Ilse Westheimer

Hands-on social worker concerned for the welfare of children
Click to follow
Ilse Westheimer was a great social worker, for whom the welfare of children was a supreme concern

Ilse Westheimer, social worker: born Frankfurt, Germany 21 August 1921; psychiatric social work supervisor, Child Guildance Training Centre, London 1958-67, Head of Psychiatric Social Work 1964-67; Lecturer in Social Work Education, National Institute for Social Work Training, London 1969-72; Principal Social Services Officer/Adviser in Social Work Practices, Berkshire Social Services Department 1972-74, Principal Consultant in Social Work, Social Work Practice and Development Section 1974-81; died London 24 April 2004.

Ilse Westheimer was a great social worker, for whom the welfare of children was a supreme concern. But linked with this was a deep sympathy for the welfare of their families, especially the mothers.

Her first major publication was an account of her research with John Bowlby and Christophe Heinicke at the Tavistock Institute in London, entitled Brief Separations (1965). This was an account of the stress, and attachment damage, which could be caused to young children by even a temporary separation from their families, such as hospitalisation. Westheimer was part of a determined and successful campaign, spearheaded by James and Joyce Robertson with their famous film, A Two-Year Old Goes to Hospital (1953), to make sure that children going into hospital would have maximum contact with their parents (a principle now largely taken for granted, but not then).

It was typical of Westheimer that she rejected the suggestion of Bowlby, a well-known and powerful consultant, that there was no need for her to continue seeing these families after the research project was completed. She insisted that she must be given time to work with these families afterwards, in return for the help they had given the researchers. If not, she threatened to leave the project. She got her way.

Westheimer experienced one of her biggest disappointments when, as a lecturer at the National Institute for Social Work Training in the late 1960s, in charge of training the trainers, she dreamt of building up a skilled team of such people, by setting up a national network of social-work consultants. Sadly, the money which might have been made available for this project was diverted to management training. It is not too fanciful to suggest that, if her plans had come to fruition, there might have been different outcomes for a number of victims of child abuse.

In 1972, Westheimer left the National Institute and decided to take direct action. Unlike many of her contemporaries among the élite of highly trained psychiatric social workers which still existed at that time, Westheimer was willing to "get her hands dirty" by undertaking a post directly in a social services department, as Principal Consultant in Social Work for Berkshire Social Services.

One of Westheimer's strong-est principles was that no one should attempt to supervise social-work staff unless they themselves were also carrying at least a small caseload. This was a principle established in the old child guidance system in which she had trained, and one which she herself adhered to until the end of her career.

It was while working for Berkshire that Westheimer published her second book, The Practice of Supervision in Social Work (1977), and after this she began preparation for a third, which would have been on consultation in social work. But she began to feel that the tide in social work was fast running away from learning the skills of casework, towards efficient management techniques, and her last book was never published.

Ilse Westheimer was born in Frankfurt in 1921. Her father owned a wholesale and retail shoe business, and saw his assets stripped by the Nazis, but insisted on continuing his annual contribution of 100 pairs of shoes to the local orphanage until his death of a heart attack on the day after Kristallnacht. At the age of 17, Ilse arrived in Britain from Frankfurt in April 1939, having managed to obtain a visa after the strenuous efforts of her mother, who had determined to get her only child out of Germany. She was to vanish into Auschwitz two years later, just as Ilse was on the brink of obtain her mother's entry visa for Britain.

Ilse had planned to train in medicine, having been educated at a famous Jewish school in Frankfurt, the Philanthropin. But, with no money and very few friends, it was essential for her to find work quickly, so she obtained work as a children's nurse, and subsequently trained as a nanny.

She eventually took a social work training course at Glasgow University Settlement. Returning to London in 1946, Westheimer took the Certificate in Mental Health at the London School of Economics, then as a Fulbright Scholar took the Certificate in Social Casework at Columbia University, New York in 1952 and the Course in Social Work Education at the National Institute for Social Work Training in London in 1968.

As a social worker, Westheimer could be very outspoken, had no time for dogma and no truck with jargon. Nor was she ever to be intimidated by authority. As a young student in Glasgow, she was once reprimanded by her tutor for exclaiming "To hell!" when some committee ladies, adorned with twin-sets and pearls, proclaimed that Westheimer's client from the slums of Govan could have money for either a new jumper or a cardigan, but not both.

Westheimer trained in social work at a time when there were still great hopes in the profession that we could make a significant difference to the general good. I became her student at the Child Guidance Training Centre at Daleham Gardens in Hampstead, London, in 1965. I vividly remember my first meeting with her, a petite, dark-haired, vivacious woman, with a big, captivating smile. As a supervisor she was meticulous yet also relaxed; she had the knack of bringing out the best in people.

There was a light-hearted, fun-loving side to Ilse Westheimer. She was deeply interested in the arts, especially the theatre. She also loved music, both jazz and classics, and the Wigmore Hall was a favourite haunt of hers. She used to call it "the most civilised place in London", especially when she attended the Sunday-morning concerts, where she enjoyed both the music and the glass of wine served afterwards. She once startled a group of social workers by declaring that anyone working in relationships should learn to dance.

Westheimer travelled a lot. She had many friends in Israel and lived for a time on a kibbutz. She visited Jerusalem on one occasion, and suffered the trauma of seeing the detailed records of the Nazis' extermination lists, containing dozens of names of her own relatives. Apart from two distant cousins, her whole family had been wiped out.

Westheimer loved the countryside of Berkshire, and was an enthusiastic gardener at her beloved cottage in Whitchurch, near Pangbourne, until ill-health forced her to return to London. An avid reader and a lover of radio broadcasting, she also enjoyed poetry, especially when read aloud.

Ilse Westheimer had a supreme gift for friendship. One of the very last friendships she made was with Rabbi Julia Neuberger. During the last year of her life, Westheimer had conceived the idea of setting up a trust to support the education of young refugees. She had been unsure how to do this, until she saw a small paragraph in the journal of the Association of Jewish Refugees, stating that Rabbi Neuberger was setting up a very similar trust, only for younger children. On writing to her, Westheimer was delighted to receive an enthusiastic response from Neuberger, who helped Westheimer to set up the trust "just in the nick of time".

Towards the end of her life, it became especially hard for Westheimer to forget the pain of her family's fate. And, because of these losses, she was left with no model for growing old. She was affected by a number of health problems, all of which caused her a great deal of distress. But she did express some quiet triumph that she had been able to live till the age of 82, whereas, as she remarked, "the Nazis might have killed me at 17!"

Ilse Westheimer never lost the ability to look outwards towards the needs of others, and the setting up of the Ilse and Frieda Westheimer Charitable Trust fund for refugees gave her tremendous satisfaction. After all, she herself knew what it was like to be an asylum-seeker.

Jean Robertson-Molloy