General Articles


Can German and Pole, Italian and Frenchman live together in peace? They can and do — in a Swiss village for war orphans

MICHAEL SALZER October 15 1948
General Articles


Can German and Pole, Italian and Frenchman live together in peace? They can and do — in a Swiss village for war orphans

MICHAEL SALZER October 15 1948



TROGEN, Switzerland—Some of the Hamburg children woke at night dreaming that the walls were coming down on their heads. The Viennese children ate too much at every meal for fear there would be no food next day. The children from Marseilles dreamed of the gruesome night when the Germans blew up their water-front homes.

The haggard, hollow-eyed Italian children were at first not quite sure whether a well-ordered life such as thit would not be an anticlimax after their free and easy adventure as shoeshine boys earning a precarious but exciting living in the streets of

Naples and Leghorn, shining G.I. boots, selling black-market cigarettes or acting as procurers for streetwalkers. But they are as happy now as the children from Finland, who thought the heaped-up fruit baskets on the tables were for decoration only. They had seen oranges and bananas only in pictures.

Such fears and delusions no longer torment these children, for they are citizens of the unique children’s village of Pestalozzi, which the Swiss built on a hill 3,000 feet above Lake Constance as a haven for European war orphans. The founder of Pestalozzi was Walter Corti, assistant editor of the

magazine Du. The Swiss, thankful that they had been spared the ravages of war, have contributed nearly half a million dollars in three years through donations and sale of a special stamp issue and badges. Swiss children gave their pocket money, a cycling club spent the winter making chairs, knitters sent in sweaters (one letter said: “From

a naughty schoolgirl, who did wrong and has knitted this sweater as a penalty”).

Gifts came from outside Switzerland, too. Poland sent half a trainload of coal, France a band of art students who decorated the houses, Palestine a shipment of oranges (though there are only Protestant and Catholic children here) and Hungary a crate of books and toys. And a town, devoted to freedom and security, was built.

When the first trainload of war orphans arrived in Pestalozzi two years ago, the Polish children asked, panic-stricken: “Are these Germans?” The Red Cross nurse smiled reassuringly: “No, we are all Swiss.” There was an embarrassing silence. Then Jad ja, one of the bigger girls, sighed: “What a pity that, the Swiss could not have invented another language for themselves.”

The 16 young Poles were among the first inhabitants of the village, named after the great Swiss educationist Pestalozzi. Next, came 16 French youngsters. The children were puzzled about the people around them, who talked the hated language of the Nazis, and about the nearness of Germany, which they can see over the flower boxes of their bedroom windows.

But today 128 children from Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland form a happy community. Dutch, Czech and English children will soon join them. In a year or two the population will number 300. Some 60 men and women of 12 nations are busy running the village and building new houses for future citizens, children whose minds had been gravely injured by the horrors of war, whose parents had been brutally killed before their eyes, who had lost home and family and were living in the gutters in the shambles of their bombed cities.

No Frontiers Here

THE BOYS and girls live 16 to a house in eight pleasant dormitories each devoted to one nationality and presided over by a housefather and housemother, usually of the same nationality as the children. They range in age from seven to 15, and they were chosen by a Swiss woman doctor in their country of origin. The more forlorn a child was, the fewer friends and relatives he had, the more he qualified for this children’s paradise.

The boys and girls are being brought up as Poles, Germans, French, Italians, etc., but imbued with international ideas. When they are 17 they will return to their native lands and share in their reconstruction.

I lived at the Pestalozzi for a week. Stepping from one house into another, was like crossing into a new country. But there are no frontiers in this village. The children play hide-and-seek and blindman’s buff, hardly aware of any language difficulties. Some have learned Swiss German, the lingua franca of the village. Others just yell in their own lingo and the Pole understands the French girl and the Italian unhesitatingly agrees with the German. Heinz, from Hamburg, has struck up a great friendship with Dédé, also just turned 11, one of the French kids. “Do you speak French?” I queried

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Can German and Pole, Italian and Frenchman live together in peace? They can and do — in a Swiss village for war orphans

Haven from Hate

Continued from page 13

naively. “No.” “Does he understand German?” “I don’t think so.” “How are you talking with each other then?” I asked. “Oh, we just laugh together. So we are great friends,” Heinz explained.

When the first German children arrived at Trogen the older Polish boys hatched a plan to fire the German house. When their plan was foiled, they brooded for days to find other means to get even with the “Boches.”

The Hamburg kids were stunned by the stony faces they met in the village streets, held their own in some clandestine fisticuffs, but never understood why they were met with such hatred. With infinite tact and feeling, their housefather, a Swiss, made them understand that Germans had been responsible for so much misery elsewhere. This was a desperately hard task with children whose hearts were still filled with hatred against the British, whom they blamed for having killed their folks and destroyed their homes.

Not empty preaching but example and patient understanding helped to repair the war damage there, on both sides. Today they make up mixed Polish - German football teams, exchange house visits and love letters are bouncing to and fro between the teen-agers.

Similar problems arose with the French; some of the younger ones refused to go up to bed unaccompanied “because the Boches were around.” None of them would speak, or smile to the Hamburg kids for weeks. Then the “Cigales” went on a week’s holiday in the mountains. On their return, they found their house trim and clean and flowers in all the rooms. The German children had done that on their own accord. Awkwardly at first, but no less sincerely, the French accepted this token of friendship. Dédé, one of the older boys, decided: “After all, they

are kids like ourselves, they did not kill our fathers.” The ice was broken. Individual friendships began to sprout.

Every day during my stay at Pestalozzi I lived in a different house. When I came for supper to Kukoricza Janczi, the Hungarian house, I found the table decorated with field flowers and candy next to each plate. Eight-year-old Ilonka curtsied and gave me a bar of chocolate. It was her birthday, the first one she had ever celebrated. It was quite a job to ascertain when and where she was born. She had lost her parents when the Russians marched into Hungary four years ago. With a throng of refugees she had journeyed through the whole country, mothered by strangers, sleeping with dozens of people in one room, before she came to the children’s camp where Hungary’s homeless youngsters found refuge.

Now They Can Give

The housefather, a quiet little man with dark, understanding eyes, had been working in that camp. He has to cope with the problems that confronted all teachers in the village. “At first, my kids like all of them here were lying and stealing,” he told me. A boy confronted with theft would cry: “Stolen? I have not stolen anything! I have taken it from the table. I smashed no doors and (to lend factual proof to his disclaimer) I had no revolver. You don’t call that stealing, do you?”

Many of the young Hungarians could not sleep. They had nightmares of bearded men trying to kill them, of flames sizzling about the house. Some hoarded everything they could

lay their hands on; their mattresses covered complete stores of food, clothes, toys and tools. It took them a long lime to realize that Trogen was their journey’s end, that the village meant security.

Today, a year later, they know they don’t have to take any longer. They can give now. And they give freely. One day the Hungarians sent all their toys to the French as a gesture of friendship. Promptly French toys came from the “Cigales.” Marcel would keep his dessert and bring it to Ilonka; nine-year-old Sandor would save half a lollipop and shyly offer it to flaxenhaired Trudi from the German house.

A sense of self-confidence replaced the sullen, obsequious furtiveness which came with the degradation to the gutter. When a well-meaning, but perhaps too condescending, Swiss visitor proffered some candy to a freckled Polish teen-ager, he replied disdainfully: “I

no beggar, I no take alms,” and proudly flashed in her face the lollipop that he had bought with his well-earned pocket money.

The children are starved for love and affection and sidle up to any friendly stranger like stray dogs or playful kittens. They long for sympathy and appreciate interest if it is genuine. When I came to “Kindersymphonie,” the Austrian house, around suppertime one night, I saw that a nine-year-old, freckled, ginger-haired boy had set a place for me beside him. I had not intended to eat with the Austrians that evening, but I could not refuse the silent appeal in his pleading look. “Thanks for coming, I knew you would return,” he whispered to me after grace.

“He is the worst of the lot,” the housemother told me. “He flares up in fits of temper, cannot make friends with the others and always fights over every little thing.”

“Problem children they all are, that’s why they are here,” the child psychologist, a young Swiss girl, explained to me later. “Most are physically their age, but mentally several years behind.” The girls have to cope with problems of puberty when their mental standard is hardly that of an eightyear-old.

“Out of the Clouds”

The meaning of mine and thine was for long an enigma to these kids, who knew only the law of the jungle. But when they transgressed, they were never caned or severely punished. “That was wrong,” they are told, “you should have done it another way. Go to bed now, lie down and think it over.” The children themselves enforce the law. “If you don’t apologize, or if you do this again, we won’t play with you!”

Seven in 10 of the new arrivals were bed wetters, and four in five didn’t know their letters. Even after a year some still wet their beds. And some are still a couple of years below intelligence standards. But nearly every week one “comes out of the clouds,” as one teacher called the sudden change. In the Hamburg house they keep a “dream book,” in which they write or paint their weird dreams. One day, a nine-year-old girl came to “Vati,” as the kids call their housefather, and told him that she could not write her dream down, but would tell it to him. “You know my mummy did not die in ordinary way,” she confided in a frightened whisper, “she hanged herself.” With this confession, her nightmares ceased.

An Italian lad fretted over the death of his father, a sailor, who was killed in the Battle of Matapan. He would pore for hours over a map to study the course of his father’s destroyer and often he would curse the “perfidious

Inghlesi,” who had sunk her. In the carpentry shop he met a British exsoldier, one of the volunteer helpers, struck up a friendship and stopped fretting and wetting his bed.

The teen-agers have no illusions about the mysteries of life. The veil was lifted for them in overcrowded cellars, they saw their older sisters raped, had watched the conquering armies “celebrate.” “The Yanks can have any woman they want,” remarked a French boy, “they have money.”

Every housefather tackles the problem in his own way. Intimate contact with the children, winning their complete confidence, inspiring them with the love and the moral support they had so sadly lacked before, and careful, tender handling of the odd little incident guides the flirtations between the kids into harmless channels. In “Orleta,” one of the Polish houses, they even put up a letter box for the “billetsdoux” which flutter to and from the houses.

One of the Polish children started the ball rolling at one of the nightly discussions. “She says the stork brings the babies,” he said, indicating a little girl. “I say it’s Our Lord who makes them.” There were giggles and broad grins and also embarrassed, wondering eyes looking at the housefather, a bearded Christlike man with infinite patience and a fervent, almost fanatic faith in Catholicism.

Another youngster interjected : “Nonsense, a man must touch a woman to make a baby.” “Quite right,” replied the housefather, “life is the gift from Our Lord. But it is the mother who bears the child. That is why we honor the mother and not the stork. But man and woman must be old enough to be able to look after and care for children, to provide for a family.” And continuing on a nature class of previous days, he explained the miracle of life to his children

At “Marie Curie-Slobodska,” the second Polish house, the housefather had been several years in concentration camps. He had been twice condemned to death. All his ribs had been broken and his teeth crushed by SS-men. Years in prison liad given the onetime schoolmaster and freedom fighter a new philosophy, a new twist to life and education.

The Search for Faith

The first summer he took the boys into the mountains, camped in disused barns and tents and continued the life of the tramps, soldiers, partisans and vagabonds they had been so long. When they had spent their energy climbing, marching and fighting he gathered them around a campfire and told them stories of hobos, of cowboys and Red Indians. The autumn rains washed the last ugly traces of their wartime experiences out of their minds. Callous, undisciplined ragamuffins turned into children, Maquis veterans into Boy Scouts.

Few of these boys of eight to 14 believed in anything but brute force. God was anathema for them. “Who is that God who had my parents killed?” they queried in open protest. “Where was that God w'hen my mother was crushed under a tank?” Their master, his own faith broken by yearlong prison torture, had salvaged a spark of belief that the love of these homeless young desperadoes seems to have kindled into a proud flame again.

“We were partners in search of God,” he mused, as he told me the story of Jan. one of the most hardboiled atheists of the young bunch. “One day we had been sleeping in a cabin, 9,000 feet up, at the foot of a glacier. When I woke just after

dawn, I saw Jan, tears streaming down his face, staring at the miracle of the sunrise over the glacier. He buried his head on my shoulder and whimpered: “God is here with me now, this very moment. I can feel him.”

Few miss Sunday Mass nowadays. Evensong is the great moment of their days. And the gruesome events of the past, gradually become half-forgotten nightmares.

A miscellaneous team of adults from many lands, most of them unpaid volunteers, run this village. The Austrian teacher belonged to a Luftwaffe squadron that had strafed the Yeomanry regiment of the young Scotsman who runs the carpentry shop. He is on excellent terms with the Polish schoolmaster who had spent years in a German concenti’ation camp. A German medical student works side by side with a French boy laying the foundations for a new house for English children. A Swedish girl who studies child psychology runs the pottery shed and looks after the farmyard zoo of lambs, kid goats, chickens, pigs and rabbits. Two Oxford girls laid the lawn and Florentine students put the floor boards down in the Finnish house. A Scottish lass helps to care for the Austrian children and teaches the whole village eurythmies. A Swiss opera conductor gives music lessons and leads the village choir. A Dutch schoolmistress shows the children how to turn odd leather straps into neat wallets and handbajgs and a crack Swiss pilot is housefather to 16 precocious kids from the Hamburg water front.

No Orphanage Flavor

Every house is home and school in one. At present there are eight houses occupied, and another 10 will be ready in a year or two. Each one is the home of 16 children of one nationality. The French have named theirs Les Cigales after the abundant crickets in their south - coast homeland. The Hungarians called their home after a storybook hero Kukoricza Jancsi. The Austrian house is aptly named Kindersymphonie after Haydn’s celebrated music. The Hamburg kids could not think of anything better than the water-front name Butendiek for their dream home. The Poles, serious and patriotic, called one house Marie Curie-Slobodska (who was Polish and French and a world citizen) and the other one features the Polish eagle in its crest, and is called Orleta, the eaglet. The Italians and the Finns, only recently arrived, have not yet had time to think of a suitable name.

Two or four children sleep in the same bedroom. The curtains are bright and there are flowers in every room. There is none of that desolate and depressing atmosphere of orphanage dormitories about Pestalozzi village. “Tonton” Pierre, the young French housefather, had been brought up in sucha “home.” Gruesome memories of 11 years of rigid discipline and dreary, soul-killing routine still rankle in his mind. Now, at last, he has the chance to fulfill his childhood dreams, giving other parentless kids a real home.

The children cook breakfast in their own house kitchen. The other meals are collected from the central kitchen, run by a Swiss opera singer-cuminnkeeper. Once he dropped a can of red pepper in the sauerkraut and had the little Hungarians coming for more. “Wonderful,” they cried, “marvelous! Almost Hungarian!”

Once a week the children all sing together, the most international choir I have ever heard. The melody of so many children’s songs is the same everywhere. So they lustily sing in

their own words “Frère Jacques,” “Meister Jakob,” “Fra Martino” and “Janos Basci,” all to the same tune. The village hit at the moment is a Hungarian song. All of them can sing the chorus. “Hi-hi-hi, ho-ho-ho, tra-lala.”

Heroes of Peace

The children are taught largely according to the school curriculums of their native countries with one notable exception—instead of nationalistic and prejudiced history found in most schoolbooks, these children learn the life stories of the pioneers of culture and science. The housefathers don’t try to cram their pupils with the battles of Caesar, Genghis Khan or Napoleon; instead they glorify the deeds of people like Madame Curie, Lister, Koch, Roentgen or Leonardo da Vinci.

The children listen to Warsaw, Paris or Hamburg radio for the news and discuss world events. None of the kids is disposed favorably toward Communism, nor are those from countries behind 'he Iron Curtain, like the Poles and Hungarians, particularly proRussian. But, then, they are more interested in the football news from home and in the funny programs and native music than political controversy.

But they are shaping well for a successful future. Few, of course, know as yet what they would like to be one day. But some have already decided. Dédé has chosen pottery. Edward, a Polish boy, and his kid brother are mad on mechanics and want to become fliers. “Perhaps in the Polish Air Force or in the Canadian,” Edward mused. “But not in the Russian.” Eight-yearold Manfred, undersized for his age but quick on the uptake, is nicknamed “professor” and hopes to be one some day. Many, especially the girls, want to be teachers. One boy secretly learned Latin and wants to become a px’iest.

Of course there are critics of this type of therapy and education, too. They argue that the kids live a sheltered life and what others have to find out for themselves is presented to them on a silver platter. Many would like to see expexxses cut. A more stringent economy, they argue, could give 10 times as many children, equally needy, a decent home. But the Swiss contend that Pestalozzi village is a model home, to show the world what can be done and therefore quality comes first.

“A hundred thousand villages like this and the world would be a better place in years to come,” said one of the Austrian teachers, if