The Upper Silesian Museum and the Heifer Project

Last week, my desire to visit a museum exhibition in Germany to which I had contributed came to fruition. And what a wonderful visit it was!

The Upper Silesian State Museum in Ratingen, Germany. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

The Upper Silesian State Museum in Ratingen, Germany. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Off the beaten tourist path, in the northwestern German state of North Rhine-Westfalia (NRW), is a lovely museum that lifts up the history of the Upper Silesian people, a people with a strong tie to this region. When King Frederick the Great took control of Silesia in the 1700s, an area that includes a piece of northern Czech Republic and southern Poland, he invited coal miners from the NRW area to come and help develop the rich resources of Silesia. Much cross fertilization took place between these two areas. So when Silesians of German heritage were forced from their homes following World War II, it was to the NRW that many of them fled. Some thirty years later, many of these Upper Silesians began to pool together documents and artifacts of their history, and the Oberschlesiches Landesmuseum, now run by the NRW state, is the result.

Panels showing the assistance of UNRRA, the seagoing cowboys, and the Heifer Project to Silesia following World War II. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Panels showing the assistance of UNRRA, the seagoing cowboys, and the Heifer Project to Silesia following World War II. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Since December 6, 2015, the museum has been featuring an exhibition titled “For Body and Soul: the Culture of Food and Drink.” The museum ends with a display focusing on “Food in Times of Crisis,” and it is to this portion of the exhibition that I have contributed materials. When the exhibit was extended to February 19 of this year, I grabbed the opportunity to travel to Germany and see it for myself.

Curator Melanie Mehring describes the difficulties of food in times of flooding and war. Photo: Eliska Hegenscheidt-Nozdrovicka

Curator Melanie Mehring describes the difficulties of food in times of flooding and war. Photo: Eliska Hegenscheidt-Nozdrovicka

As with most of Europe, Upper Silesia bore the impact of World War II. With the loss of farm animals and crops, feeding the populace became a challenge. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration came to the aid of Czechoslovakia and Poland, delivering not only livestock, but staple goods, as well. Two of the UNRRA shipments to Czechoslovakia included Heifer Project animals to be given to the neediest of farmers, and some of these animals were placed in Silesia. When the museum curator did an internet search on “UNRRA,” she found my website and contacted me to see if I might have materials to share with them. I pulled together what I had, and Heifer International gave permission for the use of some of their materials, as well. What a joy to see the beautifully assembled display in person!

Michael Ullrich reads the letter of thank from the Gallus family of Silesia for their heifer from the Heifer Project. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Michael Ullrich reads the letter of thanks from the Gallus family of Silesia for their heifer from the Heifer Project. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

The exhibit features the loading of the animals in the United States, the care of the animals by the seagoing cowboys on the journey across the Atlantic, and the arrival of the seagoing cowboys in the devastated port cities of Nowy Port, Poland, and Bremen, Germany. From Bremen, the animals were shipped overland to Czechoslovakia and distributed to farmers selected by local committees. A thank you letter from a Silesian family who lost all their buildings and animals highlights the significance of these gifts of heifers. The letter ends:

Courtesy of Heifer International.

Courtesy of Heifer International.

Dear friends from America, we thank you for all you have done and still want to do for us in our war-torn Silesia. Especially, my family and I thank you for the rich gift of my only heifer, which brings us great joy. You have done a good deed that not only we, but also our children, will long hold in our memory.

Accompanying me to the museum was Michael Ullrich of Bremen, Germany, whom Heifer International has contracted to write a booklet about the shipments of the Heifer Project to Germany in the 1950s. The heifers were given mainly to people of farm background who had been expelled from Eastern European countries after the war. Mr. Ullrich is interviewing as many of them as he can find, and I’m looking forward to his book! Many resettled Silesians were among the Heifer Project recipients, some of whom I met and interviewed in 2013. This museum visit brought the story full circle for me – “food for body and soul” for me, as well.

Melanie Mehring and Eliska Hegenscheidt-Nozdrovicka gave me a delightful tour around Düsseldorf on my arrival. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Melanie Mehring and Eliska Hegenscheidt-Nozdrovicka gave me a delightful tour around Düsseldorf, capital of NRW, on my arrival. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Immense thanks to the two lovely young women who facilitated our visit: museum education director Eliska Hegenscheidt-Nozdrovicka and museum curator Melanie Mehring! Your passion for your work shines through! May we meet again!

Special Crew #1: Brethren seminary and college students dialogue with German Christians

Throughout the two-year period of UNRRA livestock shipments, several special seagoing cowboy crews were put together. The first, a group of 33 Brethren, mostly seminary and college students, left seventy years ago this week. The idea for this special crew was hatched by a group of Bethany Biblical Seminary students the spring of 1946 as an experiment in Christian service. Having heard reports of questionable behaviors in some cowboy crews, they felt that a carefully selected group with high standards of conduct approaching their job in a strictly Christian attitude could set a pattern for the future.

Students from Bethany Biblical Seminary and Brethren colleges gather at the Brethren Service Center in June 1946. Peggy Reiff Miller collection, courtesy of Ivan Meck and Guy Buch.

Students from Bethany Biblical Seminary and Brethren colleges gather at the Brethren Service Center in June 1946. Peggy Reiff Miller collection, courtesy of Ivan Meck and Guy Buch.

The group met at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, for orientation. Before sailing, they made a concerted effort to gather relief goods to take with them to distribute overseas. Ivan Fry writes of collecting money and going on a shopping spree, on which they bought two cases of baby food, a case of condensed milk, a half carton of raisins, a carton of liver soup, a case of dried pea soup, and two bottles of cod-liver oil, in hopes of finding a children’s home to give them to.

The cowboy crew boards the S. S. Queens Victory for their trip to Germany in June 1946.

The cowboy crew boards the S. S. Queens Victory for their trip to Germany.  Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

On June 8, 1946, this select crew left from Newport News, Virginia, on the S. S. Queens Victory, carrying 785 horses destined for Czechoslovakia. They docked in the port city of Bremen, Germany. Upon arrival, some of the cowboys set out to find deserving people to whom they could give the supplies they had brought with them. They also sought out German Christians with whom to engage in dialogue.

Cowboys load an Army jeep in Bremen with the relief supplies they brought along and fruit they had saved from their meals on the ship. Peggy Reiff Miller collection, courtesy of Ivan Meck and Guy Buch.

Cowboys load an Army jeep in Bremen with their relief goods. Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

Pastor and Mrs. Erick Urban, Bremen, Germany, June 1946. Peggy Reiff Miller collection, courtesy of Ivan Meck and Guy Buch.

Pastor and Mrs. Erik Urban, Bremen, Germany, June 1946. Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

A couple of the cowboys headed into the city to find a pastor and happened upon Pastor Erik Urban, who turned out to be the head Lutheran pastor of Bremen and an associate of theologian Martin Niemöller. Some rich experiences developed from this contact, including a dialogue between the cattlemen and a group of German Christians – enemy meeting enemy – each realizing that they were in Pastor Urban’s words “as one in Christ.”

The affects of the war on the German populace was brought home to the cowboys when a plan laid at home was scuttled. They had desired to have a fellowship meal with a group of German Christians. The seminary students had decided a large quantity of dehydrated soup would serve the purpose well – all the Germans would need to do would be add hot water.

Ruins of Bremen, Germany, June 1946. Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

Ruins of Bremen, Germany, June 1946. Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

After meeting Pastor Urban and delighting him and his wife with the prospect of this substitute Lord’s Supper, the disadvantages perpetuated by war made themselves known. First, there was the lack of dishes. Then, there was nothing in which to heat the soup, and if there were it would be difficult to find any fuel with which to heat it. But the clincher was that “Pastor Urban was unable to find a room anywhere in the city which was both intact and large enough to allow the group to sit around a table and eat.” [from “The Enemy was Christian” by Byron P. Royer, Bethany Biblical Seminary Bulletin, October-December 1946]

Conrad Snavely feeds his horses en route to Bremen, Germany, June 1946. Peggy Reiff Miller collection, courtesy of Ivan Meck and Guy Buch.

Conrad Snavely. Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

These experiences of Christian fellowship, along with witnessing the leveled rubble of the saturation bombing poured on the city of Bremen by the British and the Americans, left an indelible mark on these cattlemen of the S. S. Queens Victory. Conrad Snavely says of the trip: “It made me more interested in working for social justice.”

Roger Ingold in Bremen, Germany. Courtesy Roger Ingold.

Roger Ingold in Bremen, Germany, June 1946. Photo: courtesy of Roger Ingold.

Roger Ingold says his life was completely turned around by the experience. It started him thinking in a more international way than ever before, leading him to become a missionary to Nigeria. In looking back at the seagoing cowboy program, Roger credits it for being a great recruiting tool for church workers of all kinds. He says, “People who had gone and had been part of that program came back and wanted to do something to make a difference in the world.”

 

 

Next post: Special Crew #2: Mennonite high school and college students come of age on a cattle boat

Meeting heifer recipients in Germany

In this and my next two regular posts, I’ll share more about the Heifer Project shipments to Germany in the 1950s – first through the eyes of a seagoing cowboy, then those of a Heifer Project representative in Germany, and then my own.

Elshoff, Rev 001

Rev. A. H. Elshoff and son Donnie, ready to travel

In August 1950, seagoing cowboy Rev. A. H. Elshoff, of Tillamook, Oregon, traded his suit for blue jeans and accompanied a train car load of 28 heifers across the U.S.A., ultimately to Pier 60 in New York City. His son Donnie joined up with him in Maryland for the trip across the Atlantic Ocean on the S. S. American Importer to West Germany for Heifer Project’s 10th German shipment.

Arriving in Bremerhaven on September 5, Rev. Elshoff recorded in his journal: “The impression of our first old world city is strange and unfavorable. The dimly lighted streets, the outmoded cars used for taxis, the dress of the crowds of window shoppers, the numberless bicycles for which a special path is maintained on one side of the street, the vacancies of bombed out areas, all combined to create a dismal feeling.”

The trip up the Weser River the next day provided a brief contrast. “All the world seemed at peace in the forty miles of pastoral scenes; we saw many fine herds of Holstein cows, fine horses, farmers digging their potatoes, a number of small villages with an occasional windmill, men trying their luck at fishing (mostly eels); a few pleasure boats and many utility boats, etc. But the grim reminders of war are everywhere in sight, chief among them an abandoned submarine base connected with the Weser by short canals. . . . The ruins approaching Bremen and the many square miles of ruins in the city are the most depressing sights yet. Great areas of apartment houses, a great hospital and a score of cathedral type churches are only skeletal remains. How anyone survived is a miracle.”

The next day Rev. Elshoff noted, “We started the day at 5 o’clock so the animals would be in readiness for unloading which began at 7:30. . . . Mr. And Mrs. Joe Dell, European representatives of Heifers for Relief, came aboard at mid-morning. We were very happy to meet them; for the next several days we were in their tender care.” Towards evening, “we went to the little farm at the end of Bismarksstrasse where our animals had been put in a little stone barn for their two weeks period of quarantine. They were as cozy as could be in the care of a farmer who loves animals. Their first meal in Germany was supplemented with rudebakers [sic]; they were a fine lot of contented heifers. I confess to a bit of sentimental grief at leaving my fine pets that had been in my charge for a 7000 mile journey but I was consoled in the knowledge that their destination was the fulfillment of a labor of love.”

Rev. Elshoff had the opportunity the following day to experience the distribution of 16 heifers from the 8th shipment that had arrived in June. The heifers went to Coesfeld, where the Red Earth project was underway, draining the moor and putting it into agricultural production. Refugees were being settled on small tracts of this reclaimed land. At the distribution, Rev. Elshoff watched as eligible recipients each drew a number and went to stand beside his heifer, tied under a large shed. “The joy and appreciation registered by the recipients is beyond description,” Elshoff wrote in his journal. “A little later, I heard their stories, briefly of course, but all of them filled with painful memories of suffering and persecution.”

“My only crime,” said one young man, “is that my great-grandfather was a German.”
“My father died in the war; my mother and I fled leaving all our possessions behind.”
“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” said a young mother. “Now my two little children will have milk to drink. My husband is not able to earn enough to buy milk.”
“We had 15 cows on my farm in Poland,” said a father, who with his wife and two grown daughters was trying to build life over, “but were forced to leave them behind.”

“So it went with all sixteen,” Elshoff says, “each a tale of atrocities, loss of relatives, loss of all earthly possessions. In contrast, now they received an animal that means life and health, a gift from people who have compassion, who are humanitarian, who give without asking in return. . . . ‘We can hardly believe this is true; it is too good’ they said, ‘we didn’t believe that such people exist’.”

A refugee family with their new heifer at the Coesfeld distribution, Sept. 8, 1950. Photo courtesy of Muriel Elshoff.

A refugee family with their new heifer at the Coesfeld distribution, Sept. 8, 1950. Photo courtesy of Muriel Elshoff.

In a postscript to his journal, Rev. Elshoff wrote: “In my mind’s eye there will always be projected the scene of these peasant family groups, leading their precious animals to their homes across the moor. Tillamook is a place of abundance and peace; may “Rote Erde” by Coesfeld, reclaimed from the marsh, and treasuring the gift of Christian love brought through Heifers for Relief, become a place of abundance and peace also!”

 

I’m indebted to Donald Elshoff’s widow, Muriel, for sharing Rev. A. H. Elshoff’s account, “Diary of a 15,000 Mile Journey in the Interest of Heifers for Relief,” with me.

Next up:
Fifth Friday post: “In Memorium”
Next regular post: Joe Dell tells the story of the recipients of the rest of the heifers of the 8th shipment.