Irmtraut Wäger

Photo of Irmtraut Wäger at her 90th birthday by Jan Anderson.

Irmtraut Wäger passed away on October 2, 2014, aged 95. For 50 years she was closely associated with Tibet, especially as President of the German Aid to Tibetans. The International Campaign for Tibet’s Light of Truth award, presented to her in Berlin 2005 by H.H. the Dalai Lama, was among the many awards she received for her work.

Her eventful life reflected European history in the 20th century. Born in East Prussia, her family impoverished in the economic crisis in the 1930s and she could go to school for only seven years. In World War II she served in a hospital in Königsberg where, on her 25th birthday, she witnessed how the city was bombed to ashes. It was here that she also first came in contact with Tibet through books she found there.

Her escape to West Germany toward the end of the war and how she found her way with her sons through a war-torn country to Munich is an incredible tale of luck, resourcefulness and perseverance that she narrated in her autobiography “Amala”, published at age 92. Here she finally found work with Siemens and in the company library she discovered more books on Tibet. In 1969 she moved into her legendary two-room apartment that would become the office of the German Aid to Tibetans and its dozens of volunteers, a place of such renown that the Dalai Lama insisted on seeing it with his own eyes in 2003.

In 1964 she started sponsoring her first Tibetan refugee, an elderly lama. She visited him ten years later, after her son donated an India trip paid out of his first salary. Without knowing English she visited places like Ladakh, Spiti, and Dharamsala. Ladakh became close to her heart and later in life she channeled much aid to the refugees there.

At age 60 she retired from Siemens and started on her second career. As a parting gift, her colleagues gave her another trip to India. She brought donations from her friends to Ladakh and found so much poverty and needs that she returned with the commitment to help in accordance with her life motto, given to her by her father: “The Others First”. In Switzerland she met the Dalai Lama for the first of numerous meetings and they hit it off famously.

It is fascinating that this retired woman, with miniscule knowledge of English, travelled every year to India on her own expenses to visit the Tibetan refugees, going by train and bus alone. With East Prussian thoroughness she checked that all donations had been applied correctly down to the last paisa, and many settlement heads trembled when she arrived. She made sure that each and every sponsored child really attended the schools. She checked everything, never relied on nice words, always looked behind the scenes, and always remained fair. Every year she reported her experiences to the Dalai Lama.

My colleague, Lodi Gyari, Executive Chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, considered her a close personal friend and also said she visited each and every child, person or project that she sponsored, no matter if it was up in the mountains or down in the valleys of India; she did not delegate. He further said, “I deeply admired and respected her frankness. She used to categorize Tibetan officials into three categories: sleeping, walking and working. I am honored that she put me in the category of working.”

With enormous strength she collected well over 30 million Euros over the years and supported more than 20000 refugees. Without ever using a computer or modern fundraising methods she remained the self-effacing but determined head of a major relief agency – her reward was the love of all those Tibetans, children, sick people, monks and nuns, old people, whom she could help. She went by the name “Ama Wäger”, Mother Wäger.

After reaching the age of 90 she stepped down as President of the German Aid to Tibetans, and the twelve-hour days slowly turned to a memory only. Old friends, also from India, kept visiting and calling her. Even toward the end of her life, her memory was so sharp that she could pick up a photo of any of the thousands of Tibetans she supported and tell that person’s life story.

Only a month after her 95th birthday she left us for ever. The positive results of her hard work will continue to have an effect on the life of all those Tibetans whose life improved because of her work. She was a role model if there ever was one, showing that “The Others First” can work wonder.