Monday 19 November 2018

Germany calling: danke from war's little victims

A handmade book sent to Ireland in 1946 by schoolgirls provides a unique insight into our aid response to a stricken people.

Seeing the world in colour again: Tony O'Herlihy with the vibrant Dankebuch
Seeing the world in colour again: Tony O'Herlihy with the vibrant Dankebuch
German's dankebuch
Young German orphans receiving gifts in the aftermath of World War II

Damian Corless

'Egg, egg, egg. Today we have good sweet mash. A sugary cookie is also very fine." That little joyous prayer of thanksgiving arrived in Ireland in 1946, a year after the end of World War II. It came from a group of young schoolgirls from the town of Saarbrücken, near the Ardennes Forest where the Germans had mounted their final do-or-die counter-attack against the invading Allies 15 months earlier.

The verse in praise of sweet mash and sugary cookies was accompanied by many others in a book handcrafted with the help of the girls' teacher. Another verse summed up the theme. It said: "Dear Irish, I thank you very much for the gifts which you have donated to me." The title on the cover translates as 'Saarbrücken Cecilien School Greets the Irish Donors', but its pet name is Dankebuch, or 'Thank You Book'. The Dankebuch is the subject of a moving and compelling documentary entitled The Kinder Letters that airs today on Newstalk at 10pm.

The Dankebuch is a unique treasure of a bittersweet hidden history. There is no record of anything like it being sent to Ireland in the wake of the war. About the size and shape of a chocolate box, it consists of some 80 pages of coloured drawings and rhyming lines in German, bound with string between covers of speckled cardboard. The coarse quality of the paper reflects the fact that towards the end of the war, the Germans were desperately short of every type of supply, from material goods to electricity to basic foodstuffs.

The book may have been cobbled together from coarse austerity materials but there's an enchanting richness to the warm, vivid colours and the illustrations which would not be out of place in a book of children's bedtime fairytales. And, in a modest but very real way, the book does represent a fairytale happy ending to a wartime ordeal that for all of the girls had been the only life they'd ever known. Even their school had been taken from them some years earlier, commandeered for military use while the pupils had been shunted to a makeshift shelter.

Drawn and coloured in by the girls, the illustrations celebrate the act of sitting down to a meal, the ladling of an abundance of broth to a line of smiling children, and pigs in harness pulling a wagon of food on to church grounds. In a number of them, a bright cloud in the shape of Ireland floats above these happy scenes. On one of these floating islands stands a smiling farmer, waving with his flat cap, surrounded with food supplies bound for Germany.

Michael Kennedy of the Royal Irish Academy observes on the documentary: "What we see is children's drawings of their experiences of receiving aid from Ireland. You see their stylised world view and it's not blankets or socks they're interested in, it's what you'd expect a young person to be interested in after wartime deprivation. It's sugar, it's chocolate, it's cocoa. It's all the things that make life worth living, especially when you're a young person.

"The colour schemes are fascinating. They're so vibrant. You wonder if, having lived in a zone of destruction and rubble, it was the chance to see the world in colour again."

The Dankebuch was brought to the attention of Kennedy by Dubliner Tony O'Herlihy, the book's owner, who set out to explore its origins as a loving tribute to his wife, Mary, following her death in 2011. "As a young girl in 1955, Mary won an art competition. Shortly afterwards she went with her father on a visit to one of his friends. The man, who had no kids of his own, asked Mary if she'd like to have the book with all its strange drawings and letters," Tony explains.

When Mary married Tony in 1973, the book came with her to their new home, where it sat on a shelf for almost four decades, although not exactly gathering dust.

"It was just there, lying around," says Tony. "The usual thing. We'd take it out once in a while to look through the pages. The kids would take it out and do the same. But it was always very carefully looked after because Mary knew that there must be something very special about it. We always said that we'd investigate to find out what it really was, but it was always a case of 'we'll do it tomorrow'. After Mary died in 2011, I said 'tomorrow has come'."

His journey to find the source of the Dankebuch turned into a crash-course education in Ireland's response to the plight of German children following the war. He discovered that while Catholic and Protestant children were warmly welcomed as refugees, Jewish ones were shut out, with Justice Minister Gerry Boland arguing that to let them in would only unleash latent anti-Semitism in the natives. When 100 Jewish children were eventually admitted, it was for a strictly-enforced 12-months. Many Irish couples adopted their German foster-kids. Every application for a Jewish adoption was denied. The supplies to Germany, for which Saarbrücken's children gave thanks, included 30,000 cattle, 10 million cans of meat plus large amounts of cured bacon, butter and condensed milk.

Apart from the cattle, the rest represented the offloading of Ireland's stockpile of surplus wartime rations. If the starving Germans noticed any irony, no one cared a jot. Germany was a wasteland. Farming was destroyed and millions of young men who might have restarted it were dead. Ditto the coal industry, meaning there was no electricity and no fuel to heat homes. Starving children were sent out to strip bark off trees and collect any brushwood they could find. And yet, as one contributor to the documentary recalled: "In between we played in the ruins. It was quite normal for us because we hardly knew anything else."

Tony's journey concluded with an emotional trip to Saarbrücken, where 10 surviving makers of the Dankebuch reunited to marvel at an artwork many had completely forgotten about. He sees a resonance between our response 70 years ago and to the current Syrian crisis, saying: "I hope it will remind people that Ireland has always supplied aid and taken in refugees."

The Dankebuch will pass to his daughter, but Tony hopes it will find a place in the National Library or National Museum. "It's like the Book of Kells," he says, "It's one of a kind."

The Kinder Letters, Newstalk, today at 10pm

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