Post-war food donations led to album of thanks from starving German children to ‘you Irelanders’
Drawings and rhymes sent by German schoolchildren to their Irish benefactors survive nearly 70 years on
Saarbrücken was in ruins when Roswitha Hemmerling returned as an 11-year-old in the summer of 1945. The war was over but, in her home town on Germany’s border to France, she still remembers how she and her six siblings were permanently hungry.
“Our ration was two slices of bread each, that was all,” she told The Irish Times. “My mother didn’t eat a thing so us children would have more. She was very haggard then.”
In late 1945 Roswitha and many of her friends were classified as malnourished and put on a special meal donation programme. Thanks to emergency food donations from Ireland, worth about €191 million in today’s money, Roswitha and countless other children around Germany weren’t hungry anymore.
“In break-time we would form a queue and get extra food – sometimes it was pea soup with bacon in it, or a kind of porridge made out of milk and sweet biscuits,” she said. “It tasted so good, particularly the taste of sugar.”
Roswitha remembers her art teacher suggesting they create an album of thanks for their Irish benefactors.
“The German women and children could scarcely believe there are countries that, out of sheer humanity, tried to help. Their hearts were full of thanks,” writes one unnamed schoolgirl, concluding her letter with a flower-bedecked red heart for “Den Iren”, “to the Irish people.”
Another pupil called Rosemary wrote: “The children are particularly happy when there is cocoa: you should see it. Perhaps a time will come when we can speak to you.”
It has taken 66 years, but now the Saarbrücken schoolgirls have said thanks in person. A year ago a local newspaper ran an article about how a small album had come into the possession of an Irishman, who was hunting for the schoolgirls who had made it.
“The phone didn’t stop ringing for days,” said Roswitha (78). “We were all so surprised and delighted to hear about the album again.”
Over 20 women, now in their 70s and 80s, came together to welcome Tony O’Herlihy – an energetic, retired architect – and their album, with its brown speckled cover, and 90 pages yellow with age.
Each woman found the drawing or rhymes she had written, in careful cursive script, as a child who had seen the horrors of war and was barely surviving its terrible aftermath.
Mr O’Herlihy told them the album had found its way to Ireland and into the hands of an eight-year-old Mary Walshe from Crumlin, who later became his wife. The story goes that her father Jack Walshe, a plumbing supervisor at the Guinness brewery in Dublin, told a friend how his daughter Mary liked drawing and had won a prize in the Texaco art competition.
Hearing this, Jack’s friend gave Mary the album as a present. Sensing it was something special, she kept it safe over the years, showing it to Tony O’Herlihy when they married in 1973.
“We would often take down book over our 37 years together and wonder where the girls were who’d made it,” said Mr O’Herlihy. “We often thought we must do something about it, but we always said ‘we’ll do that tomorrow’. Mary’s death in 2011 made me decide that tomorrow is now.”
He brought the album to the German embassy in Dublin where staff made contact with Saarbrücken. A year later, he has pieced together much of the detail, recalling a little-known chapter of German-Irish history.
On May 23rd, 1945, two weeks after Victory in Europe day, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera outlined a food donation programme to help counter the “terrible conditions prevailing over most of the European Continent”. (See panel 2)
“Millions of people are already starving and many millions more are threatened with starvation [and] I am reliably informed that the danger of even more widespread distress and famine is very grave indeed,” said Mr de Valera.
“Our people are ready to provide those necessities of life. It will involve a reduction in our ration of some commodities, but the sacrifice involved will, I am sure, be readily accepted by our people to help fellow-beings in dire distress.”
The proposal met with approval across party lines – James Dillon, Fine Gael TD for Monaghan and later minister for agriculture, saying “a hungry German is as much deserving of pity as a hungry Pole”.
Mr O’Herlihy is still piecing together details of the programme, though one picture in the album suggests Irish food reached the western German cities of Cologne, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Essen, Mannheim and Ludwigsburg. His feeling is that the Red Cross and Catholic charities were involved in the programme that, thanks to his efforts, is now receiving belated recognition in Germany
“Many of the women have told me the food from Ireland is what helped them survive,” said Birgit Kollet, a cultural officer in Saarbrücken, who helped co-ordinate the search.
Mr O’Herlihy is still searching for information about how the album came to Ireland and who gave it to his late wife. He hopes to eventually tell the full story in a book and, if sponsors can be found, present all the former Saarbrücken schoolgirls with a facsimile of their album. What began for them as a labour of love in 1946 has, since his wife’s passing, become the same for him today.
“It is a story that needs to be told and reminds us of ties between our countries,” said Mr O’Herlihy. “It is also a tribute to Mary: she very carefully looked after that book because she knew of its significance.”
With Thanks...Quotes from the Saarbrücken album
“The Irish sugar tastes so good, it gives us new strength and courage. You give us everything so that we have strength.” Liselotte Kurz
“We thank all the helping hands for the good and many donations.” Anita Reinhardt, class 5b
“Far away from us in the sea is an island. That is Ireland. People live there who experienced no nights of bombing and heard no thunder of cannons. People (there) have a home to call their own. This is all a distant memory to us. Here all you can see is rubble and more rubble . . . thanks to you Irelanders we get soup, porridge and biscuits every day. You good Irelanders should be thanked forever . . . if you knew how much we look forward to the hour when the soup is . . . distributed! . . . We simply cannot believe there should be a country that helped ours, our hearts will always be filled with thanks to you Irelanders.” Christel Koller
“The hours are easier to manage on a full stomach. Relieved from the torment of hunger, I thank you here a thousand times.” Marianne Ludwig, class 4a
“St Patrick has brought a great shipment to our big city . . . thank you, dear messengers of Patrick, you are helping us in our greatest need.” Ursula Paletta, class 6a
“After just 14 days of feeding . . . my cheeks were full again and my body started to get strong. Mother was happy every day about how well I looked.”
Brigitte Stein, class 5B.
“When I write these lines I do so to thank you, also on behalf of my mother. My thanks to everyone who contributed to this extremely generous donation.”
“The Irish donations glow like a ray, down into our dark valley. We want to love and honour the Irish and pray for them to God our father.”
Christel Silbernagel, class 5b
“You Irish should be thanked forever . . . you should know know how much we look forward to the hour when the soup and other food is distributed.” Unnamed