The Human Spirit: Their lives after

The Fifth World Holocaust Forum marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 A PHOTOGRAPH from ‘The Life After’ traveling exhibition (photo credit: Courtesy)
A PHOTOGRAPH from ‘The Life After’ traveling exhibition
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Greta Fischer fled from Czechoslovakia just in time to escape the Nazis. She was among the first volunteers to return to Europe in June 1945. Her assignment? Nurturing the child survivors back to emotional health.
Never heard of this Jewish woman? An exhibit about her opened at Tel Aviv University in January. A Greta Fischer School with a focus on respect and empowerment operates in Germany.
The Fifth World Holocaust Forum marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. What happened after January 27? The war wasn’t over. Many Jews, like my friend survivor Jerusalemite Rena Quint, then nine years old, were still struggling to stay alive in not-yet-liberated camps. Bergen-Belsen, wasn’t liberated until April. World War II ended on May 8 in Europe. The Russians celebrate on May 9.
For children, the end of the war was the beginning of the reckoning and the rehabilitation. A million and a half children were murdered. Just 150,000 children under the age of 18 survived. They came out of hiding, out of ghettos, out of forced labor and the camps. Most were orphans hoping to find family. To whom could they tell the horrors they had gone through? Who would take care of them?
Fischer was uniquely qualified for this challenge. Multilingual and energetic, she’d trained with Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund, in the Hampstead War Nursery, where they helped children survive the stress of war. Later, orphans from ‎Theresienstadt concentration camp joined the children. When the war was over, Freud turned the foster home into the famous school for child psychoanalysis. By then Fischer was in Germany with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).
Last week, just before the international delegation for the World Holocaust Forum, some 40 less well-known but nonetheless significant visitors arrived in Israel. They came from Indersdorf, a municipality in the district of Dachau, in Bavaria.
Dachau, Bavaria, Germany.
The men and women of Indersdorf came to mark Fischer’s 110th birthday. In their town, she’s a hero and role model. In the delegation were the town’s mayor, Franz Obesser, members of the Bavaria Landtag (Parliament), educators, including headmasters and teachers from the Greta Fischer School special education support center with children from many different ethnic backgrounds. It’s in Dachau.
Their visit was also connected to the traveling exhibit called “The Life After,” which opened at Tel Aviv University in January, and is now showing at the entrance to the Davidson Tower at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem. It tells the story of the pilot project for child rescue in which Fischer played a central role.
The large convent Kloster Indersdorf, dating back to 1120, was run by the Sisters of Mercy of Saint Vincent de Paul, until it was commandeered by the Nazis. After the war, the American army took possession and turned it over to UNRRA Team 182, to which Fischer belonged.
Barefoot, hungry refugees and freed prisoners were walking the German roads. Children classified as “unattached or unaccompanied or stolen and lost” were found or came knocking. Babies and small children were dumped at the door. Teens arrived, with siblings or war-bonded friends.
Fischer wrote: “The first thing was to give them food, plenty of food, to give them clothing, which was difficult, and to listen to their stories.”
Three hearty meals a day were served, with children sitting family-style around tables, slowly relearning how to eat with silverware, to eat slowly, without grabbing and hiding food.
Other staff members were billeted in town, but Fischer slept in the children’s home. She put on khaki battle dress and drove an army lorry, getting in trouble for requisitioning supplies in unorthodox ways. The children, she insisted, needed leather shoes after wearing clogs or going barefoot. They needed new clothes, even if she had to sew them herself from Nazi flags. Hot baths and clean sheets were essential. Most of all, they needed to have someone to listen to their horrendous personal stories, without judging them or urging them to forget what had happened.
The nuns were invited back to help. They clashed with the children who had lost their trust in adults and had developed survival tactics that defied discipline. A fifth of the children were under age two. Older orphaned girls and boys were recruited to bottle-feed the babies – therapeutic for both.
This is illustrated in the exhibit, with a Hebrew text. The Hadassah Medical Center venue of the exhibit isn’t incidental. After continuing her work with children in Montreal and Morocco, Fischer moved to Israel, where she established and headed the first hospital-based social work department there.
Fischer had no children of her own, and might have been forgotten, had it not been for her unexpected biographer Anna Andlauer.
A GERMAN Christian, now 69, Andlauer was a university student when the 1968 protest movement in Germany broke out. Students all over the world were protesting against war and authority, but in Germany there was an additional element known by the
unspellable word “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (working through the past). Germans began demanding to know what their parents did in the war. Andlauer learned that six of her mother’s brothers were soldiers in the Wehrmacht.
When, as a married woman and mother, she moved to Bavaria, she was moved to action.
“When you have the word ‘Dachau’ on your license plate, people ask you how you can live there,” she said.
She joined the volunteer guides at the Dachau concentration camp and met survivors. She became a journalist and spoke in classrooms, teaching the ideas of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and author who was interned in a Dachau subcamp.
When she discovered the story of Indersdorf Kloster, she realized something exceptional had been created nearby. She was so inspired by Fischer’s story that she spent years researching her letters and reports in international archives, writing The Rage to Live. She raises the funds to bring back survivors to Indersdorf every year to speak in local classrooms. Her initiative inspired the town to name their school after Fischer.
In 1945, Fischer and the children expected their stay at Kloster Indersdorf to be shorter, as they would move out to new homes. But as Fischer said in a 1985 interview: “Nobody really wanted the children. The world did not believe the stories.”
There was one place on earth where the children were wanted. In 1948, the International Refugee Organization, UNRRA’s successor, helped relocate the remaining child refugees at Kloster Indersdorf to the State of Israel.
And so it was fitting that the Indersdorf delegation, dignitaries and townsfolk – celebrating Fischer’s 110th at Hadassah Medical Center, singing the Greta Fischer School anthem, a hymn of peace and respect – like their president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who addressed the World Holocaust Forum, had taken pains to learn the words in Hebrew, the living language of the Jewish people.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.