Refugees return to old home as VIPs

 

ELIZABETH O'Gorman (nee Kohlberg) gazed at the torn arms of a tiny flower patterned sweater and thought of the day she arrived at St Kevin's Hostel, Glencree, Co Wicklow, in 1946.

"I was so scared, we none of us knew where we were going," she said clutching the actual outfit she wore as an eight year old making the four day trek here from war torn Germany.

"It was snowing when we arrived. The whole area was covered in a beautiful white blanket. I just remember playing at the end of the drive. Throwing snowballs. I felt so free."

Yesterday, Mrs O'Gorman and 160 of the 400 German refugees who were fostered here as part of the Irish Red Cross initiative Operation Shamrock revisited the premises they stayed in when they first arrived in Ireland 50 years ago.

Where once fragile refugees travelled there were VIPs, with gardai on motorcycles escorting the German men and women in bright yellow civil defence vans to what is now the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation.

Mr Heinz Kampes from Dundalk was one of 50 German refugees who made Ireland their permanent home. Hugging his Irish wife Marie, he reiterated the sentiments of all the children from Operation Shamrock: "Ireland has been so good to us," he said, in his unmistakable Co Louth accent.

The UN medals displayed across the chest of Ernst Dieter Berkenheir, another refugee who settled, meant he was much in demand by the various television and radio crews present at the centre.

"I was the first German ever in the Irish Army," he said. "And the only one to do 25 years of service. While many of the refugees have returned to Glencree individually over the years the group visit rekindled forgotten memories, not all of them pleasant; "Carbolic soap," mused Gisela Broderick nee Berns - wrinkling her nose in disgust. "I would love to stick my head in the door to see if the smell is as strong now as it was then."

But the passing of 50 years had rendered the old stone building where the refugees were temporarily housed far too unsafe to explore.

While the director of the centre, Mr Ian White, promised that at some stage the building would be "brought back to life", for now it was a shabby reminder of its former humanitarian use.

"It's such a sad looking building," said Hildegard Jones, nee Grabsch, whose foster father Mr Padraig Breathnach, was the grandfather of the Education Minister, Ms Niamh Breathnach.

"It is hard to believe that 400 of us were accommodated there. We had classes in the other buildings, but I just remember the mountains, playing in the stables or going for walks."

Later, a commemorative plaque was unveiled by the Irish Red Cross Committee chairman, Mr Richard Ryan, and the German ambassador, Mr Horst Pakowski, at the Commemorative Fountain in Dublin's St Stephen's Green. The plaque had been presented to the Irish people by the German President, Dr Herzog, here on his first official visit last Sunday.