I just want to tell you about a remarkable day — Sunday, 13 November, 2005.
In the UK it was 'Remembrance Sunday'. In Germany it was the ‘Volkstrauertag’, the People’s Day of Sorrow, the day the people of Germany remember their dead in the aftermath of two world wars.
For me it was the day I spent at the Centre for Reconciliation in Glencree. This place, occupying the site and buildings of a British army barracks built about 200 years ago, has become known for its efforts to bring peace and reconciliation to Ireland and to the wider world.
I arrived at about 10.30 and after a walkabout I went into the church. There I was able to listen to members of the Dublin‑based Goethe Institut Choir who were practising for the ecumenical service with which the Volkstrauertag commemoration was to begin.
I spoke to a lady seated in front of me and asked her if she was from Ireland or from Germany. She said she was from Russia which made me think. First of all because there was no way I could tell her nationality. If she had been Irish or German her appearance would not have given any indication either way. It goes to show that those people who speak of our two world wars as 'civil wars' are on the right track.
Anyway, that charming lady’s country lost 25 million people in WW2 and I have no idea of Russian casualties in WW1 but she was there to support a German ceremony of remembrance.
She went on to tell me that in Russia they have their Remembrance Sunday for the dead of the two world wars in May. It is a time a great sorrow in Russia because there is hardly a family that has not lost one or more members in one or both wars.
The programme for the ceremony in the church began with a piece by Tschaikovsky. I could not understand a word so I asked my Russian acquaintance about it and she, deeply moved, said that the German choir were singing in her own Russian language.
During the service the Parish Priest of Enniskerry, Father Sinnott, who is responsible for Glencree's St. Kevin's Church where we had gathered, spoke briefly to welcome everyone to what was a very special and solemn occasion. He had just completed 100 days as PP and his honeymoon was now over!
Then the Reverend Fritz‑Gert Mayer, the German Lutheran Pastor from Dublin, spoke. He was able to recall standing in a queue with his mother in 1945 to receive some food rations from the American army. He was six years old and he was given half a pint of skim milk. That was meant to last a week.
When the Americans first arrived one of the soldiers gave him a piece of chocolate — the first he had ever tasted.
The Gospel reading was the one about the sheep and the goats on the last day when Christ said the sheep would go into eternal life because when He was hungry they had given Him food...
The Pastor spoke on this passage in compassionate but uncompromising terms, relating it directly to the destitution that kills thousands every single day in the Third World.
A notable feature of the brief ecumenical seremony was the singing of the Kyrie Eleison (Lord Have Mercy) / Christe Eleison (Christ Have Mercy) in Irish (A Thiarna, Déan Trócaire; A Chríost, Déan Trócaire). The congregation was instructed on how to pronounce and sing the words by Uta Bean Uí Almhain of the German‑speaking Catholic Community in Dublin (Deutschsprachige Katholische Gemeinde Dublin).
Later on I had an opportunity to talk to Uta and was very impressed with her ability to speak Irish!
After the church ceremony we went to the 'Soldatenfriedhof', the German War Cemetery. This is located in a former quarry. The quarry was probably used by the British army when they were building their barracks. A joint project by the West German and Irish governments, this uniquely sited war cemetery was opened there in the early 1960s to provide a fitting resting place for the remains of Germans, mainly seamen and pilots who had been washed ashore or whose planes had crashed.
It was a day of glorious sunshine but the fresh breeze was chilly and everybody was well wrapped up. The lady from Russia was there. The ambassadors of Germany, France and Poland as well as a representative of the British Embassy were present. Each one laid a wreath. Also present (though my informant could not confirm this) was a representative of Bulgaria.
The Goethe Choir sang a piece by Bach, a group of Irish veterans carrying the German and Irish flags formed a colour party. A number of people wore red poppies in honour of those, many of them Irish, who had died in Britains armed forces during the two world wars.
There were no speeches as all that could be said had already been said in the church.
My mother's father was in the British army during World War 1. One of my father's brothers was in the IRA when it fought against the same British army during Ireland's war of independence in the early 1920s. Another of my father's brothers was in the Royal Navy during World War 2. I have never needed to fight in any war.
I felt and was privileged to be able to observe such a ceremony of remembrance and reconciliation.
"The Irish people raised a sum of twelve million pounds for the victims of the second world war which is equivalent to £4 per head of the entire population of the country. That was the largest single donation from any country for post war relief."
(Statement by the Committee of the International Red Cross in Geneva).
Referring to this remarkable statistic, one of the speakers reminded us that in the 1940s Ireland was the poorest country in Western Europe.
Another panel in the exhibition included the following lovely piece in German:
Grüße aus Irland an die Heimat.
Diese Zeichnung von der 10jährigen Renate Engelhardt, Ostenland, ist ein lieber Gruß an alle Eltern und Geschwister, die einen Sohn, eine Tochter, einen Bruder oder eine Schwester zur Erholung auf der "grünen Insel" wissen. Sehr oft bekommen wir solche Grüße aus Irland. Wir wissen: es sind Grüße an die Heimat, die wir als Heimatzeitung gerne an unsere vielen Leser in Stadt und Land weitergehen.
Es gibt den Kindern dort drüben recht gut. Was schreibt doch die kleine Renate?
"Ich habe schon zugenommen. Wir bekommen Schokolade und Apfelsinen. Am 31. (Oktober) war für die Irländer ein großes Fest. Da bekamen wir Kuchen. Wer einen Ring darin fand heiratet in diesem Jahre noch und wer einen Stein darin fand, bleibt unverheiratet. Karl wollte gerne wissen wie die Schwester (Nonnen) sind. Sie sind sehr nett. Liebe Margret. Sage Paula einmal daß sie eine treulose Tomate wäre. Sie schreibt mir gar nicht. Sage dass auch Voss Thea ... Seid alle herzlich gegrüßt ..."
(Greetings from Ireland to Home.
This drawing by the 10 year ‑old Renate Engelhardt, Ostenland, is a loving greeting to all parents and siblings who have a son, a daughter, a brother or a sister who is recuperating on the "green island". We quite often receive such greetings from Ireland. We know: these are greetings to home, that we as a locally-based publication are keen to send on to our many readers in town and country.
The children over there are very well.
So what does the little Renate write?
"I am really getting on very well. We get chocolate and oranges. On the 31st there was a big celebration for the Irish people. We got a cake. Whoever found a ring in it really will get married this year and whoever found a stone in it will just stay unmarried. Karl was eager to know what the sisters are like. They are very nice. Dear Margret. Do say to Paula that she is a faithless tomato. She never writes to me. Say that to Voss Thea as well ... Heartfelt greetings to all of you ...")
This piece had been published in a local newspaper in Paderborn from where, apparently, Renate had come to Glencree.
The ‘Zeichnung’ (drawing) referred to is shown on the panel, of course, but cannot be reproduced here. It shows a drawing by Renate of the main block of the former British barracks. In the late 1940s it was a boarding school run by the Sisters of Charity where the evacuees were made so welcome. It is now the block housing the cafe, exhibition area, conference rooms etc.
Many of the former evacuees were at Glencree during the conference to share their memories and to describe their experiences. Some came with their Irish or German husbands, wives, children and grandchildren.
Most notable, perhaps, was Ingrid who arrived at about 3.30 with her daughter and son-in-law. They had flown from Paderborn in Germany especially to join in the event.
Ingrid had come to Glencree as a nine‑year‑old in October 1947. She left behind in Germany her mother and her siblings. Their father was a prisoner in Russia.
Ingrid described how wonderful was the welcome prepared for them by the nuns, how the whole place was white with snow and how they played snowballs. Their journey had lasted three days from when a British army convoy had brought the group of several hundred children to the Hook of Holland where they embarked for Harwich. At Harwich they were met by British Red Cross workers who escorted them to Holyhead and across the sea to Dublin. there Irish Red Cross workers took them to Glencree.
Ingrid stayed at Glencree for six months before returning home to Germany in March 1948. About six months later her father came home from Russia...
In 2004 her daughter and son‑in‑law arranged for her to revisit Glencree for the first time in sixty six years. One of the things that amazed her was to find that the bed she had slept in as a child was still at Glencree, in the same room...
It was a great story, told in struggling English with many lapses into German. When people asked her questions her daughter and son ‑in‑law translated for her.
Then there was Liz who was born in 1938, the same year as myself. She was one of five children. Their father was killed in action in Russia. Then their mother was killed in an air raid. Then they were all sent to an orphanage.
In 1946 Lis arrived in Glencree. The journey had lasted four days. None of the hundreds of children travelling with Liz knew where Ireland was. The only clothes they brought were the clothes they wore. Some of the children said they were being taken to a slaughterhouse ...
It was early November and the first signs of the dreadful winter of 46 / 47 were to be seen in the snow-covered hills of Wicklow. They were welcomed by the nuns and given thick slices of white bread with butter and jam and they were allowed to eat as much as they wanted. Happy at last they were also allowed to play snowballs.
On the 12th of December Liz became the responsibility of a childless Irish couple in their fifties. The exhibition includes a photo of a beaming Liz standing between her new father and mother.
In talking about her experience Liz said that they became the kindest and dearest parents she could possibly have wished for. On the 12th of December every year after that there was a special party to mark the anniversary of one of the happiest days in her life.
Another photo shows Liz on the day of her First Holy Communion in May 1947. Later the dear old couple formally adopted Liz.
Liz did not visit Germany again for 10 years. By then she knew no German so she was accompanied by a friend who spoke English and German. When she met her four siblings she was amazed to see that they suddenly began crying and as the tears flowed she discovered from her translator that they were crying because, at 18, Liz she looked just like their long‑dead mother.
Liz came back to Ireland and married an Irishman and has had a very happy life. To this day, however, she has no idea how and why she was the one chosen to go to Glencree...
Now known formally as Mrs. Elizabeth O’Gorman, Liz helped to make a documentary called ‘Operation Shamrock’. Produced by Belfast‑based ‘Banter Productions’ it was broadcast on RTÉ (Irish Television) some years ago.
I did not get back to Bray until about 5.30. pm.
It was a day I will long remember, a day I was so glad to be in Ireland and a day I was so glad I had learned some German.
My sincerest thanks to each and every person involved.
Links to German
Ríomhphost / Email / Ebost