How members of Yorkshire Women’s Institutes became ‘Aunties’ of displaced people in Germany

By Jo Faulkner, Record Assistant

The Women’s Institute (WI) was introduced in Britain in 1915 when, during the First World War, women were encouraged to become engaged in crafts and particularly in producing food and goods. As women increasingly sought empowerment to have an impact on their society, their activities soon expanded to include education and voluntary work. The WI became an organisation through which women could influence not only their own towns and villages, but also communities throughout the country and in some instances lead to engagement with people and organisations across the world.

In 1998, a small collection of papers was deposited at the North Yorkshire County Record Office on behalf of the Yorkshire Federation of Women’s Institutes (reference ZDP). These records tell the story of a remarkable connection, which was formed between members of Yorkshire WIs and residents of a camp in Rendsburg, an allied-occupied part of Germany, which housed people of various nationalities, primarily from Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, who had been displaced during the Second World War. These people were moved into the camp in 1950, deemed unlikely to be able to re-settle through emigration, usually because of age or ill health. While some were able to leave, by July 1957 there were still 254 displaced persons at the camp, some of whom felt they had been forgotten.

ZDV Women using a water pump at Rendsburg camp

Although the buildings were reported to be in reasonable condition, the outlook for many of the residents was reported to be “very grim indeed”, with most people too old or ill to work and reliant on relief. After the war, the cost of living in Germany was far higher than in Britain. Food was expensive and the individuals and families in the camp were desperate for goods such as clothes, bedding and furniture. The camp at Rendsburg was described as “several wooden barracks with stone corridors, very long and very dark…In the middle of the hut is the washroom with big stone troughs as you would find in a cow shed”.

ZDP A child in the washroom at Rendsburg

The Adoption Committee for Aid to Displaced Persons (which later became the charity Lifeline) devised a scheme to support those in displaced persons camps. The scheme asked for people and organisations to ‘adopt’ displaced people and families by supporting them in writing letters and sending parcels of essential relief items to them. These may include non-perishable foodstuffs, clothing, bedding, toiletries, and medicines.

This committee contacted the County Secretary of the Yorkshire Federation of WIs, Miss Joan M Hansell, suggesting that they may be able to adopt a whole camp, as two other WI County Federations had already done. They suggested the camp at Rendsburg. A committee of English women in Germany, comprised mainly of the wives of servicemen, would work with the WIs, sharing information and organisation.

The adoption of the camp at Rendsburg was formally agreed in October 1957. A circular outlining the scheme was sent out to branches in December. An initial appeal was put out to raise £50 to provide a bathroom at the camp. The branches sprang into action and only six months later, a total of over £800 had been raised by Yorkshire WIs. The sum would provide the bathroom, beds, and mattresses. Members had also collected and knitted clothing and blankets and obtained medical supplies, and had organised their listing, packing and transport from Yorkshire to Hamburg. Some Institutes ‘adopted’ individuals or families, sending letters and parcels.  Records from the collection include lists of the various WI branches with contact details for their secretaries and details of the people they ‘adopted’. Miss Hansell reported that she felt “we have a real link between the camp and the Federation”. Residents from the camp had sent a hand-embroidered cushion cover and tablecloth as a gesture of their gratitude.

ZDP Photograph taken at Rendsburg:

“Another of the new beds from Yorkshire. This old lady saved every penny she could out of her weekly allowance of £1.7.4. to make her little room homely. The bedspread also comes from Yorkshire. Would you like to order some mittens?”

The Federation was in frequent touch with the camp commandant Mr A Metrikat, who was described as “intimately acquainted with the difficulties and problems of every inmate” and “very devoted and does everything within his power to alleviate the miserable living conditions of those in need”. A report among the correspondence reveals that there were occasions where residents had refused a doctor’s visit, feeling ashamed that they had no nightgowns or pyjamas. Mr Metrikat and his wife gave these residents their own nightwear. Letters from Metrikat are full of his gratitude to the Yorkshire WIs. Mr Metrikat would stay in touch with the Yorkshire Federations of WIs for several years and he visited Yorkshire in 1960.

ZDP Photograph taken at Rendsburg showing Mr Metrikat with a resident:

“THE CAMP LEADER, VISITING ONE OF HIS “CHILDREN” WHO WAS A FARMER AT HOME IN LITHUANIA AND LOVES FLOWERS ABOVE ALL. THEY WERE PRESENTS FROM HER NEIGHBOURS AND SHE LOOKS AFTER THEM WITH LOVE AND CARE”

From 1962, the people of the camp were re-housed in flats in new buildings. The Yorkshire Federation of WIs continued their support, funding furnishings and fuel. In 1965, a party of WI members visited Rendsburg. They found that the families were more comfortable and had become integrated with the German community. The younger family members tended to be self-supporting, while the elderly often continued to suffer poor health and, it was reported, missed their homeland. The WIs decided they would continue to offer support, especially to the elderly and infirm by way of letters, clothing and blankets for the winter, particularly at Christmas. From the beginning of the scheme, The WIs, through their considerable enthusiasm, fund raising and organisational skills had raised large sums of money to improve conditions at Rendsburg and collected and distributed hundreds of parcels and tea chests of aid. The final circular from the Federation relating to the adoption programme acknowledges that is was not only through this financial and practical support but thorough friendship that the people of the camp “learned to overcome their plight” and “fought against their adversities”. They urged Yorkshire WI members to continue to give their friendship.

Left: ZDP Postcard sent to a Yorkshire WI from a Rendsburg family:

MANY KIND REGARDS TO ALL THE NICE AUNTS AND THANK YOU FROM MARIA, CHRISTINA, JOSEF AND LITTLE SIEGMUND

Right: ZDP Letter sent to a Yorkshire WI from a child at Rendsburg:

Dear Aunties, My name is Christina and I embroidered this little cloth I hope you like it, though I took a little long with it, but I had the flu, now I am well again. Many greetings, Christa”

This collection of papers includes letters to WIs (mostly in German, with translations attached) sending thanks for the parcels and letters. The letters sometimes mention exchanges of craft items and recipes. Several notes from younger residents address the WI women as ‘Aunties’. It seems that a bond was formed, which in some instances would last long after the camp. The material goods were certainly well received, but it is perhaps the connection between people, and particularly women based on their common values and interests, which endured.

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