When Gunter Nitsch was 11 years old, the only thoughts on his mind were feeding his hunger and keeping warm. In 1949, he and his family were living in a refugee camp in western Germany after World War II and were living off of bread and soup made from animal bones.
After a while, his mother told him that he “shouldn’t eat too much bread,” and she would no longer be able to buy bones to make the soup. Nitsch was left feeling perpetually hungry, until one cold November day when they received a package from CARE (Cooperative Assistance and Relief Everywhere) that would change their lives.
“When we opened it up, my mother started crying,” Nitsch, now 78 and living in Chicago, told ABC News today. The package was filled with food including raisins, canned fruit salad, coffee, cocoa powder, corned beef and spam.
“That must be the food that angels eat in heaven,” he remembered thinking at the time he ate the food. For the next two years, he and his family lived in the refugee camp and they received over 15 of these packages.
Now, over 70 years after Nitsch first fled his home in 1945, he has sent a CARE package to another refugee in need, as part of the Special Delivery campaign.
The campaign, which recognizes the fifth anniversary of the Syrian war, has refugees of WWII send letters along with a CARE package to Syrian refugee children, to send them “hope and compassion,” Brian Feagans, director of communications at CARE, told ABC News today. The campaign also aligns with the 70th anniversary of when the first CARE packages landed in France after WWII.
“We thought they can relate more than most people to what the Syrian refugees are going through,” Feagans said.
The letters are translated to Arabic for the children, who received the original letter as well.
“I'm writing to share my story with you to let you know that, no matter how bad things may seem, there are good people in this world who can make everything better,” Nitsch wrote in his letter to 8-year-old Zaher, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan.
When Nitsch was first asked by CARE to participate in the project, he immediately wanted to help. “Every time I watch the news and see refugee children, I feel sorry for them,” Nitsch said, recalling what life was like when he was a refugee.
“There was nothing to eat, no medical care and no school for the German children,” he said.
Nitsch was 7 years old when his family first tried to flee East Prussia in 1945. They were caught by the Russians and were forced to live and work on Russian-controlled territory for the next 3 and a half years.
While there, he tried to find work every day to survive, he said. He couldn’t escape the feeling of hunger, searching for food in the forest and stealing potatoes from fields when he was desperate. But the worst part for him was not being able to go to school, he said, noting that he hopes Zaher has the opportunity to get an education.
“I trust with all my heart that your school situation is better than mine was and I hope that your life will also change for the better soon,” Nitsch wrote in his letter.
CARE documented on video the moment when Zaher opened his package and Nitsch was “beaming” when he was watching the video, he said.
In addition to the note, Nitsch sent Zaher paper airplanes that he personalized, writing “Zaher Air Lines,” on the wings of the planes.
Nitsch recalled not having any toys when living in Russia or the refugee camp, where his family fled to after being transported to a village in East Berlin. He also sent a photo of him with his dog, Senta, who he had to leave behind when his family fled East Prussia.
“I was crying for hours because I missed Senta,” Nitsch said.
Zaher had to leave behind his own pets, Feagans said, and reading the letter brought back his own memories of leaving his pet cat and pigeons in Syria. The boy “put the photo up prominently” in his family’s apartment, Feagans said.
The recipients of the packages were very moved by the letters, according to Feagans, and the WWII refugees said they were touched as well and that they “want to be on the giving side of that compassion that they received years ago.”
The Syrian war is the worst refugee crisis since WWII, Feagans said. There are currently 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations. CARE has given humanitarian relief to 2.3 million Syrian refugees so far, in the form of grocery debit cards, refugee centers with services and emergency crisis relief.
The Special Delivery campaign is open to anyone who wants to participate and send a letter to Syrian refugee children. Feagans said he hopes people will be inspired by the letters written by the WWII refugees. So far, the campaign has received over 500 letters in less than a week since it started.
Nitsch said he still remembers the impact the CARE packages had on his life. “I haven’t forgotten how helpful the CARE parcels were to us,” Nitsch said. He actually located the Mennonite Christian farm family from Pennsylvania, the Peacheys, who sent his family the care packages and became lifelong friends with them.
If Zaher’s family ever successfully makes it to the U.S., he and his wife will travel to wherever the family is to meet them, Nitsch said. But for now, Nitsch just hopes Zaher has the chance to go to school.
“No matter where you are, always try to learn as much as possible by reading books. The day will come when it all will pay off,” Nitsch wrote in his letter.
Zaher is attending school, according to Feagans, and uses the notebook and pens that were given to him by Nitsch. It is a reminder, as Nitsch said, that there are good people in the world that can make everything better.