Quäkerspeisung (Quaker feeding)
(Label on food supplied through the Quäkerspeisung)
Quaker relief work recognises that children are often the ones who suffer the most during wars. When the First World War finished in 1918, and the Armistice came, members of the Friends Ambulance Unit were amongst the first to enter Germany. They found children desperately malnourished and suffering from conditions such as rickets, their plight exacerbated by the continuing military blockade of Germany.
Friends from the Emergency Committee in London, which looked after the welfare of German internees in Britain during the War, met with their German counterparts in The Hague and were able, by February 1919, to organise some food relief. But it was only after the blockade was lifted following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 that serious relief efforts could begin.
British Friends joined up with an American delegation including representatives from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and others, to assess what was needed. A key issue was the lack of milk for children. Rufus Jones, chairman of the AFSC, wrote that it was given "more as a medicine than a food." and it was available "only on a doctor’s prescription."
Quaker Herbert Hoover, then head of the American Relief Administration, wrote to Rufus Jones asking the AFSC to undertake the relief operation in Germany, and committing to pay the whole costs for buying food. This cooperation with the US government allowed relief to be organised on a massive scale. Food was provided to undernourished children between the ages of 6 and 14, and later to 2-6 year olds and nursing and pregnant mothers. Food consisted of cocoa, rice with milk, pea or bean soup, and bread.
According to Michael Seadle (see link below), at its peak in June 1921, around a thousand Quaker volunteers, supported by 40 thousand German helpers were able to operate 2271 kitchens and 8364 feeding centres in 1640 communities across Germany, providing food to over one million children per day. Over the whole period of the programme, up to October 1924, more than 5 million children were helped – a quarter of all those born between 1909 and 1919.
Hoover had stipulated, however, that the work was to be done ‘under the American flag,’ preventing the sort of joint operation between British and American Friends which had been undertaken during the War under the auspices of FWVRC, AFSC and FAU. Hence, in the winter of 1920, British Friends set up their own feeding operation in Cologne, using American supplies paid for by British contributions. Working mainly through schools, they fed 12 thousand children a day, increasing to 30 thousand a day by summer 1921.
British Friends also opened Speisehalle (food halls) for German students, who were not covered by the American programme. Many students were unable to find work, and couldn’t feed themselves. By January 1921, every university and technical college in Germany was involved and 15 thousand students were receiving a daily meal. Later that year, this work was largely handed over to the World Student Christian Federation.
The legacy of Quäkerspeisung was significant. Many – including members of the Nazi party – remembered the food that had helped them or their children to survive. To a limited extent, at least, it softened attitudes and allowed Quakers to make appeals on behalf of German Jews.
In one such instance, in 1938, Rufus Jones met with Reinhard Heydrich, later one of the architects of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution,’ to plead with him for better treatment for the Jews. Jones believed that it was in part Heydrich’s awareness of the Quäkerspeisung that led to their appeal being heard. Through such interventions a door was opened for a time for Quaker relief work, including helping at least 960 Jews to emigrate, as well as the Kindertransport.
A similar feeding programme was set up following the Second World War.