As grim news came through from Ukraine the other day, I had a chat with Friedhelm Krüll, a German man in his ninth decade whose own life was marked indelibly by the carnage of war. "It's absolutely terrible just to think that that could start again," he said.
Krüll was born in Düsseldorf in February 1940, when Hitler was already far gone on his barbarous way to control of continental Europe and genocide. Where his memories begin, the tide of conflict had turned and food was scarce. He recalls search lights in the night sky, Allied air raids, gathering nettles to eat, scraping the pots for dregs. In the hungry chaos that followed the Nazi defeat, he was taken to Ireland under a Red Cross scheme for child refugees, Operation Shamrock. All told, about 1,000 traumatised children of war came here from Germany, France, Poland and Austria.
This "very skinny" and unruly boy came to see himself as one of the lucky ones. He spent nine formative years in the care of Billy Cotter, a Land Commission official, his wife Olive and their family. They lived first in Clarinbridge, Co Galway, and later moved to Rathfarnham, Dublin.
When at last he met his mother again after almost a decade in Ireland, he had difficulty recognising her
“They took me on as one of their own,” he said, noting that the couple had two tiny children and a new-born baby when he arrived in 1947 and later had a fourth. “To take somebody on top of all that is most amazing.”
Rural Ireland was a change from the city at war, the lush countryside and farm animals a source of wonder. Still, old survival instincts were slow to fade. The child would be found sleeping under the bed in Clarinbridge, just as in Düsseldorf, in case bombs dropped from the sky. He went to national school, learning English to the extent that he forgot his German.
Krüll was supposed to leave after three years. But it become clear via Red Cross contacts and discussions with the German ambassador that his mother, who had 15 sons and one daughter, could not cope and felt it would be better if he stayed. She was widowed twice, Krüll being born after the death of her first husband and before her second marriage. He never met his birth father or knew who he was. When at last he met his mother again after almost a decade in Ireland, he had difficulty recognising her.
He was very close to his foster parents, came to consider them to be his true parents and feels similarly close to his Irish siblings. His gratitude for their immense kindness is abiding. “They gave me the best for the road ahead.”
There remains something of an Irish lilt in Krüll's voice as he speaks by phone from his home in Kaarst, near Düsseldorf. He and his wife Gisela married 32 years ago. His son Oliver is named after his foster mother. For decades he worked in construction – building, repairing and dismantling cranes. These days he is battling illness, but is still spry.
Krüll never met any of the other children who came here from Germany until 1997
Recently he gave his personal papers to the UCD Archive, comprising correspondence between various parties in Ireland trying to make contact with his mother and her replies. Soon to be catalogued, these intimate pages will be kept permanently in the same place as the major political collections of figures such as Eamon de Valera and other luminaries. Conscious that the years are passing and concerned that his file might one day be lost, Krüll was keen to preserve the record. “For Ireland and for Germany I think it’s important that young people have the opportunity of going back into history to find out what happened there.”
In the ruins of battle, he was one kid in a multitude. Harald Jähner, a journalist, tells in his stark survey of the period, Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, of roaming young people drifting across the country alone or in gangs. “The war had left 1.6 million children without one parent or fully orphaned.” For a great many, conditions were harsh. “In their desolation they staggered from one dubious benefactor to the next.”
Krüll never met any of the other children who came here from Germany until 1997, when the country's then president Dr Roman Herzog marked the 50th anniversary on a visit to Dublin. That occasion is recalled in a plaque at the Three Fates fountain in St Stephen's Green, a gift in the 1950s from the German federal republic in thanks for Ireland's help to children. Just inside the Leeson Street gate, Josef Wackerle's bronze statue depicts three hooded female figures spinning and measuring the thread of man's destiny.
With droves of people on the move in Ukraine as Russia’s military campaign intensifies, Krüll knows the human consequences. “I ask myself: what’s next?”