Joanna’s note: This month, I have invited Monika Modersitzki as a guest blogger, to relay this amazing story about wartime quilts found in Germany forty years after the war ended. This article and the photos are provided by Monika, with links to where you may read more about the quilts, the collectors and the exhibition of the quilts.
Text: Monika Modersitzki; Translation: Monika Modersitzki & Heide Stofer; Images: Monika Modersitzki & Gabriele Bach
The year was 1987. These quilts emerged out of nowhere, labelled with a cloth label “GIFT OF CANADIAN RED CROSS SOCIETY.” Some showed up at a flea market in Munich, Germany, and others were found in bulk at a farmhouse barn in the Munich area. It seemed to be pure coincidence that those quilts were found. It was obvious the sellers had no idea what to do with the “old stuff” and knew nothing about their possible value — not to mention the historical dimension.
A quilter in Munich immediately informed her quilting friends in nearby Groebenzell about discovering those “Canadian Red Cross Quilts” in Munich. The “Groebenzeller Quiltgruppe” members didn’t hesitate to acquire about twenty of these quilts still in acceptable condition. The group has kept their quilts, and they are still in use to this day.
“What a touching gesture! Canadian women made thousands of quilts for the suffering population of war-torn Europe — even for their former enemies during WWII, Germany and Austria. The quilts warmed and comforted many during the harsh winters of the 1940’s. Sadly, some of the quilts were forgotten in a freight wagon at the Vienna train station. They were found decades later during a cleanup. A dealer offered them for sale at an antique market at the Nockherberg. My assumption is that he didn’t know what a treasure he had, given that some of the quilts were in poor condition. Fortunately, Mrs. Tumat, one of the first quilters in the Munich area, discovered the quilts at the market. She convinced the dealer to offer the entire collection of quilts he was storing in a barn in Alling for sale. It was 1987. The Groebenzeller quilters jumped at the chance to purchase these special quilts. The quality varied greatly. Some were whole-cloth quilts, with only one seam in the middle, printed with flowers or checks. Others were really works of art. I bought an especially nice nine-patch of lovely fabrics. Unfortunately, many of the colours faded over the years. All the quilts were made traditionally: the top of cotton, loose cotton as batting and cotton backing, hand-quilted. The prices varied in the beginning. I paid 220 Marks for my nine-patch and 50 for plain ones. I own five of these historic quilts. I am grateful to own a bit of this peace offering. It would be wonderful if the descendants of the Canadian quilters hear that the work of their mothers, grandmothers or aunts still exists and is admired.”Elisabeth Greil, member of Groebenzeller Quiltgruppe
The surprising discovery of Canadian Red Cross quilts in Munich in 1987, followed by a 1988 article by Joyce B. Peaden in ‘Uncoverings’, the journal of the American Quilt Study Group (AQSG), motivated Chrilla Wendt (1938-2014) to start a research and documentation project “Quilts in post-war Europe” in 1996. The project was sponsored by “Patchwork Gilde Deutschland e. V.”, the largest organization of patchworkers, quilters and textile artists in Germany. (http://www.patchworkgilde.de)
In her research, Chrilla Wendt collected documents, facts and other information in the late 1990’s, concerning the quilts donated to post-war Europe in the 1940’s. The Canadian Red Cross had organized the shipments of the quilts to Europe. They were handcrafted by Canadian women in many hours of volunteer work – to help people in Europe, who had lost most of their belongings.
Not all of the quilts were distributed in Europe to people in need, and nobody ever found out why. The storage of the quilts in depots of the Caritas (German Catholic Charities), in railway carriages or other unknown depots of more than 40 years had dirtied or damaged many of them.
“Why shipments of the donated quilts were not distributed to the designated groups of people remains unclear. We must remember though, that in the first postwar years, the organization and shipping capacities were very limited. Maybe we will find out by chance one day – just as we found our quilts in Munich by chance.”
Heide Stofer, member of Groebenzeller Quiltgruppe
Chrilla Wendt wanted to find out more about the quilts donated to Europe and Germany by Canada and the USA. She specifically wanted to learn more about the donors and their motivation to ship quilts via the Red Cross, the CARE Organization and others. Quilts were also shipped to Europe from the US, sometimes in packages, which were called “CARE-Pakete” in Germany, but our focus is on the Canadian Red Cross activities. The shipping structures and freight routes were probably very similar; many shipments landed in Bremen, Germany.
The topic became an international project. Maxine March, Anna Mansi and Jackie Maxwell had formed a ‘Canadian Red Cross Quilt Research Group’ in the UK and collected historical Canadian quilts, while also documenting where they were held in public and private collections. The quilts were in an exhibition in York, England in 2010. An exhibition catalogue, ‘Sewing in Wartime: Canadian Red Cross quilts 1939-1945’ accompanied the exhibition.
While participating in a conference held by the American Quilt Study Group (AQSG) in Scottsdale, Arizona in 2010, the German quilter Chrilla Wendt learned about the Canadian historian Sharon MacDonald and contacted her. While investigating about women’s aid work in wartime, Sharon MacDonald heard about the quilts handcrafted in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Sharon informed Chrilla Wendt of her research in Nova Scotia and Canadian Red Cross quilts sent to Europe, specifically quilts shipped to the UK. Sharon had discovered that 40,000 quilts from Nova Scotia were shipped overseas in the years 1915 to 1965. Sharon believes the numbers are much higher. In just the last four years of the Second World War, 25,149 quilts were shipped to Europe from Nova Scotia. She found this information in the Red Cross Year Books. Obviously, there was excellent cooperation between the Canadian Red Cross and the women’s initiatives in Nova Scotia in those years. (Robson, Scott and MacDonald, Sharon: Old Nova Scotian Quilts, 1995.)
Chrilla Wendt asked the Canadian Red Cross for further information concerning crafting the quilts, their shipment and the organization of the relief actions in the postwar years in Europe. The Canadian Red Cross found an article in their archives outlining the volunteer work of the Canadian women. In a letter, the Canadian Red Cross explained that in working groups women voluntarily sewed thousands of quilts which were donated to people who had lost housing in destroyed cities, to orphanages, to displaced persons and to families of the Canadian Forces.
When planning their 11th exhibition in 2019, the members of the Groebenzeller Quiltgruppe remembered the story of the Canadian Red Cross quilts and how these quilts were saved by certain members of the group. For the first time these Canadian Red Cross quilts were shown as a collection in Germany. On the occasion of the exhibition, Monika Modersitzki published a booklet in German in which these quilts are pictured and described, entitled ‘Notzeit-Quilts, Work in Progress’.
Inside this brochure, the reader will find the unpublished material/photographs of Chrilla Wendt’s research work, interviews with quilters, and photographs of the Canadian Red Cross quilts which were exhibited during the Quilt Exhibition 2019 in Groebenzell, along with information about quilts of the post war period sent to Germany which belong to German quilters in different parts of the country.
Museums and textile institutions in Germany had not shown any interest in research and documentation work of the Canadian Red Cross quilts. But in 2020, together with Mennonite relief quilts which were shown by Lynn Kaplanian-Buller (Amsterdam) of the International Menno Simons Center, a few Groebenzeller Canadian Red Cross quilts were exhibited at the Textile Research Centre (TRC) exhibition ‘Textile Tales from the Second World War’ in Leiden, The Netherlands.
It was on the occasion of this exhibition that The Quilt Index, a Digital Humanities Research and Education Project of Matrix: The Centre for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University, asked for permission to register the Canadian Red Cross quilts of the Groebenzeller Quiltgruppe.
Fortunately the German quilters agreed. Monika Modersitzki entered the data into an Excel spreadsheet, which was then imported into the Quilt Index for an open access for quilters and other researchers.
“When we found our quilts more than 30 years ago, we often talked at home about the generosity of the Canadian people. We take this opportunity to express once more a cordial “Thank you”.Heide Stofer, Groebenzeller Quiltgruppe
Links of Interest:
Publications in German magazines:
Patchwork Professional: “Quilts that CARE”, PP 04/2018
German Patchwork Guild: Patchwork Gilde Heft
Erinnerungen “CARE-Quilts” Enisicht in Forschungsunterlagen, Heft 132 3/2018
Erinnerungen “CARE-Quilts” Enisicht in Forschungsunterlagen, Heft 133 3/2018
Spurensuche nach 70 Jahren “Canadian Red Cross” Quilts, Heft 129 4/2017