On January 18, 2017, the Museum of Jewish Heritage opened an exhibition titled “My Name Is… The Lost Children of Kloster Indersdorf.” The exhibition included photographs of children displaced by the Holocaust who found refuge at a children’s home post-war. In these photographs taken by Charles Haacker, the children stand directly facing the camera holding a chalkboard with their names written on it. Some of them smile widely at the lens while others carry a more reticent expression. Bearing a striking resemblance to yearbook pictures, these photographs symbolize suffering, resilience, and hope.
The Kloser Indersdorf home was established after the war in 1945 and located close to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. The building was a former monastery and boarding school and was converted to a children’s home by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).
Under the leadership of Greta Fischer and Andre Marx, UNRRA’s Team 182 provided refuge to children of over 24 nationalities. Many of these children, like brothers Zoltan and Erwin Farkes, found refuge at Kloster Indersdorf after Liberation.
Setting Up Indersdorf, With Challenges
The Kloster Indersdorf Children’s home suffered its own difficulties as many Displaced Person (DP) camps did. There were many particularities to caring for children specifically, as the adults who might have cared for them were struggling with their own Liberation processes. Fischer, Marx, and their team recognized the need to tailor their care for the children through specialized means, prioritizing physical as well as mental rehabilitation to help the children cope with their traumas.
Overcrowding was also a struggle. While the Kloster Indersdorf home was planned to house about 100 residents at a time, it soon ended up housing over 300 at its peak. By the time it closed, over 1,000 children had called Kloster Indersdorf home. Greta Fischer in her book their struggles to provide the children with sufficient food and other resources like clothing, especially after years of malnourishment, the stresses of war, scarcity, distrust, grief, and tension. For Kloster Indersdorf to be a center of learning and development, Fischer knew, it was crucial that the mental traumas its residents had gone through be addressed in a healthy manner. This sense of insecurity could only be treated by gaining the children’s trust and assuring them of the safety and stability of their lives there. Some children were afraid of food, while others would steal or hoard it. Clothing was made from old flags, bedsheets, and other scraps that could be found.
Kloster Indersdorf’s residents weren’t only Jewish – there were also Polish teenagers in residence, who had been subjected to discriminatory nationalism. Expectedly, the social atmosphere could be tense, but Fischer and her team formed dormitories and held classes to build routine and educate residents. They also organized the children into familial structures, in which 12-15 children were paired with an adult (often another Displaced Person or one of the nuns who had previously worked at the home). As time went by, they were able to offer classes in more subjects ranging from languages to table manners and sports, skill-based trades such as tailoring, and leisurely activities to promote holistic development.
Greta Fischer’s Methods and Legacy
Greta Fischer was one of the social workers who worked closely with the children at Kloster Indersdorf. She lived in the building along with the children, keeping vigil for children who wandered into the premises looking for warmth and care. Her care for them went beyond providing the tangible necessities of food, clothing, and shelter; her focus on psychological healing and skill development provided the young residents with an emotional resilience beyond just the immediate means to survive.
Informed by the ideas of Anna Freud, Fischer encouraged her team to listen to children’s stories diligently and uninterruptedly. Once the staff had gained their trust by ensuring safety, they started recounting what had happened to them, processing the experiences, and coping with the remnant memories. These memories would materialize in pretend play or dry humor. Fischer later stressed how important it was to talk openly about the horrors that lived in the residents’ memories while also keeping them busy to remain active in their present moments.
Putting the needs and wishes of the children first, Fischer determined which rules could be overlooked to create some much-needed happy memories. Even when authorities told her that Kloster Indersdorf was at capacity, she welcomed another child. She was even threatened with a prison sentence for harboring a baby pig that some of the children had taken as a pet. Fischer subverted the strict, distanced role of a caretaker to provide the children with a nurturing parental presence through her relentless efforts.
Photographing Kloster Indersdorf
In October 1945, when photographer Charles Haacker was sent to take these photographs now in the museum’s Collection, myriad challenges arose. Many of the children had forgotten key details of their identities. Many had to lie about their ages for so long that they remembered the wrong age and sometimes even forgot their own names, if they’d been living with other families or under assumed names for safety. Staff members would carefully check the belongings of the children when they were taken in, and would encourage storytelling in hopes that childrens’ memories would resurface. When the photographs were taken, some children were so young that they could not prop up the chalkboards by themselves. In those pictures, one can see the arm of an adult holding the board in front of the infants and toddlers.
Through these photographs, which came to the Museum through a gift from Kloster Indersdorf director Andre Marx’s son Robert, the occupants of Kloster Indersdorf spoke to a world outside the four secure, nurturing walls of the home, a world devastated by the war, hoping that someone would reach out and claim them as their kin. Many didn’t know whether their families were alive, but the hope and energy in these photographs is striking.
“Behind each photograph is a fascinating story of survival. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could survive such challenges of war; particularly children who had to fend for themselves and find new lives after devastating loss.”
Some of the children were found by relatives following the circulation of Haacker’s photographs, while many others did not. Many Jewish children wished to start anew in another land. This, however, was not simple. “The world was closed,” Greta Fischer remarked. The U.S. and UK, for instance, had quotas which left the fate of most unclaimed children in the uncertain hands of indifferent bureaucracy. After years of attempting to find suitable citizenship for the children through red tape, Fischer arrived in Canada with a last group of the children in 1949.
Fischer recounted with pride the resilience the residents of Kloster Indersdorf displayed has stayed with them, many of whom she mentions are successful professionals and entrepreneurs now. Janusz Karpuk, a resident of the home, later went on to play for the national Polish handball team. Previously mentioned brothers Zoltan and Erwin also had successful careers as a scientist and a psychologist respectively. She noted, as many scholars of survivors also have, that the children grew to adults who were not very communicative, pointing to the lasting effects of trauma. Still, Fischer credited the close trusting relationships formed at the home as a force for healing. Her relationships with the children she helped raise remained strong. The community has a blog which documents details of the annual reunions and tributes.
Much of the information about the Kloster Indersdorf home, which is now a school, is based on research by Anna Andlauer, who wrote the book The Rage to Live and about the residents of the home. Andlauer remains in active contact with the group of survivors and has given several talks on her research, including one at the Museum with the 2017 exhibition’s curator Melissa Martens Yaverbaum which you can watch here:
Kloster Indersdorf’s revolutionary capacity to care formed a healing sanctuary, a sentiment reflected in a survivor’s statement: “Indersdorf was like an island after I was shipwrecked.” Kloster Indersdorf’s practices remain, to this day, a model for care of young trauma survivors.