The Rage to Live
Create Space, 2012
225 pages, $17.00
They were a band of broken children: From infants on the verge of death from exposure and starvation to young children, teenagers, and young adults who had lived through hell and unspeakable horrors. Most were Jewish, but many were Polish, Czech, and Hungarian youths who had been subjected to years of Germanization.
In July 1945 the first international children’s center in the American zone in Germany was housed in an old monastery, Kloster Indersdorf, not far from Dachau, under the aegis of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitations Administration (UNRRA). The inspiring story of the efforts of social workers, nurses, doctors, and Sisters of Mercy of Saint Vincent de Paul, seven decades ago, would have been lost were it not for two women.
The first was a 35-year-old former nanny and nursery school teacher. Greta Fischer escaped with her family to England from Moravia, one step ahead of the Nazis. From Anna Freud, daughter of the founder of psychoanalysis, Fischer gained an appreciation of pioneer work in trauma therapy for children. At the end of the war in Europe she volunteered for UNRRA to help overcome the challenges of caring for and healing the uprooted, orphaned and traumatized children brought to the Displaced Persons Children’s Center. It is mainly from Fischer’s detailed notes that the story of the Center was preserved.
The second is the author, Anna Andlauer, a German high school teacher who served as a docent for tour groups visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. Eventually, research led her to Fischer’s papers and a new career. Specializing in the Kloster Indersdorf Center, Andlauer traced survivors spread worldwide, interviewing and bringing them back to visit “their cloister,” renew acquaintanceships, and talk about their experiences. Each year dozens of survivors, the youngest now in their late 70s or early 80s, return to Germany, still mourning their murdered family members, friends, and comrades.
The Rage to Live, first published in German in 2011, has been given a serviceable if not eloquent translation into English. Clearly not intended as a work of great literary aspiration, it is a stunning testimonial to the survivors of Kloster Indersdorf. The story of the heroic efforts of a tiny staff and a few volunteers to create a sanctuary for displaced children, satisfy their need for nourishment, restore them to physical health and seek to repair their spirit is enormously uplifting. Babies certainly required individual attention; younger child survivors tended to cling to each other regardless of gender.
Concomitantly, the search for surviving relatives had to be preceded by the daunting task of simply identifying the children. Once matters of food, clothing and shelter were stabilized, the complicated concerns of easing children’s minds, creating education programs, vocational training and leisure activities had to be addressed. Sociologists may now take issue with some of the philosophy and methodology used—for which there were no texts or guidelines.
Thanks to Andlauer’s research, the reader can meet many of the children personally through photographs and individual stories as well as see them as they are now, elderly, even frail.
Fischer embarked on a lifetime of service to children, first serving in Canada in a shelter serving child survivors from Europe, while earning a Master’s degree in education from McGill University. Service for the “Joint” (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) followed, training social workers and teachers in Casablanca, Morocco, improving institutions for the handicapped for the Ministry of Health in Israel, then finally developing and directing the Social Work Department at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital. She retired at age 70 and lived in Israel until her death in 1988. Greta Fischer never married and had no children of her own, but served thousands of children in her lifetime.
—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years. Hal Sacks