Christmas in Vienna, 1920 — Part 1: A visit from Santa

Coningsby Dawson
Coningsby Dawson

The year 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I.  As far as most Americans were concerned, that was the end of the war – the fighting stopped, the doughboys soon came home, and the Versailles Peace Conference concluded an acceptable peace.

In much of Europe, the Armistice brought no such finality.  Fighting continued, virtually uninterrupted, in Russia and Poland.  Riots and political upheaval threatened almost every nation.  Vast areas of Central Europe lay in ruins.  Hunger stalked even the areas untouched by the fighting.

In early 1919, the United States Congress authorized $100,000,000 to finance an American Relief Administration (ARA), headed by U.S. Food Administrator Herbert Hoover, to provide food as needed until the 1919 harvest.  When Congressional authorization expired in the summer of 1919, Hoover transformed the existing ARA into a private charity with the same name.  With limited funds from private fund-raising, the new ARA narrowed its focus to the most desperate areas, with the principal goal of feeding children.

By the summer of 1920, parts of Europe remained in dire need, and the situation seemed unlikely to improve for at least another year.  The ARA continued to feed more than 5 million children throughout Europe, and in the hardest-hit nations the ARA fed adults as well, with no end in sight.  With winter approaching and money running short, Herbert Hoover organized a nation-wide campaign to raise funds throughout the United States for the ongoing work in Europe.

A young English author living in the U.S., Coningsby Dawson, volunteered to help with the fund drive.   Dawson had gained a degree of fame during the war by writing essentially pro-British propaganda for American readers.  In November 1920, he proposed to visit some of the ARA sites in Europe and to write colorful, compelling sketches of the desperate situation.  Dawson spent a little over a month touring Central Europe;  his articles were widely published in the U.S. and Britain, and proved to be of great help in the fund-raising campaign.

Here is an excerpt from one of Dawson’s dispatches from Vienna:

This year Santa Claus made a mistake about Vienna; he forgot to come or else he had grown tired of paying visits to a people who are so unhappy. In Vienna they speak of 1920 as the sixth year of the war—they mean the war against hunger. They can afford no more Christmases till the Peace with Hunger has been settled… Santa Claus would be too busy in England and America to find time to visit the stockings of Vienna, so we conspired to commit the fraud of impersonation. We each stumped up a certain sum with which to purchase flour, bacon, cocoa, rice, sugar and tinned milk. We obtained the addresses from the Society of Friends of twenty-five of the most desperate families. The American Relief Administration lent us a car. As soon as night had fallen we set off on our rounds…

[At one stop,] our ring was answered after an interval by a cheerful little woman with a wooden leg. She had seven children and was reckoned a widow; her husband had gone missing in the war. Each child had to be wakened and introduced to us in turn. They stood in a line, blinking shyly and rubbing their drowsy eyes. They had evidently been picked up off the floor, for in the inner room there was only a single bed which, as usual, had as its only covering a mattress. The clothes of the entire seven children would not have decently warmed one child. And yet, despite their leanness and rags they seemed to breathe their mother’s optimism. We asked her how she managed to exist. She smiled bravely, tapping with her wooden leg. She worked when she could—yes, at washing. There was her man’s pension, and then we must not forget the good God who had sent us.

We glanced round the unfurnished room. It was cold as the street outside, but scrubbed and speckless. There was no doubt that she was good, but one was puzzled to discover why she was so persuaded that God had been good to her. Then she let the secret out—or at least part of it. God was daily feeding three of her seven children at the American Relief Station. She seemed to have the idea that God had a lot in common with the Stars and Stripes…

The last visit we paid was in all senses the happiest, for we came face to face with triumphant youth. The single room was in the dreariest tenement we had entered. The snow lay in a melting quagmire outside. It was the nearest approach to a slum I have encountered in Vienna. The walls were peeling with damp and the woodwork was mouldy. We had to climb a flight and then cross along the front of the house by a rickety balcony. Pushing open a window we stumbled on a pathetic sight—six little boys and girls curled up asleep on the bare boards with their flesh showing through their rags…

At this point the sound of rushing feet disturbed us. [An older girl], who certainly did not look eighteen, butted her way into the midst of us. It was plain that at first she had thought we were the police and was out to fight the lot of us. On finding that our intentions were kind, she fell to laughing… Her little brothers and sisters woke up and smiled at her. One could see that in her presence they felt safe.

She began to explain between smiles and gulps how happy we had made her. All day she had been puzzling what to get for the children. She had no money. Tomorrow would be Christmas. Not to give anything would not be right. And now, when she had begun to despair —. She dragged her ragged family to their feet and pushed them up one by one to kiss our hands. ‘You shall have a Christmas now,’ she kept telling them; ‘a real Christmas. One of the finest.’

And it took so little to make this great happiness—such a meagre, unworthy sacrifice. One less present in each of your stockings would have brought the same gladness to every starveling in Vienna.

To be continued…

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