafford and retreat to Ein Karim. American Colony in Jerusalem Collection, Manuscript Division, LOC

The colony itself was home to key socializing and celebrations.  During the years of Ottoman rule and on into the long period of British administration of the city during the British Mandate, Bertha Vester hosted many receptions and parties for Turkish and British officials, community leaders, and local Jerusalemites.  The Colony also served as a place where community and benevolent organizations could hold their meetings, or visitors gathered for religious services, musical performances, and meals.

Left: Playground, Anna Spafford Baby Home, ca. 1926-1940. G. Eric and Edith Matson Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC, LC-DIG-matpc-11495
Right: Sewing cooperative meeting at the Anna Spafford Baby Home, ca. 1926-1940. G. Eric and Edith Matson Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC, LC-DIG-matpc-10647
Enor Shelberg, Otis Page, Olaf Lind, American Colony. Image from portraits of the Whiting and Spafford families and other members of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 11, no. 19). Visual Materials of John D. Whiting, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC, LC-DIG-ppmsca-18413-00019

The secularization of the Colony and its administration by the Spafford-Vester-Whiting families did not occur without controversy.  Some younger Swedish members in particular protested the changes and the control over communal funds, and after Anna Spafford's death dissenters, including Olaf Lind, Lewis Larsson, and other influential colonists, left the colony, while their siblings spoke out in the colony's support. Some second-generation members were asked or chose to leave, due to discord and issues of ownership of personal property, religious disappointment in the millennial promises of colony teachings that did not come to pass, or out of disinterest in maintaining the communal style of life that appealed to those who remained.  Some unsuccessfully sued the Colony's leadership to recoup initial family investments in the group enterprise.

All these changes are reflected in the manuscript materials in the physical American Colony in Jerusalem collection, as well as the closely related John D. Whiting Papers, available for research on site at the Library of Congress in the reading room of the Manuscript Division.

The Diaries

Among the holdings in the physical American Colony collection are a series of personal diaries or day books kept by Bertha Vester between 1923, when she was thirty-four years old, and 1968, the year of her death. (Diaries before 1920 and for the years 1921, 1922, 1928, 1954, 1965, and 1967 are not known to be extant. Physical diaries for 1920, 1930, 1939, and 1968 are the property of the American Colony Hotel archive in Jerusalem.)  In some years, Vester created more than one volume.  The diaries are primarily a record of Vester's personal social and civic engagements and of her family life and parenting.  But they also record details on the workings of the colony, the hotel, and stores in Jerusalem and New York, as well as charitable enterprises and political issues of the times.

Portrait of Bertha Vester, [ca. 1930-1950]. Visual Materials of John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC, LC-DIG-ppmsca-18894

Bertha Vester makes note of foreign visitors to the colony—such as Kermit Roosevelt (in 1949), Helen Keller (in 1952), or Cole Porter (in 1956)—and offers insight into the workings of the bourgeois social world of Jerusalem during the Mandate and national periods.  High commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel, Edmund Allenby, Ronald Storrs, Sir Wyndham Deedes, Lord and Lady Plumer, and other powerful figures within the British Mandate administration were frequent guests for social functions at the colony in the 1920s, as well as recipients of farewell receptions upon their departures from Jerusalem. Bertha Vester notes key births and deaths within the colony itself, including the death of her mother Anna Spafford (in 1923), her husband Frederick (who died of a heart attack suddenly in 1942), as well as her adopted brother Jacob Eliahu Spafford (killed in an automobile accident in 1932), with whom she was close, and her brother-in-law John D. Whiting (who died of heart failure in 1951), whose administrative skills she alternately praised and berated.

June 6 entry from the 1925 diary of Bertha Vester, including pasted-in printed card re farewell dinner given by the American Colony to the High Commissioner and Lady Samuel, with hand-drawn illustration of David's Tomb, and Vester's hand-written note. Image from 1925 diary of Bertha Vester. American Colony in Jerusalem Collection, Manuscript Division, LOC

The diaries also contain references to Vester's views about dissent among colony members and the conflicts raging in the region and in the greater outside world. They record Vester's travels, particularly her numerous trips to the United States, and the acquaintances she made among the little-known and the famous, from Nancy Astor to Marilyn Monroe (whom Bertha met at Fleur Cowles's country home in Connecticut), Dwight D. Eisenhower,  Pearl Buck, or Norman Vincent Peale.  They also document her fund-raising and lecturing work with churches and charitable foundations, and various institutions—such as the YMCA and YWCA—active in Jerusalem, as well as the colony's own institutions, such as the Anna Spafford Baby Home and day nursery (later children's hospital). 

April 1, 1925 entry page including two photographs 1) Lord Balfour's Speech, and 2) Crowd at Opening of Hebrew University, Mount Scopus. Image from the 1925 diary of Bertha Vester. American Colony in Jerusalem Collection, Manuscript Division, LOC

Diary entries contain Bertha Vester's frank opinions on war and conflict, literature, and the personalities, faults, and merits of others.  They make mention of some key natural, local, and geopolitical events, such as the dedication of Hebrew University in 1925, Palestine earthquake relief efforts in 1927, incidents of violence in Jerusalem in 1947-48, or the assassination of King Abdullah of Jordan in 1951.

Materials inserted or pasted into the diaries and daybooks are as valuable to researchers as the diary notations themselves.  Inserted items include invitations and programs of social engagements, charitable committee involvement, club meetings, concerts, lectures, fund-raising events and bazaars, engagements, weddings, birthday parties, graduations, receptions, holiday tableaus, and dedication ceremonies.  Bertha Vester also pasted-in news clippings and photographs, greeting cards, "at home" calling cards, ship passenger lists, postcards, telegrams, obituaries, and a variety of other scrapbook-like materials into her diaries, which range from small paper-bound calendars one-eighth of an inch thick, to impressive custom-bound tomes whose pages mount up to several inches.

Vester referred in part to her own diaries in writing Our Jerusalem: An American Family in the Holy City, 1881-1949, which she published in a United States edition with Doubleday and Company in 1950.  The correspondence and other documentation she organized for her reference in her preparation of her version of the colony history are also included in the American Colony physical collection available for research use in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.