Christmas in Vienna, 1920 – Part 3: Caring for the children

Continuing Coningsby Dawson’s tour of post-World War I Vienna, his writings sought to convey the absolute desperation of the people – primarily children – who were dependent on the American Relief Administration.  In this dispatch, he describes his visit to one of the child-feeding stations:

Today I visited one of the strategic points where the battle against hunger is being fought. It was a former barracks, now a soup-kitchen of the American Relief Administration, situated in the poorest district of Vienna, where meals are daily prepared for 8000 children. There are 340,000 undernourished children in Vienna—a total of 96 per cent, out of the entire child-population. But these, whom I visited, were all hand-picked and medically certified as being sufficiently near to extinction to be admitted. Funds are too low to feed any save those who are within measurable distance of dying…

The people who attended to their needs were Austrians. There are less than forty American officials in the whole of Europe to superintend the workings of the Relief Administration. The food had been provided one-third by American philanthropy, the other two-thirds by Austrians—which is an answer to those thrifty economists who are so afraid of pauperising Europe. This is the fixed rule of the American Relief Administration’s activities, that it contributes one-third of the expense and does the organising, while the country assisted provides the other two-thirds and the personnel of the workers… Another useful fact to remember is that one American dollar, at the current rate of exchange, keeps one of these little skeletons alive for a month. And yet another fact is that the whole of each dollar donated is expended on food and nothing is deducted for organisation…

I entered a shed where little feet were being measured for the Christmas gift of boots which had arrived from America. What feet! How deformed with cold, and swollen and blue! They had never been anything else since their owners could remember. There was nothing childish about them, except that they were small…

On a bench sat a tiny boy, wizened and jaded as an old man. He was being fitted. A little ragged girl who was no relation, but was acting mother to him, told me his age. He was nine, but he was not as big as seven. No, he wasn’t being fed by the Americans—not yet. He wasn’t famished enough; there were other children who were worse. There wasn’t enough food to feed you unless you were very bad. Perhaps he would be bad enough soon after Christmas.

I didn’t dare to tell her that after Christmas, unless the conscience of the happier world is aroused, there won’t be any funds to feed her little friend, no matter how bad he becomes…

Thankfully, and in part due to Dawson’s writings, the ARA fund drive raised more than $30,000,000 to continue its vital work in Europe.  Christmas 1920 was not and end, but a turning point for Austria.  By the following June, the ARA canteen network in Austria reached its greatest extent, providing meals to over 350,000 children.  When the ARA closed operations in Austria in mid-1923, the economic situation had improved considerably.  In those four years following the Peace, the ARA distributed more than 200,000,000 meals and 862 tons of clothing and shoes in Austria – just one of the more than 20 nations aided by the ARA.

For Herbert Hoover, the success of the fund drive renewed his faith in the generosity – and moral maturity – of the American people.  In his 1922 philosophical treatise, American Individualism, Hoover wrote “If we examine the great mystical forces of the past seven years we find this great spiritual force poured out by our people as never before in the history of the world – the ideal of service.”  Hoover’s faith in the willingness of the American people to voluntarily aid those in need became a cornerstone of his approach to public policy as Secretary of Commerce and President.

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