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Dec 2011 Journal

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The road back to life (review)

ZURÜCK INS LEBEN. DAS INTERNATIONALE KINDERZENTRUM KLOSTER INDERSDORF 1945–1946 (The Road Back to Life: The Kloster Indersdorf International Children’s Centre, 1945-1946)
by Anna Andlauer
Nuremberg: Antogo (, 2011, 190 pp., ISBN 978-3-938286-40-1

This is the story of the first international children’s centre in post-war Germany, and of UNRRA Team 182, who cared there for many of the thousands of lost, orphaned, uprooted, homeless, hungry, ragged and traumatised children who wandered the streets of Germany immediately after the war. Team 182, all volunteers and truly international in their make-up, were exceptional individuals, all highly qualified in their own fields. But even they, in common with the rest of the world, could not envisage the scale of the tragedy that awaited them.

Anna Andlauer describes the enormous effort it took to make this ancient cloister, requisitioned by the US army, suitable for its new purpose and how the team overcame, throughout the life of the Centre, the severe shortage of essential goods required for the effective running of such a project.

Children began arriving at once, singly and in groups. No child was turned away. They had to be de-loused, subjected to a medical examination, bathed, given fresh clothes and, above all, fed. My aunt, Greta Fischer, a leading member of the team who figures prominently in this book, later remembered that there was a constant request for food, which was plentiful. Nevertheless, it took a very long time before the children could be persuaded to stop hiding crusts under their pillows or cease wolfing down each morsel at lightning speed, in case it was snatched away from them.

There were roughly two groups of children: babies and toddlers under three, orphaned or abandoned, who were undernourished, under-developed, sickly and showing all the classic signs of neglect; and youngsters of twelve upwards, who had survived largely because they were deemed fit enough for work. No Jewish child over three years of age had survived the camps.

There were not only orphaned concentration camp survivors: some had spent the war years in hiding, or had lived in caves and forests with partisans, or had survived in Polish ghettoes. Each had a horrendous tale to tell and the team felt it was vital that they be listened to, sometimes over and over, however long it took.

Some non-Jewish children could be repatriated relatively quickly to their countries of origin, if relatives could be found to take them in. But many of the Jewish ones, despite every effort by UNRRA search teams, had to come to terms with the fact that not a single member of their family had survived - they were alone in the world.

The road back to physical health was relatively easy and most of the youngsters, by the end of the life of the Centre, had become more robust and had reached their normal developmental stages. Healing their mental scars proved a much more difficult problem. It took the UNRRA authorities some time to realise how traumatised these youngsters were and to supplement the existing team with expert psychological help. They had been through, and witnessed, the most horrific experiences: they had lost parents, siblings, homes and identities, they had been humiliated, abused and treated as sub-human and had been robbed of their childhood. The healing process would take a very long time.

The older ones, when they first came, were wild and uncontrollable. They had survived only by relying on their wits, by lying, stealing, cheating and, as Greta Fischer put it, by their overriding rage to live. All they had known was the bestiality of the camps; they had no concept of ‘normal’ behaviour. They were in no mood to accept any kind of restriction on their new-found freedom. The team had a hard time of it.

Some thought that after what these youngsters had been through, they should be allowed to behave as they pleased. Others, Greta Fischer in particular, felt that from the beginning some basic structures and routines must be instituted in order to prepare them for the outside world. This is what happened and was largely successful.

The shortage of suitable staff was an ever-present headache. To begin with, displaced persons waiting to be repatriated were employed, but it soon emerged that they were obsessed with their own problems and worries about their future and scarred by their own experiences of forced labour and were thus unable to provide the emotional support these children needed. Employing Germans, except as domestics, laundresses, cooks or gardeners - i.e. in positions where they would not be in contact with the children - was unthinkable. The team members just had to cope.

Greta’s experiences in the wartime day nurseries for traumatised infants of the London Blitz made her the ideal team leader for those caring for the little ones. Those Sisters of Mercy who had elected to stay on helped with the babies and toddlers, as did some of the older girls, especially if they missed their younger siblings. However, Greta writes in her memoirs of the many nights when she was the only staff member on duty with 30 babies, all of whom had to be fed, changed and comforted, while she vainly tried to snatch a couple of hours’ sleep. With good nourishment and lots of physical contact and mental stimulation, most babies had almost reached their appropriate developmental milestones by the time the Centre was moved and its make-up changed, two years later.

For the older ones, the healing process progressed in very small steps. Greta describes how the acquisition of freely chosen fresh and clean clothes, in particular leather shoes, had an almost immediate impact on a youngster’s self-respect and pride. They were encouraged to choose their own room-mates, to exercise as much self-determination as practicable, and to take responsibility for the cleanliness and order of the premises.

These principles were at first strenuously resisted: ‘Let the Germans clean up after us - we had to do it for them!’ But Team 182 did their utmost to show the children that living with hate and enmity in their hearts was self-destructive. The adults were able to demonstrate that people of different races, creeds and countries of origin could live and work together in harmony, since they were themselves so mixed in their make-up.

Jewish and non-Jewish children were mixed: there were no distinctions. Sometimes it was hard, particularly for those from Poland or Hungary, where anti-Semitism had been endemic before the war. They found it difficult to accept that some of those caring for them, including Greta Fischer, were Jewish.

Strenuous efforts were made to prepare the youngsters for life in the world outside. Schooling was instituted and eagerly devoured. Work experiences for the older ones were found. Sport and drama had a particularly important part to play in the rehabilitation and were encouraged.

The hope that somewhere in the world someone would be found to call their own never died. Anna Andlauer describes individual examples of the heartbreak when it had to be extinguished.

Looking back at this ‘Road Back to Life’, Greta Fischer observed that those children who had had some sort of secure family life before it was broken up and had experienced a loving environment and good parenting were able to recover more quickly than those who had had no such advantages.

It is impossible to read this book without shedding tears - especially when, in the concluding chapters, Anna Andlauer describes how cold and unwelcoming was the rest of the world to these orphaned and uprooted children, who desperately wanted to get out of Germany. The USA, the UK and Canada took in a few hundred, a few South American countries opened their doors a crack, but most spent long and demoralising months, even years, waiting for someone who would take them in. Red tape prevented those who had no means of identification from beginning their lives anew. Many of the Jewish children wanted to emigrate to what was then Palestine and under British mandate, but the entry criteria were harsh. Not until the founding of the Jewish state in 1948 were the youngsters welcomed in.

Greta Fischer was employed to accompany a large group of older boys to Canada, to help them integrate into Canadian society and monitor their progress. Another fairly large group came to the UK and became known as ‘The Boys’.

Greta Fischer kept in touch with as many of ‘her’ children as she could until the end of her life. Anna Andlauer has made heroic efforts to trace as many ex-Indersdorfers as possible and has been successful in finding enough of them to organise an annual reunion. Many are now too old to travel, but the stories she has gathered of the lives they have made for themselves in their new homes are truly inspiring.

The last chapter details the milestones of the life of Greta Fischer, who died aged 78 of a heart attack. On what would have been her 100th birthday, over 100 of her former colleagues and friends came together to pay tribute to the many achievements of this remarkable lady. She would have been very proud to know that a special needs school just outside Indersdorf now bears her name and is run in accordance with her ethical principles.

This review is only a sketchy snapshot of the contents of this book. The book is well illustrated with black-and-white contemporary photographs and the copious footnotes attest to the meticulous research which has gone into compiling this valuable historical document.

Hanna Corbishley

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