Fischer, Greta (1909–1988)
Fischer, Greta (1909–1988)
Child welfare worker with the Special Child Division of the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Agency who provided care for hundreds of orphaned and displaced children following World War II. Born Greta Fischerova in 1909 in Budisov, Czechoslovakia; died in Jerusalem, Israel, on September 28, 1988; youngest of six children of Leopold (a veterinarian) and Ida (Mayer) Fischerova; trained as a kindergarten teacher in the 1920s; graduated McGill School of Social Work in 1955; never married; no children.
Fled from Czechoslovakia (1939); first worked as a nanny in London, England, then with Anna Freud in the Wartime Hampstead Nursery; joined UNRRA Team 182 (1945) and was sent to Germany to establish an international children's center; served as chief child welfare officer at Kloster Indersdorf in Germany (1945–47); social worker for the Canadian War Orphans Project, Jewish Family and Children's Welfare Bureau in Montreal (1948–53); worked as a social worker in the autistic child program, Montreal Children's Hospital (1956–59); was a child resettlement worker for the American Joint Distribution Committee in Morocco and Israel (1960–62); served as social worker for the thalidomide children's program at Montreal's St. Justine's Children's Hospital (1963–67); established a department of social service at Hadassah Hospital in Israel (1970–80); organized a day center and home-care program for the elderly in Jerusalem (1981–88).
Smoke was still curling from the ruins of a vanquished Germany when Greta Fischer arrived in July 1945. Roads were clogged with barefoot, hungry refugees and freed prisoners of concentration camps. Dressed in khaki battle dress and driving an army lorry, Fischer was indistinguishable from the American soldiers, whose tracks she followed, except for the white UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency) letters embossed on the scarlet flashes stitched on her shoulder and cap. Barely six miles away from where she finally parked her truck, near the walls of an abandoned monastery, the stench of the crematoriums still hung over the death camp of Dachau.
Fischer and her team of seven multilingual child welfare specialists had arrived in Bavaria to deal with a new kind of debris of modern war—"unattached or unaccompanied or stolen and lost children." No one could agree on a single word to name a condition so bizarre, and no one knew how many children there were. All that was known with certainty was that there were thousands of non-German children lost in the chaos.
This was the first time in history that the nations of the world had agreed to pool their resources to rescue and aid all the victims of aggression. Though far from being a high official in the vast enterprise that was UNRRA, Fischer knew that on its success depended not only countless lives but the future of international cooperation as an instrument of peace: it was a test of whether the world could cooperate in saving and rebuilding lives as well as it had in killing.
It was astonishing to see what a miracle could be worked for children orphaned by the Holocaust when the right thing was done.
In the larger context of the history of the Second World War and its aftermath, the work of Fischer and her colleagues in establishing an international center for the recovery of children goes almost unnoticed. The grandiose language of victories and defeats in combat has little vocabulary to describe the battles waged against despair in the warmth of a kitchen where hungry children were fed, or the strategizing necessary to create dormitories where a comforting hand subdued the terror of recently lived nightmares. Greta Fischer's victories were small but profound ones, registered in her influence on the desperate young lives she touched. In her later years, she became well known for gently deflecting people who spoke of her as a heroine, often wondering aloud, "What is heroism?" and then answering, "Nothing more than the struggle to endure and overcome the circumstances that make us who we are. I happened to have lived in an unfortunate period of history."
Like the musician born to make music, or the artist to paint, Greta Fischer recognized at an early age that her vocation lay with caring for children, and she trained to become a kindergarten teacher. Born in Budisov, Czechoslovakia, in 1909, the youngest of six children, she managed to escape when the Germans overran Czechoslovakia in 1938. Fischer was among the fortunate few who were permitted to enter England where she found a position as a nanny, the only work then allowed women refugees. In London, her talent for working with children was quickly noticed, and she was recommended to Anna Freud and invited to join her staff. At that time, Freud was establishing her wartime nurseries, the settings on which she based her ground-breaking studies in child psychology. These studies later became the foundations of the modern child-development movement.
The experience of working with Anna Freud and the high regard she earned during those years led to Fischer's assignment with the Special Child Division of UNRRA and to her subsequent posting to Bavaria. Locating themselves near Munich in order to have easy access to basic supplies from the American military headquarters there, Fischer and her co-workers of Team 182 lost no time in searching for a building to convert into a center for the care of children. The only suitable structure they could find was the abandoned 19th-century monastery of Kloster Indersdorf. The building was filthy and looked, wrote a regional officer, as "though many rooms were tossed up in a blanket and allowed to settle"; but at least it was solid, and it certainly had room for the hundreds of children expected to show up. Still legible over its front door was the motto placed there by the monastery's founding order of St. Augustine monks—Liebe ist staerker als der Tod (Love is stronger than death).
Within a short time, the kitchen was repaired, the larger rooms scrubbed and turned into dormitories, the smaller ones into classrooms. The graceful spire of the Kloster, rising high above the village and visible from a great distance, soon became known throughout Europe as a beacon of safety to orphaned and displaced children.
While most of Team 182 was billeted in the village, Fischer (officially a child welfare officer responsible for programming) lived in the Kloster. Many nights were spent trying to snatch a couple of hours sleep while looking after 25 to 30 babies demanding to be fed and comforted. It also meant that she was frequently the first member of the team that the new children would meet. The faintest drumming of small fists on the monastery's ancient door, even in the dead of night, would bring Fischer running from her bed, down the winding stairs and along the drafty corridor to the entrance. Pushing open the heavy door, she might find a group of young teenagers shivering in its shadow as a car or truck drove away; occasionally the darkness would reveal a single, lonely child looking up at her with frightened eyes.
The children who arrived at the Kloster were either brought there by military personnel or found their way on their own. Many had been snatched from their families, and sometimes from schools, on the pretext of being taken on a holiday. Brought to Germany from the occupied countries of France, Norway, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Poland, they were then handed over to German homes and institutions or given to farmers to be indoctrinated as Germans. Others were the sons and daughters of forced laborers who were not permitted to keep their families with them as they toiled in German factories and fields. Some were believed to be the illegitimate offspring of Nazi officers. There were also a number of Jewish children; some had survived the war in hiding, while others had been liberated from concentration and labor camps.
As the only center devoted entirely to the rescue and care of children, Kloster Indersdorf might be home at any one time to 300–350 Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant children of 22 different nationalities, covering an age span from birth to the late teens. Once the absolute basics of shelter and food had been provided, it became urgent to help the older children tell their stories—stories of pain and suffering beyond the scope of a civilized imagination, but which had to be told. Fischer struggled to find the inner resources to try to understand and communicate with these children, whose personal histories were so far removed from the kindergartens and nurseries of her previous experience. In what manual was it explained how a child worker should react to the words of a youngster who had been dragged out of the gas chamber by the hair and flung into the mountain of corpses, who had found the courage and cunning to lay there for a day and a half until it was safe for him to crawl away? Fischer learned to function with just the right amalgam of empathy and numbness. "To cry with the children would not have helped them," she said many years later.
Quite apart from its emotional demands, the workload taken on by the team was extremely heavy. An UNRRA memo from December 1945 notes that "the objective of an 8-hour day, with one day off a week has not been achieved … rather a burden of responsibility has fallen on the staff out of all proportion to a normal day's work. Staff was obliged to assume something of the role of the martyr." But Fischer's comment on the matter was a laconic, "Being so busy every minute helped to keep us normal." A visiting journalist praised the workers at Kloster Indersdorf: "Here one sees men and women from seven different countries far removed in habits and customs who are working together in harmony with a spirit seldom seen."
Team 182 worked hard to give the children as normal a life as possible, and educational and social programs of surprising variety were improvised under Fischer's responsibility. Douglas Glass, the chief official photographer for UNRRA in Europe wrote: "It is a wonderful sight to see these children eating good food in the refectory. Seeing them so gay it is hard to believe that this is the first kindness they have known since they were seized by the Germans and torn from their homes."
When something was needed for her children there was no bureaucracy too strong to be challenged or flouted by Fischer, and she collected a number of official reprimands for obtaining supplies through improper channels. While ample food supplies were provided by the American military, procuring articles that children require was a constant challenge. The absurdity of requisitioning baby bottles and training potties from the military was always a good source for levity. In later years, Fischer could laugh about escapades such as the "faulty telephone connection" which somehow caused her to hear that there was room for one more child at a time when the Kloster was officially full. Or the time she was threatened with a prison sentence for concealing a baby pig which some children had taken for a pet.
She acquired the ironic nickname "Step-and-Fetch-It" for some of her unorthodox methods of procuring supplies and felt flattered when she was reprimanded for obtaining supplies from the army that it did not have. Once, when fabric was unavailable through official channels, she decided to ignore the strictly enforced prohibition against asking for supplies from the local villagers. Her search led her to a deserted barn that had once belonged to a member of the Nazi Party. In it, she found bales of red Nazi flag fabric. The success of her foraging (and her sewing skills) can be seen today in snapshots of her well-nourished children smiling for the camera, each one dressed in overalls made of red Nazi flag fabric and trimmed with blue-and-white checked material once used as bed linen by camp guards.
An integral part of the team's work was ascertaining the national origin of the children so that they could be returned to their home country. However, since most of the children had been abducted at very young ages and had been living with new names in another language during their most formative years, it required a rare blend of ingenuity and intuition to succeed.
In an interview shortly before she died in 1988, Fischer described a practical example of this in which one of her UNRRA colleagues, despite the protestations of the German "mother," believed a child to be of French origin. In a last effort, the UNRRA worker sang a French Christmas song known to all French children and watched as the child's lips moved unconsciously to the long-forgotten words—the first piece of evidence in what became a solid case.
Fischer and the children expected their stay at Kloster Indersdorf to be short, merely a processing step before moving homeward or to new lands, and for many it was. But there were no homes for the Jewish children to return to, and no new lands wanted them. That was particularly hard during outings organized by the team, for the Jewish children saw in each passing stranger the suspected murderer of their parents and families. Looking back nearly half a century later, Fischer said, "It took the two long years of 1945 to 1947, of pleading, of waiting, of trying to convince the world of the Jewish children's membership in the human race. The world was closed to these children; nobody wanted them. Each nation was fearful that the children would have been so damaged that they could never be assimilated into normal life and would always be a burden on the state."
Finally, early in 1947, a first offer to accept a small group of Jewish children came from France, followed by a similar offer from Sweden. Then a group of 42 was accepted by England. But almost everyone that agreed to welcome an orphan preferred young children, particularly girls of five, but in fact most survivors by that time were aged 15 to 18 and older. In the summer of 1947, persuaded by the Canadian Jewish Congress who accepted full responsibility for their care, the Canadian government granted permission for 1,000 child survivors of the Holocaust to enter the country. Since the agreement only allowed one small group at a time to enter, it wasn't until January 1949 that Fischer arrived in Montreal accompanying one of the last groups of child survivors to leave Kloster Indersdorf for Canada. On the last leg of the journey, on a train trip from New York to Montreal, they were placed in a locked car with a sign saying "dangerous cargo."
The years were to prove these fears unfounded. With a few exceptions, the child survivors of the Holocaust, despite the fears of governments, were able to establish normal lives wherever they went, with some achieving distinguished careers.
With her arrival in Montreal, Fischer's work was not yet complete. A bureaucratic blunder had sent her children onwards to Toronto while she was assigned work in Montreal. It was a great loss to be separated from them, but nothing could be done to rectify the oversight. Fischer's new assignment with the Canadian war orphans as an employee of the Jewish Family and Children's Welfare Bureau was important and engrossing, but she nonetheless found ways to stay in touch with her charges. "Those remarkable children," as she would say, with an "indescribable rage to live," had triggered her faith in their inner resources to realign their shattered lives. Fischer had found a way to help them become children again.
Forty years later, the walls of her Jerusalem apartment crowded with colorful drawings sent by her young charges, Fischer laughingly confessed that she still remembered the children's shoe sizes. She saw herself as the guardian of precious lives that had been entrusted to her. The fact that these children had somehow managed to survive imbued her with the feeling that she was engaged in a sacred trust and would tolerate no compromises in their care.
When the Canadian War Orphans Project came to an end, Greta Fischer entered the McGill School of Social Work as a 43-year-old student. After graduating, she worked at the Montreal Children's Hospital in one of the first programs in Canada for the study and treatment of autistic children. In 1960, the American Joint Distribution Committee sent her on a special child resettlement project in Morocco and Israel. In 1963, she returned to Canada to join the staff of Montreal's St. Justine's Hospital where a special program was being developed to serve the needs of children born with abbreviated limbs due to their mothers' use of the drug thalidomide.
In the 1970s, Fischer was invited to Israel to establish a Department of Social Service at Hadassah Hospital, where she worked until she reached retirement age in 1984. In her last years, she set up a day center and a home-care program for the elderly in Jerusalem.
Fischer, Greta. The Story of Kloster Indersdorf (an unpublished report), and interviews with Greta Fischer.
Macardle, Dorothy. Children of Europe: a Study of the Children of Liberated Countries. London: Victor Gollancz, 1949.
United Nations Archives, NY. UNRRA Archive Records.
Eisenberg, Azriel, ed. The Lost Generation: Children in the Holocaust. NY: Pilgrim Books, 1982.
Moskovitz, Sarah. Love Despite Hate: Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Their Adult Lives. NY: Schocken Books, 1983.
Fraidie Peritz Martz , freelance writer, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada