Rhoda Dawson: The Story of an UNRRA Welfare Worker
When the war ended in 1945, Rhoda Dawson was 47 years old. She already had considerable experience of welfare work throughout the war but had concluded that it was ‘not my thing at all’. However, after being shamed into applying for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), having nothing better to do, Dawson found herself thrown into aid work once more. She was to discover a world unlike anything she had ever seen before, and unlike anything she was ever likely to encounter again. Over 7 million people had been displaced in Europe throughout the war; some were ex prisoners of war or labour camp prisoners, some were former forced labourers who had been working throughout the German Reich, whereas others were mere children left without families or identities. Although the Allies recognised some displacement would have taken place, none had imagined the sheer scale with which they were confronted.
UNRRA was created in 1943 with the express purpose of ‘helping the people to help themselves’. In the immediate aftermath of the war, essential relief was provided through the supply of food, water, shelter and medical care – however UNRRA wished to also rebuild the individual so that they could stand on their own two feet once more without relying on any form of aid. This was largely achieved with the help of the Allied military to supply DP camps with the essentials required. However, the very loose definition given to the term rehabilitation led to a series of contentious policy decisions throughout UNRRA’s short life, and ultimately caused great strife and confusion for welfare workers such as Rhoda Dawson. Yet, regardless of the seemingly ad hoc implementation of policies within the DP camps, Dawson felt it was the welfare worker’s duty to make the most of the situation, no matter how hopeless it may seem.
Writing 45 years after the end of her service with UNRRA, Dawson has compiled two voluminous files on her time with the organisation. These notes came about through her frequent correspondence with the same friend that shamed her into signing up in the first place. Although her account is sometimes a little patchy, and she fills in any gaps there may be from memory, she gives a splendidly detailed and human side to the story of those working to help others help themselves.
Dawson worked largely within the American zone of occupation in Germany. UNRRA employees were often spread throughout the French, British and American zones regardless of their nationality. During her time in the camps of Rosenheim, Föhrenwald, and Wildflecken, UNRRA’s attitude towards DPs changed. Although the official policy of helping DPs essentially recover their own individuality didn’t change, from 1946 onwards when large proportions of the DPs refused to go home for a plethora of reasons, UNRRA’s stance towards them hardened. Dawson lamented in December 1946 that ‘welfare comes last, the main object is repatriation, in other words; We’ve paid for you long enough, now get out’.
Dawson was a welfare worker who seemingly did not enjoy welfare work throughout the war years. Yet she found herself thrust into the same role in the post-war years and after a short time at the training facility in Normandy, her attitude changed. Why did she care more for these people than those whom she had been caring for throughout the war years? Her personal writings about her time during UNRRA reveal a shift in perception towards the European DPs. To Dawson, the DPs of Europe were in a much worse quandary than, for instance, the badly-behaved boys she was charged with looking after during the war.
The frustrating nature of their situation comes across quite clearly in her writings from around March 1946, as UNRRA’s stance hardened towards the remaining (particularly Polish) DPs. Dawson became increasingly exacerbated by the continuous changes made to welfare policy within the camps. At the beginning, they were told to encourage any-and-all kinds of activities – sewing, knitting, language learning, carpentry, etc.. However, over time, the tone had changed and the authorities no longer cared about encouraging diverse activities among DPs. Due to this shift, the welfare worker’s position within the camps changed dramatically too. Dawson found her position now required her to be stricter, less empathetic and outwardly cold towards the DPs. This was the opposite of the fun, caring, considerate and empathetic welfare worker UNRRA championed early in 1945.
After it became clear that UNRRA’s length of service was to be extended to mid-1947, until another suitable agency could take over, Dawson believed most welfare workers lost interest in caring for the remaining DPs. By December 1946, Dawson stated that she had acquired a ‘rather too recent realisation of what this work requires – a careful study of directives because each one may contradict the last; four copies of every letter, margins to begin fifteen spaces from the left-hand edge and subdivisions of subdivisions numbers (a), (b) and (c)’. Dawson’s role had been degraded to that of a petty bureaucrat, one more concerned with administrative and bureaucratic matters than the human beings she was there to help.
Regardless of this change in the UNRRA welfare worker’s role, Rhoda Dawson continued to try and do her duty; she was often relentless in her pursuit of ensuring the DPs could experience some much longed-for normality. In her memoirs, there are numerous references to her persistently badgering officials with requests for children’s books in various languages, hounding UNRRA Team leaders for more shoes and blankets, acquiring white cloths for church services through dubious means and encouraging amateur productions of classic folktales and theatre plays.
Rhoda Dawson’s tale is comparable to those of other men and women who worked for UNRRA after the war. However, her vivid, human, and often humorous account of working for the pioneering international humanitarian organisation has won a place in UNRRA and post-war history. She is representative of the thousands of people who raced to help those in need after the war’s end, and her story continues to capture the tensions that were, and are still, present between administration and humanitarian goals.
Feature image courtesy of the Imperial War Museums collections.