Exhibit recounts a story of life-giving friendship

Quakers: Enoch Pratt Free Library presents a visual history of humanitarian aid in postwar Germany.

April 15, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Uta Dreher drove four hours from Scranton, Pa., to Baltimore yesterday to be reminded of the Friends who had fed her a daily meal when she was growing up in war-torn Dresden, Germany, after World War II.

She was moved to tears at Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street, where a traveling exhibit, Quiet Helpers: Quaker Service in Postwar Germany, is on display in the main atrium until May 17.

"They changed my life," Dreher, 66, said. "I'm not a Quaker, but I am a nonviolent activist."

The American and British branches of the Religious Society of Friends - also known as Quakers - sent legions of volunteers to feed children in Germany who otherwise might have starved. They also worked on reconstruction projects throughout Europe.

At yesterday's opening event, Eberhard Koelsch, deputy chief of mission at the German Embassy, said the exhibit had been seen in 21 German cities and a handful of U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, where the American Friends Service Committee, which carried out the postwar relief work, is based.

The exhibit of photographs, correspondence and artifacts such as cups, dishes and children's clothing will stop next in Boston. Donald S. Gann, a Baltimore surgeon who recently completed seven years as chairman of the American Friends Service Committee, traveled to Berlin in 1996 for the grand opening of the exhibit at the behest of then-German President Roman Herzog.

Koelsch, 57, is too young to remember the war. But he well remembers the ruins and rubble of his native Stuttgart, and life in the American-occupied zone of Germany. He spoke of "those legendary Quaker meals," and of the volunteers who worked "quietly without much of a fuss. It was a labor of love never forgotten in Germany."

He added that the children helped by the Quakers "are in all fields of life today: scientists, journalists, professors, managers." He offered the "heartfelt thanks" of Germany to the few Quakers in the audience - now in their 80s - who had spent part of their youth helping to pick up the pieces of postwar Germany.

The after-school meals, served to more than a million children for two years, were simple affairs, sometimes rounded off with chocolate soup, a treat offered yesterday to Koelsch and others who cared to revisit the past.

Some memories were dark and bitter.

Washington resident Hugh Jenkins, 87, was about 30 when he joined a Quaker team of a dozen volunteers who entered the recently liberated concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. It was the first civilian group to witness the horror that happened there.

He drove an ambulance, picking up children who were still alive because adults had pooled their rations to give to them, he said. When he tried to lift one child, she resisted. She wanted to show she was strong enough to stand on her feet - necessary for survival in the Nazi camps, where the weak were executed.

"We were there until all the inmates were evacuated, and we had a ceremony when we burnt the camp down," Jenkins said.

Stephen G. Cary, 86, of Philadelphia, who directed the American Friends Service Committee war-relief effort in Europe, said that period left an indelible impression. "Nobody could have seen the suffering without being affected the rest of their life," he told the gathering.

Along with serving meals, Quakers also built neighborhood centers in towns and cities throughout the war-wrecked country.

Mary Ellen McNish, the service committee's general secretary, said, "They brought light in a time of great darkness and demonstrated that enemies can become friends."

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