Kathryn Hulme working in a DP-camp near Frankfurt 1945 – 1949: Finding humanity in a homogeneous stream

One of the mogromo storylines deals with Kathryn Hulme. This is part 1. Other posts are: the introduction about refugees and part 2: Visiting Wildflecken – in the footsteps of Kathryn Hulme.

In the face of the ongoing refugee crisis I keep telling myself that it is important to learn from history and realize that the world has dealt with refugees over many generations. As outlined in my earlier post Refugees, Germany and the rest of the world I am reminded of Kathryn Hulme’s experiences in 1945 – 1950.

The wild place bookcoverA shipyard welder during the second world war, Kathryn Hulme joined the relief movement via the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) in Europe in 1945, after a few weeks training in France. As deputy to a French director, and with a team of 12 other field workers from 5 different nationalities, she was put in charge of 20.000 polish displaced people (DP’s). She wrote down her experiences in ‘The wild place’ (1953) and also in a section of  ‘Undiscovered country’ (1967).

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration UNRRA was established in 1943, and was replaced in 1947 by the International Refugee Organization IRO. These organisations led to the establishment of  UNHCR and to the adoption in 1951 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Forest with gatewayThe DP’s came from slave labour posts in Germany (such as the Adlerwerken described in my blog post Silent witnesses) refugees and ex-concentration camp prisoners. They were brought together in DP-camps including the former SS training camp Wildflecken (or Durzyn as the Poles named it) in North-western Bavaria, near to the border of Hesse. Nowadays it is about an hour’s drive from Frankfurt. Consisting of 60 blockhouses and 12 kitchens, it also had stables and warehouses filled with Nazi military equipment such as skis and clothing. The UNRRA field workers took over from the American army who had controlled the camp up to that point in time.

The camp functioned as a small municipality. There was a polish committee in charge (under the auspices of UNRRA and the control of the American military) and a DP police force. People worked at cutting and gathering fire wood, baking bread (9000 kg a day), storing provisions, at hospitals or went to school just as in any other society. There were also illegal activities going on such as distilling Schnapps with flour stolen from the bakery, raiding German farms in the neighbourhood and a lot of black market activity, prostitution and sometimes murder. As trainloads of DP’s were constantly sent to the camp and DP’s were repatriated to Poland or moved to other camps the population kept changing over time.The UNRRA field workers seemed to take in an intermediary position between Army and DP’s, often protecting the DP’s from bureaucratic interference and occasional army stupidity.

Skilfully Kathryn Hulme gives a human face to this mass of displaced people. She immediately took on the task of issuing travel passes to DP’s who needed to leave the camp for errands. This provided her with an insight into the depth of suffering of the people she was to work with in years to come. As she describes it:


Lone tree with shadows“the first impressions entered with such sharp shock that never again would I be able to look on a refugee mass, even in pictures, and see it collectively, see it as a homogeneous stream of unfortunate humanity that could be handled with the impersonal science of the engineer who does not even think of the drops of water when he is controlling the flood.”

She tells a fascinating story and although she fully participates in the chaos of camp life, she is able to observe and describe the turbulence around her with a detachment which is at the same time compassionate and filled with humor. Something she probably picked up during her sessions with Gurdjieff in the thirties.

I will return to her story in one of my next blog posts. And I’m also hoping to visit Wildflecken the coming weeks.

One of the mogromo storylines deals with Kathryn Hulme. This is part 1. Other posts are: the introduction about refugees and part 2 Visiting Wildflecken – in the footsteps of Kathryn Hulme.

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