Friends Relief Service in WWII
By 1941, there was a feeling that the old name ‘War Vics’ sounded pompous and in November 1941, the name was changed to the Friends Relief Service (FRS).
For the first four years, the entire focus of its work was on domestic relief, working alongside members of the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) and other voluntary bodies in air-raid shelters and ‘rest centres’ set up for the victims of bombing in cities including London, Coventry, Bristol, Southampton, Glasgow, Plymouth, Hull, Tyneside and Merseyside.
Between 1940 and 1946, they ran a total of 80 evacuation hostels, mostly for the elderly, adapting Quaker Meeting Houses, village halls, adult education centres or any other buildings they could make do with. Some were temporary; others continued for the duration of the war. Several were taken over by Quaker Monthly Meetings after the war and continued to run as old people’s homes.
Some homes were also established for mothers and children, or for unaccompanied children. In Barnt Green in Bromsgrove near Birmingham, for example, a home for 30 children between the ages of 2 and 5 who had been bombed out of their homes was established in a house donated by two Quaker sisters. In Cotebrook in Cheshire, a small group of disabled people were integrated into the local community. Cotebrook House continues (without Quaker connections) as a home for the disabled today.
In 1944, it became possible to expand relief work into mainland Europe. All relief workers were given the status of officers and required to wear military uniforms. The FRS compromised by wearing uniforms not of khaki but of Quaker Grey. They wore the Quaker star that had first been used in the Franco-Prussian War. Once in Germany, the FRS set up a joint base with the Friends Ambulance Unit at the Red Cross Headquarters in Vlotho, Nord Rhein Westphalia.
In April 1945, FRS Team 100 under Lilian Impey was summoned from Belgium to the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, just days after it had been liberated by the British army. The team included Jane Levensen, the only civilian Jewish relief worker inside Belsen. They worked inside the camp improving hygiene conditions, as well as setting up an improvised hospital nearby.
By June, 1945, FRS teams were deployed in locations around Germany working, largely independently, with displaced persons (DPs) from across Europe who were living in over-crowded conditions in temporary camps. Here members of the FRS were among the many voices raised in protest against the official policy of forced repatriation, particularly to the Soviet Union.
Relief workers in Germany were under strict orders not to fraternise with German civilians. The FRS were reluctant to comply with this, initially delaying their entry into Germany and eventually simply ignoring the order. In November 1945, an FRS team who had been working with former Italian prisoners of war in the Ruhr were relocated to Cologne. They became the first British Quaker team to provide relief to the German civilian population, distributing food and clothing to children and the elderly and helping with reconstruction. Similar work was carried out in Solingen by an FRS team led by German Quaker Magda Kelber. By May 1948, by which time the work had been handed over to the permanent body, the Friends Service Council, a total of 770 tons of food and 10 thousand bales of clothing had been provided for relief in Germany.
An example of the Quaker policy of ‘no discrimination’ came from William Hughes, who at the start of the war had been expelled from Germany for the help he provided to Jewish families. During the war, he visited German citizens interned in Britain, and helped them when he could. In 1947, he began to visit, under Quaker auspices, the internment camps were former Nazis were imprisoned and reported on the conditions under which they were held.