Humanitarian Aid or Politics?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 1997), News, The Emergency, Volume 5

Memories of the Great Famine one hundred years previously was one reason why Irish humanitarian aid for Germany immediately after World War II was given in astonishing amounts and with great speed. At the same time, these contributions were the cause of considerable controversy, since the suspicion arose that in some cases Irish animosity for Britain was the sole reason for interest in Germany’s fate. Thus efforts made by the Irish people to provide assistance to Germany in the months following the end of the war in Europe were regarded with some scepticism and distrust by the Allies, and in particular the British, still bitter about Ireland’s refusal to fight on the Allied side. In view of the obvious suffering throughout Germany, however, all countries soon came to co-operate in sending relief aid, although the most famous symbol of post-war aid from America, the CARE parcel, did not arrive in Germany until August 1946.
One organisation in particular drew the suspicion of the British authorities to itself from the outset. In October 1945 a Dublin paediatrician, Dr Kathleen Murphy, founded the Save the German Children Society with the aim of helping those children in Europe whom she saw as the ‘most necessitous’. Singling out German children for aid would probably have been enough to arouse wariness in the British authorities. At the founding meeting, however, statements were made which sealed the fate of the Society in one evening. ‘On the grounds of my pro-German feelings and my hatred of Britain’, stated one man, ‘we should do everything possible to end the Anglo-Saxon influence…If we took these German children, we should see that they are brought up as Germans and do not come under Anglo-Saxon influence.’ Another member agreed that German children should be helped on the grounds that ‘whatever measure of freedom we got in this country we got with the aid of guns that came from Germany.’ A member of the Irish Special Branch was present and his report formed the basis for official Irish and British attitudes thereafter.
The founding meeting in Dublin was followed by a campaign to raise money and find foster homes for German children throughout Ireland. Leaflets were distributed, posters and ads displayed throughout the country. The genuine desire to help became apparent by the speed with which several hundred offers to take on children were received, often from households which were not particularly well off. Ninety per cent of the offers came from Catholic families, 10 per cent from Protestant. The Society stipulated that no Jewish children were to be taken for fear of difficulties in integrating them into non-Jewish households. Given the knowledge of the horrors which had occurred in Europe, however, to refuse Jewish children participation in the scheme was an unchristian and politically unwise move.
Once the Society had assembled a sizeable list of offers, representatives approached the Irish government, seeking assistance in obtaining permission to bring children from the British zone of Germany to Ireland. The British zone was chosen because the Society had the most contacts there through religious orders. What the leaders of the Society did not know was that the Irish and British authorities were of one mind on the inadvisability of allowing children to enter Ireland through their organisation. A period of frustration followed, with repeated requests and petitions being sent to various bodies, including the Allied Control Council and the UN, only to meet with delaying tactics and advice to co-operate with the Irish Red Cross in the matter.
By the spring of 1946 however attitudes had changed in the face of the continuing suffering in Germany. Those who objected to the scheme on political grounds were overruled. ‘The objection that [the fostering    of children] would  prevent the        re-education of German youth on democratic lines seems to me so fantastically ridiculous that one is at a loss for comment’, wrote one British official. At the end of May it was decided that 100 children would be permitted to leave the British zone. The children were mostly selected by the German Catholic charity Caritas and were aged between three and fourteen years. The granting of permission for children to leave Germany did not mean that the Save the German Children Society was now acceptable—the Control Council of the British zone stated that the Irish Red Cross and not the Save the German Children Society was to take charge of the children. The Irish government agreed and urged secrecy in the matter until the children were in the country—presumably to prevent the Save the German Children Society from finding out about the arrangements. It took a further two months before all the bureaucratic obstacles had been set aside. The first group of children from war-shattered Germany arrived in Dún Laoghaire on 27 July 1946.
‘As we got off the boat…the pier was lined with tables, covered with white sheets, and lots of Red Cross nurses standing behind serving out cocoa and bread with lots of butter on’, wrote one of the children later. On their arrival they were taken to a home in Glencree, County Wicklow, where they were given medical treatment and put on a suitable diet to combat malnutrition. Helen O’Ciseain, an assistant in Glencree at the time, reported that most of the children also suffered from lice, worms and scabies. The experience of the greenery of Ireland after having known nothing but ruins, the plentiful food and the freedom to play outside without fear have remained in the foster-children’s memories to this day.
After a period of a few weeks, the children were chosen by foster parents and left Glencree for destinations throughout the country. It appears that the Save the German Children Society was able to make use of the homes offered to it after all, working always in conjunction with the Red Cross. The methods of selection were however haphazard and uncontrolled. The children were lined up and prospective foster-parents told to choose the child they liked best. Some families agreed to take on two or even three children in order not to split up brothers and sisters. In most cases, the choice was a happy one and the German children spent three contented years with the families. There were however some cases of children being placed in unsuitable homes. One boy was put to hard manual work on a farm with an unmarried farmer until the Red Cross found out and had the boy removed. Another was beaten so badly by his foster-father that he had to spend three weeks in hospital, while one boy was placed with a single man who abused him. These cases were the exception, but could have been avoided through more careful investigation.
Most of the children settled into life in Ireland astonishingly quickly, speaking fluent English within a short time and learning Irish and hurling at school. So well did they adapt, in fact, that they began to forget their German, so that letters from their parents in Germany could only be read with the help of a translator. To combat this loss of their native language, German courses were organised in Dublin, although these could only be attended by those living in or around the capital. These language classes were the beginnings of St Killians, the German school in Dublin, which was officially founded in 1952 and is still flourishing today. In fact, one of the then foster-children who stayed on in Ireland now teaches Irish there.
The fears that the children would be politically indoctrinated to hate the British, as had been expressed by some British authorities, proved to be unfounded. The children interviewed by the author speak with great affection of Ireland, their ‘second home’, but can remember no effort to influence them in an anti-British fashion.
Problems arose again when the time came for the children to leave. It had been agreed with the Irish authorities that they would return to Germany after a period of three years, by which time the children would have regained their health and the surviving parent or parents in Germany would have recovered from the effects of the war. By then however most of the children felt themselves to be part of the Irish families in which they had been living, and had no special feelings for their families in Germany. The first departures took place in an atmosphere of despair and sorrow. One woman, Ursula Becker, later described her feelings that day: ‘The foster family was nearly hysterical with grief…but my Mum thought she would never see me again, so I had to leave. That was very very awful for me, I cried all the way. Back in Germany they were all waiting…father, mother, older sister, a three-year-old sister I had never met…I had forgotten all my German, all I could say was “hello, hello”.’ Following the initial transports, the Save the German Children Society applied for permission to enable those children to remain in Ireland whose parents and foster-parents agreed to the move—much to the annoyance of the Irish Red Cross, who considered the case closed. The Department of Justice did give permission, and approximately fifty children stayed on in Ireland, many of them to return to Germany only on holidays years later. After 1949, responsibility for any children who stayed in Ireland rested solely with the foster-parents. For most of these children staying with their foster families meant protection from rejection by parents or guardians who did not want them back, or the continuation of a happy life in Ireland from which their parents did not want to separate them. In some cases, however, the next-of-kin was not sufficiently consulted, leading to the break-up of families. One particularly tragic case was that of two sisters who were sent to Ireland and kept there because their parents had split up and the father, who was an ardent Nazi, wanted to hurt the mother by taking the children away. It was he who gave permission for the girls to stay with their foster-parents, the mother was never consulted and didn’t see her children again until 1971.
Given incidences such as these, the occasional cases of abuse and the anti-British comments made by some members at the beginning of the Society’s work, it is not surprising that the Save the German Children Society was surrounded by controversy and was distrusted by both the Irish and British authorities. The contribution it made, however, in saving the lives or at least the health of young German children has been largely ignored up to now. In the years following the return of most of the children, the Society and indeed the humanitarian relief programme which had brought so many German children to Ireland was forgotten by all but those who had been directly involved.

However, on 23 and 24 March this year a reunion of over 300 former foster-children and their foster-parents was organised by the German embassy and the Red Cross in the presence of Presidents Herzog and Robinson to honour the work done fifty years previously. The aid given to German children was praised as being one of the first small but important steps towards a new spirit of European co-operation after the war.

Cathy Molohan is a postgraduate in European Studies at the University of Hamburg.


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