Hanne Burke (nee Niermann) was born in Bocholt, Germany, on October 29th, 1926. Her early years in Germany were characterised by turmoil. Her mother died from the after-effects of childbirth. Initially, a nanny looked after her, but at the age of six, her aunt welcomed her into her home. Some years later, her aunt married Gerd Diedrich, who spent much of his married life on the war front in Italy. They had three children, to whom Hanne was both an older sister and a second parent.
On the night of September 12th, 1944, Hanne’s adoptive Münster, a city of some 200,000 inhabitants, was largely destroyed in an air raid. She was caught up in the midst of the conflagration, taking refuge in an underground air raid shelter under her apartment. When the all-clear was sounded, Hanne emerged from the shelter, only to find the street ablaze, and her intended escape route to her other aunt’s farm blocked by falling embers. Instead, she headed towards the town centre, and escaped through the firestorm to a canal.
Eventually, the following morning, she reached the farm. Some days later, she learned that her stepfather had been shot dead by partisans in Italy, on the same night her city was destroyed, one year after the end of the war in Italy.
Hanne had a keen interest in languages, and had studied both French and English. In 1950, her interest led her to Ireland, where the Duff family in Mount Merrion, Dublin, were looking for a mother’s help. She travelled the two-day boat and train journey to Ireland with the intention of staying for one year.
However, her stay was to last for 62-and-a-half years. Hanne quickly took root in her new country. In 1952, she met Patrick (Paddy) Burke from Drumcondra. Patrick worked on the committee of the Save the German Children Society. Its mission was to bring traumatised German war orphans to Ireland, where they were taken into foster families. Some of the 1,000 children remained in Ireland into their adulthood. Patrick was later awarded the Cross of Merit by the German government for his work.
Hanne and Patrick had four children. She lived in the same house for some 60 years, filling it with warmth and love. The word Gemütlichkeit, which she often used, calls up a picture of cosiness and camaraderie. While feeling rooted in Ireland, Hanne retained her German identity, choosing to speak German at home with her children, and maintaining numerous German traditions. As a correspondent she was second to none. By keeping in touch she helped cement relationships with family members scattered around the world.
Hanne worked part-time for the Prince of Saxony, who lived in exile on a farm in Co Westmeath, for the Irish Schools Football Association, Wheatley’s Freezer Shop in Dalkey and in Cleo Handknits in Kildare Street. Following her retirement in 1997, Hanne continued to take a great interest in her home and garden. As recently as 2010, she was still to be seen mowing the lawn and digging the garden. She faced her final illness with stoicism, and died on October 13th. Her tremendous positivity, courage, devoutness and warmth will remain an enduring memory.
She is survived by her two sons and three grandchildren. – RB