Irish aid to postwar Germany recalled with return of ‘thank you’ album almost 80 years on

Retired Dublin architect returned to German city of Saarbrücken to track down the people who helped create gift of gratitude to Ireland

After nearly 80 years, a unique link between Germany and Ireland has come full circle.

With its brown speckled cover, the yellowed pages of the Saarbrücken “thank you” album was a record of gratitude from schoolchildren in the city in western Germany – in drawings and texts – to the Irish people who fed them in the grim postwar years.

Thanks to emergency food donations from Ireland to Germany after May 1945, worth about €191 million in today’s money, countless undernourished children and teens across the ruined country weren’t hungry anymore.

The album came into the hands of Dublin schoolgirl Mary Walshe when she was eight years old through a work colleague of her father.


When Mary died in 2011 her widower, Tony O’Herlihy, a retired Dublin architect, went ahead with their oft-discussed plan to track down the people behind the album. In 2013, he brought the precious volume back to Saarbrücken for the first reunion of book and its creators. A remarkable historic journey followed, including an award-winning radio documentary.

Now Mr O’Herlihy has brought the journey to its natural end, handing over the album to the Saarbrücken city archive.

“I must admit I very nearly started crying because this has meant so much for the last 10 years,” he said.

“The book has brought me and the family to places we probably would never have been. I would never have been to Saarbrücken and wouldn’t even have heard of it.”

Two weeks after Victory in Europe (VE) day in May 1945, the then taoiseach Éamon de Valera announced plans to contribute to an international food donation programme to address the “terrible conditions” across the continent.

“Millions of people are already starving and many millions more are threatened with starvation,” said Mr de Valera, adding he was sure that Irish people were ready to make sacrifices to help “fellow beings in dire distress”.

The album records the wonder, delight and humility of children accepting the kindness of strangers.

“The German women and children could scarcely believe there are countries that, out of sheer humanity, tried to help. Their hearts were full of thanks,” writes one unnamed schoolgirl in the album, concluding her handwritten letter with a flower-bedecked red heart for “den Iren” (“the Irish people”).

Roswitha Hemmerling was 11 when the war ended and remembers queuing at break time in Saarbrücken for extra food provided by Irish donations: pea soup with bacon in it, or porridge of sweet biscuits and milk.

“It tasted so good, particularly the taste of sugar,” she recalled seven decades later.

In 2012 their local newspaper reported on an Irishman who was searching for the schoolgirls behind the album. After two reunions, the final handover of the book to Saarbrücken city archive took place last week.

“These postwar donations saved two million children’s lives and Ireland made a huge contribution, the largest after the US,” said Prof Julia Ströter-Bender, retired art professor at the University of Paderborn, who attended the Saarbrücken event.

She says the album will now be part of a pan-European project collating historical children’s drawings from 19 archives across 10 European countries. Her hope is that these holdings – telling the story of Europe from 1914 to 1950 through children’s eyes – will be recognised by Unesco, the UN cultural body, as part of its “memory of the world” project.

No Irish institution is involved in the application, she says, but Ireland is participating indirectly thanks to Mr O’Herlihy’s donation to the Saarbrücken city archive.

“The thank-you book is a universal symbol for the importance of humanitarian help and international solidarity,” she said. “Back then the Germans were viewed by many as a perpetrator people, so this direct help from Ireland was a deeply humane gesture.”

For Mr O’Herlihy, returning the album to Saarbrücken is not just the end a remarkable journey – it completes a promise kept to his late wife.

“I was married to Mary for 37 years,” he said, “but now, 10 years after her death, I said to her: Mary, the album is going home.”

‘Thanks to you Irelanders we get soup every day’: Voices from the Saarbrücken album

“The Irish sugar tastes so good, it gives us new strength and courage. You give us everything so that we have strength.” – Liselotte Kurz

“We thank all the helping hands for the good and many donations.” – Anita Reinhardt

“Far away from us in the sea is an island. That is Ireland. People live there who experienced no nights of bombing and heard no thunder of cannons. People [there] have a home to call their own. This is all a distant memory to us. Here all you can see is rubble and more rubble... thanks to you Irelanders we get soup, porridge and biscuits every day. You good Irelanders should be thanked forever... if you knew how much we look forward to the hour when the soup is... distributed!... We simply cannot believe there should be a country that helped ours, our hearts will always be filled with thanks to you Irelanders.” – Christel Koller

“The hours are easier to manage on a full stomach. Relieved from the torment of hunger, I thank you here a thousand times.” – Marianne Ludwig

“St Patrick has brought a great shipment to our big city... Thank you, dear messengers of Patrick, you are helping us in our greatest need.” – Ursula Paletta

“After just 14 days of feeding... my cheeks were full again and my body started to get strong. Mother was happy every day about how well I looked.” – Brigitte Stein

“When I write these lines I do so to thank you, also on behalf of my mother. My thanks to everyone who contributed to this extremely generous donation.” – Unnamed

“The Irish donations glow like a ray, down into our dark valley. We want to love and honour the Irish and pray for them to God our father.” – Christel Silbernagel

“You Irish should be thanked forever... you should know how much we look forward to the hour when the soup and other food is distributed.” – Unnamed

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin