Meeting heifer recipients in Germany, Part II–The Reichswald, 1950

Today’s post picks up the story of Heifer Project shipments to Germany in the 1950s through the eyes of Heifer Project Representative Joe Dell who was stationed there. In my previous post, Dell had taken seagoing cowboy Rev. A. H. Elshoff to the distribution of the 8th shipment in Coesfeld. The remainder of the heifers from that shipment had been distributed on June 29, 1950, to forty-two families in the Reichswald settlement. In his August 1950 report, “Reichswald Pioneers,” Joe Dell tells their story:

In a number of rather isolated rural areas in Germany today pioneers are clearing the timber land and breaking the soil in ventures reminiscent of days when pioneers in our own land forged westward in search of new lands and new homes.

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Clearing the land in the war-damaged part of the Reichswald, circa 1949. Photo courtesy of Heimatvereins Reichswalde.

These are refugee families who have been forced by the ravages of war to find new homes and new places to earn their livelihood. In western Germany today there are an estimated 9 to 13 million of these people. . . . For the past five years they have been waiting out a dreary and often hopeless existence in refugee camps . . . Or have been living with friends or relatives and struggling to support themselves as best they could by obtaining work from day to day.

Slowly now, some of these people are able to leave camp and extablish [sic] new homes for themselves and herein lies the pioneering venture. . . . It is with such people, who are building new homes for themselves, that [Heifer Project Committee] heifers are being placed.

The makeshift school in a barrack until a new one can be constructed, 1950. Photo courtesy of Heimatvereins Reichswalde.

The makeshift school in a barrack until a new one can be constructed, 1950. Photo courtesy of Heimatvereins Reichswalde.

But let us look a little more closely in order that these people may become known to us. In the westernmost part of Germany, a few miles from the Holland border, lies the Reichswald or German forest. Here more than 1100 years ago Charlemagne and his knights ruled the Frankish kingdom, and here less than six years ago bitter fighting destroyed much of the beauty and worth of the forests. During the past year more than 2,000 acres of these woods have been cleared and homes built or started for five hundred families. Some will earn their living entirely from working the soil, others will work in the community village which is being built. Very soon a school will be completed and the children will no longer have to make the long trip into Kleve where the nearest school is now located.

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A home goes up in the Reichswald settlement, 1950. Photo courtesy of Heimatvereins Reichswalde.

On one of the 35 acre farms in this community lives widow Queling with her eight children. Her husband met with an accident last year and was killed leaving the mother and children to carry on alone. Both she and her husband were born near the Reichswald area and migrated in 1928, after their marriage, to Silesia on the German-Polish border. In 1945 the war overtook them; they had to leave their farm and livestock and make their way as best they could into western Germany. Then followed years of hardship, when hunger and want stalked the land and the struggle for survival was fierce. The Quelings lived during that time with relatives in a village some miles from the Reichswald. Late in 1949 the news came to them of the opportunity to establish their own home and start a new life here. The German Government was helping families to clear the forests, to break the land and to have their own home for the first time in years. Soon thereafter the family joined in the work of clearing stumps and getting the ground in shape for the spring planting.

Their joy in building a new home was turned to sadness by the death of the father in December and the family had to carry on the struggle alone. Finally a part of the land was cleared and potatoes, oats and hay were planted. Last June brought happy news again to the Quelings and to Reichswald. Forty-two heifers, some already giving milk and others to freshen soon, had arrived in Bremen; sent to this new community by Christian friends in the United States. From Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and even as far away as Oregon, these heifers had been sent by people who wished to share their abundance that others might be helped to a better life.

On June 22, 1950, 42 heifers arrive for distribution in the Reichswald settlement. The makeshift school in a barrack until a new one can be constructed, 1950. Photo courtesy of Heimatvereins Reichswalde.

On June 22, 1950, 42 heifers arrive for distribution in the Reichswald settlement. Photo courtesy of Heimatvereins Reichswalde.

Forty-two of the neediest families in the Reichswald received one heifer each. The Quelings waited expectantly to see which theirs would be. Finally the cattle arrived from Bremen and the selections were made. The Quelings led their newest possession, a red and white heifer, to her new home. She had been given by Henry Kirk and had come from Halse, Oregon; more than 7,000 miles by railroad, by ship, and by truck. During the day the cow would be turned out to pasture in an adjoining field and brought home each evening by the children so that she could be milked.
. . . .
We could continue the story of hundreds and thousands of Quelings and Geils and Kirsches. Their stories are different, yet alike. All have known the bitterness of hunger and cold and hopelessness. Some know also the joy and hope inspired by a future wherein they can begin again and the knowledge that someone in America has cared enough to send them help — even from 7,000 miles away.

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June 22, 1950. Photo courtesy of Heimatvereins Reichswalde.

Next regular post: My visit to the Reichswald recipients

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.

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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.

Germany now paying forward assistance received after WWII

Beginning in 1949, the destination of many seagoing cowboys was West Germany. That year, the Heifer Project (today’s Heifer International) began shipments to Germany that would continue until 1961. Unlike the UNRRA cowboys who preceded them, the cowboys serving the Heifer Project, which continued on after UNRRA disbanded, were able to be present for the distribution of their heifers.

A farmer draws his number from a hat during a 1952 distribution ceremony. Photo courtesy of David Brightbill.

A farmer draws his number from a hat during a 1952 distribution ceremony. Photo courtesy of David Brightbill.

For cowboys like O. J. Warford, this was the highlight of their trip. He wrote:

We were very fortunate to be at Friedland Germany when a train load of 500 Refugees from Poland or Hungary came in and marched into the camp. All their possessions were in their hand. Then to follow up with our distribution services was the climax.

Those receiving the number from the hat would rush out and find the heifer with the same number and hug and kiss her and say this is mine. Then they would try their best to express their appreciation to America.

At the end of World War II, people of German heritage living in Eastern European countries were sent back to Germany, no matter how many generations they had been living in those countries. West Germany had to absorb some ten to twelve million of these refugees – a tall order for any country, let alone one whose major cities were crumbled by bombs. By Jan 1955, over ten million (21.8%) of Germany’s population of 49,526,300 were refugees, with 48,930 of them being resettled farmers. It was to these destitute farmers, who arrived with little more than they could carry, that the Heifer Project focused their gifts of heifers.

This German refugee family proudly poses with their heifer. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

This German refugee family proudly pose with their heifer. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

Here’s one refugee’s story from a translated letter to the donor of his heifer dated September 24, 1952, that I found in the Heifer archives. He had lived in Pomerania before the war:

I personally had to join the war as a soldier. I was fighting at the Eastern front. By cause of the after effects of the war my family had to leave home and land in 1945. Our farm had a size of 70 Morgen. My wife and children, as well as my parents and parents-in-law were able to take refuge from the Russians in 1945 and crossed the Oder River near Pasewald. From this place they had to escape again. However, in April of 1945 my family was caught up by the eastern front near Rostock. They fell into the hands of the Russians. And then my wife together with my three children, aged 5, 3½, and 1 as well as my mother and my mother-in-law were killed after preceding violations. Only the ashes was left. My father and father-in-law who could escape again were witnesses of these cruel acts. I myself was in prisoner of warship. When I was released and seeked after my family I only found my father and father-in-law – all other family members were not living any more. I was deeply shocked and needed a long time to regain new strength in order to begin with the daily struggle for existence.

I had the great will to rebuild after all this grief. So in June of 1951 I succeeded to receive this farm with 8 Morgen of land which meant a new start for me.

In this beginning I had to found a family again and married a war-widow with a 12-year-old daughter. Both of us are hard-proven people. In April of 1952 we got another little daughter named Rosemarie. She is our sunshine. She is so very fond of the milk from our heifer and often I take her into the stable and then with her little hands she caresses the dear animal that gives her the milk.

Today, Germany, a country with a corporate memory of their own refugee status after World War II, has opened its doors to the Syrian refugees pouring into Europe, paying forward the assistance Germany herself received from such organizations as the Heifer Project and the Marshall Plan. Eastern Mennonite Missions is seeking relief funds for these refugees. You can read about it and donate here.