Undergraduate Students Celebrate 75 Years of the Reading-Düsseldorf Association!

Part One: UG student Eleanor Dyer reflects on her placement at the Berkshire Records Office, in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association.

Our much loved Discovering Archives and Collections Module enables students to test and develop their interest in careers in the archives sector through a 10-day placement at the Berkshire Record Office. This year, students Eleanor and Eve worked in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary!

We are pleased to share these blogs ahead of the exhibition at Reading Museum opening this weekend (18th July 2022): ‘Head Over Heels: Friendships From the Ruins’ . Delivered in partnership with the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, the display will include rare items on loan from the Berkshire Records Office and an exploration of the Reading sculpture Cartwheeling Boys.

In the short blog below, Eleanor pieces together the story of Hildegard Stephan in the archives, who travelled to Reading from Düsseldorf in 1949. Read on for a moving, visual insight into Hilde’s material history – and stay tuned for Eve’s blog, coming later this week!

Three Months in ReadingThe Reading Düsseldorf Association and the Young People’s Exchanges, by Eleanor Dyer

In 1949, 25 German children from the city of Düsseldorf came to Reading on a trip as part of the then newly created Reading Düsseldorf Association, which was set up in 1947 by the Mayor of Reading at the time, Phoebe Cusden. It aimed to send both material aid and gestures of friendship to the German city, which had been destroyed by the devastating effects of the Second World War.

This newspaper cutting from 1949 explains how these 25 German children were chosen to come to Reading. The Second World War caused much suffering for Düsseldorf families, after intense bombing there. This meant that children were picked who were “all suffering in one way or another from the results of the war – lack of food, bombed homes, loss of parents and psychological disturbance”. Many of the children even arrived to Reading with unsatisfactory clothing; this was remedied by the kindness of neighbours and the children’s host parents, who in some cases even bought them new clothes.

One of the 25 German children was Hildegard Stephan, who is mentioned in this newspaper cutting. Her home was bombed, and her family lost everything they owned; tragedies like this are why the trip was so positive for these children.

The gratitude and happiness Hildegard had for her stay in Reading can really be felt in this beautifully written and illustrated report she wrote about the activities she got up to and the places she saw during her time in Reading.

1: The front page of the diary is illustrated by Hildegard; it shows a drawing of Great Britain with Reading marked out.

Nowadays Hildegard’s report of the journey and the trip is located at the Berkshire Records Office (BRO), where it made its way from the archives of the Reading Düsseldorf Association, after being donated by Hildegard herself. Robert Dimmick, who is currently the Vice Chair of the Association, was the person to receive Hilde’s donation, and commented that the diary was “a way of communicating what life was like” for Hilde in England.

Until now the diary has not been officially translated from the German, but as a student doing a placement at the BRO who also happens to study German, I have been able to translate Hilde’s story into English. The report covers lots of different aspects of the stay; it weaves factual accounts of what took place with Hilde’s personal feelings about everything she did.

Here Hilde writes a contents page of everything in her report:

The trip across the sea.
Arrival in Reading.
Easter days on the beach.
What I saw and experienced in Reading:
The house that I lived in.
My host parents.
In the Alfred Sutton School.
On wanders through the town.
On trips in the surrounding area.
On a trip in London.
As a guest with English people.
With German children at home.
On visits to neighbours.
Farewell and trip home.
Arrival back in Düsseldorf.

Hilde and the other German children’s adventure began on the 13th of April 1949, bright and early in the morning.

Hilde writes: Finally, the day of the journey had arrived. I hadn’t even thought about how I should have such good fortune to be able to travel to England. But when the 13 April came, it was really four o clock in the morning, going with my parents to the train station where the journey began. All 25 Düsseldorf children who had been invited to Reading boarded the D train accompanied by Miss Siemons shortly after 5 o clock, going to Hannover where we arrived at 9 o’ clock. There, another medical check-up took place in a hotel, and our luggage was checked by customs officials.

You can really hear the excitement and nervousness in this first page, and how Hilde was so thankful for the opportunity.

However, there were some difficulties that Hilde and the German children came across.

On these pages, Hilde talks about what going to school in Reading was like:

After the Easter celebrations, lessons also began for me at the “Alfred Sutton School”, which I attended every day from 8:40am until 4pm. Even over midday we stayed in the school and got lunch there. We had English, French, Mathematics, Geometry, Geography, Biology, Drawing, Music, P.E., Gymnastics, Handiwork and Cooking. In most subjects, it was impossible for me to follow the lesson because I didn’t understand the teacher’s explanations. That’s why we German children kept ourselves busy with other things instead …. The school hours went by very slowly this way, and we could hardly wait for the end of the day.

This is a really illuminating part of Hilde’s report because it shows that no matter where they come from or what they have been through, teenagers will always be teenagers, complaining about school and just trying to get through the school day with their friends. In my opinion, this is a reason why the children’s exchanges that Phoebe Cusden and the RDA fostered were so important for these Düsseldorf children. They had suffered so much that they really deserved a chance to feel like normal kids again and do day-to-day activities like going to school and hanging out with friends.

This sentiment is echoed in a letter sent from Phoebe Cusden to Harold Nicolson of The Spectator in 1945. Here, Phoebe expresses her belief that in attempting to set up these children’s exchanges, those involved can show that they are “not indifferent to human misery – even the misery of ex-enemies, if children can be so called.”. It’s certainly true that even though Nazi Germany caused suffering in Britain, this was initiated by certain few perpetrators at the top level, definitely not children.

Back in 1949, Hilde and her German friends said farewell to Reading on 14th July.

She writes: So, it was no wonder that the three months which seemed to lay endlessly before me at the start of the trip had come to an all too fast end. On the 14th of July the farewell from Reading arrived. Many tears poured as we drove away from the Town Hall

There is really a sense of how much the children enjoyed themselves on the trip. Without a doubt, they went home feeling happier about their lives. Like Hilde says to end her diary: “But now I go back to my work with new courage”.

 After this, many more children’s exchanges took place, and the same values of friendship and cooperation which gave young people opportunities like this are what guides the Reading Düsseldorf Association today, almost 75 years later.

Pictures produced with permission and thanks to the Berkshire Record Office.

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