After reading Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, I realised that the children in the story ended up in the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Switzerland.
Serraillier doesn’t name this international village in Switzerland, but it is obviously the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen, overlooking Lake Constance. This sent me scurrying to my bookcase because I have a book about this very village, bought from my school library around 1975. The Children’s Village: Village of Peace by the sociologist Mary Buchanan was first published in 1951, presumably to raise funds for the British Pestalozzi Children’s Village Trust in Sussex, of which she was the founder and vice president. I note the cover price was 6/6, 6 shillings and sixpence. Of course, I paid much less. I’m sure I bought it because of the lovely dust jacket design. Oddly, the book smells quite strongly of disinfectant, possibly Dettol, in spite of being on my bookshelves for the past 45 years! Or perhaps it’s the ink it was printed with.
There are also some interesting photos of volunteers building the houses and the children who lived there. Two of the photos show artwork done by one of the orphans, starting with a scene of war and destruction, moving on to a peaceful mountain view, just like Bronia in The Silver Sword.
A silver sword link
I don’t know if Ian Serraillier knew this when he wrote The Silver Sword, but there is a link between the first Pestalozzi village in Switzerland and silver swords which I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t owned this book because the easily available information about the organisation is very brief, especially in English, and seems to contain very little about the history.
“It is in Trogen that, on the last Sunday in April, in alternate years, there is held the ancient ceremony of the Landesgemeinde, when every male citizen goes to the village square to vote on new laws and to elect his cantonal officers. In the small canton of Appenzell there is no parliament. Citizens with the right to vote – that is to say, all Swiss men of the canton who are of age (the women of Switzerland have no vote*) – wear a small sword on this occasion as a sign they are free men.” (p.13)
What an extraordinary coincidence! Surely Serraillier would have used this fact if he’d known it? As it is, the sword that Jan has held on to throughout their ordeal as a talisman, promising that the Balickis will be reunited with their parents, ends up in their mother’s jewellery box. It seems an ignominious end for something that had been held in such high esteem.
* Women only gained the vote at cantonal level in this region of Switzerland (Appenzell) in 1991, though they could vote in federal elections from 1971. Watch a fascinating short video from the BBC about attitudes to women voting when men voted in a referendum on the subject in 1959, including an interview with Switzerland’s first female President, Ruth Dreifuss.
The Founding of the Pestalozzi Village
The story of the founding of the village is one of early crowdfunding. The idea came from Walter Corti, a Swiss medical researcher who had recovered from TB in a sanatorium near Davos, the same one dubbed the Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Many Swiss people had already taken children affected by the war into private homes for a period of convalescence, helping a total of 20,000 children. In an article, Corti suggested founding an international village for orphans to provide just a fraction of those children a permanent home. Perhaps other countries would follow suit, he thought. It spoke to the Swiss imagination.
Crowdfunding a village
Trogen was one of several places that offered land and the tiny community of 2,000 raised £2,000 (or whatever that was in Swiss Francs) to build a road to the site. The first four houses were paid for by children selling ladybird badges, the emblem of the organisation. These houses were then ‘resold’ for £10,000 each to the Swiss towns of Zurich, Basel and Winterthur plus the major chemical concern Ciba. Other organisations including the cooperative Migros donated a house and there were many small donations, rather like the Blue Peter TV campaigns I remember from my childhood.
The book mentions that all the nurses from a large Zurich hospital went without supper once a week to save up money. Due to currency restrictions, donations from abroad were in kind: oranges from Israel, honey from Australia, coal from Poland. Corti asked Swiss children to ask their municipality to donate a tree, which they then either auctioned or sold as firewood. This raised another 170,000 Swiss francs.
Building a village
Building started in 1946 with the help of 600 volunteers from 17 countries; over 25,000 hours of voluntary labour. The houses were built in Swiss chalet style, designed by Zurich architect Hans Fischli, who even personally supervised the building. They feature lots of wood and had modern facilities including central heating and showers. One half of the house consisted of a living room and a small kitchen for snacks where they could cook their own country’s specialties. The rest of the meals were Swiss-style meals prepared by a central kitchen. The other half of the ground floor contained the bedrooms, each with two to four children, plus a small sick room and bedrooms for the house parents and teacher’s help. Upstairs there was a classroom and office space, with a workshop and storage in the basement. I suspect the description was so detailed because Mary Buchanan’s book was intended to fund similar homes in Britain.
Home from home
Each house was assigned to a particular nationality, staffed by adults of their own nationality, speaking their own mother tongue, following their own traditions and school curriculum, even with their own parents’ religion. Nevertheless, as a global village, the idea was that children of different nationalities would mingle, to “help them to overcome deep-rooted national prejudices, which are only too often artificially nurtured, and enables them to return to their home countries as true citizens of the world determined to stimulate international goodwill.” The children were involved in naming each house: ‘Thames House’ (British), ‘Stepping Stones’, ‘Pinocchio’ (Italian), ‘Kindersymphonie’ (Austrian), ‘Argonautes’ (Greek) and ‘Les Cigales’ (French).
Changing balance of nationalities
New arrivals and departures had major impacts on life at the village. Children were selected by social work organisations in their home countries. Of the things that influenced morale in the village, perhaps the saddest example is the false hope that other children developed when seven Polish children were reunited with their parents after they had been on holiday to Poland; it turned out they weren’t orphans after all. There were many shifts in the village’s population:
- 1946 Arrivals: French, then Polish children found by the allies in Merano, Italy, then Poles from Warsaw
- 1948 Departures: Polish children who had visited Poland for a summer holiday were prevented from returning by their government
- 1947 Arrivals: Austrians from Vienna, via Winterthur, then Hungarians
- 1949 Departures: Hungarians recalled to their own country
- 1947 Arrivals: Germans from Hamburg
- 1950 Arrivals: 32 British children
- 1956 Arrivals: Hungarians
- 1960 Arrivals: Tibetan refugees
Education: combining national and international
The children were all taught their national curriculum in their own language in the morning by the house fathers, all qualified teachers. All nationalities spent the afternoons together, learning whatever suited them from a fascinating and cryptic range of practical and artistic subjects, “music, drawing and painting, dramatics, rhythmics and remedial exercises, handicrafts of all kinds, including leathercraft, metalcraft, weaving, cartonnage, aeroplane- and ship-modelling, gymnastics; sport and excursions and games. German lessons also take place in the afternoons” (p.18), except for the German-speakers, who learnt English instead. There was also a village magazine and other clubs.
Sometimes I was amused by the dated descriptions. For instance Mary Buchanan tries to illustrate how free from institutionalisation the village was because you could see “that familiar homely sight, a clothes-line, with white and coloured garments waving gaily in the breeze, while the crickets chirp in the grass of the meadows where a donkey, one of the many pets, grazes in the shade of a large lime-tree.” (p.21)
Children were eventually expected to return to their home countries, hence the home language education and housing, so it was important to keep links with ‘home’. This was done by either sending them to stay with some distant relative or to a holiday camp. I could imagine neither of these solutions was ideal. A relatively short visit to a country is still not enough to feel at home there. The ideals behind the village were very clearly not just to help individual children, but to promote internationalism as a force for peace. They hoped to provide an example that could be replicated elsewhere, perhaps on a wide scale.
Pestalozzi Village in Britain
When the book was written, the British Pestalozzi Village near Hastings was still in its infancy, with a large house housing a small group of needy British children with their house parents and “feeding some forty additional youngsters, Armenian, Hungarian, Latvian, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Yugoslav boys and girls from displaced persons camps.” Some of these would have been stateless. The intention was to give them vocational training then send them off, probably to Commonwealth countries. I wonder if this is what actually happened.
The modern Pestalozzi
In fact, in both Switzerland and Britain, the focus shifted towards helping children recruited from partner developing countries, originally in Eastern Europe and later in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. In Switzerland, the village still acts as a residential school for disadvantaged children, but also runs short-term residential camps and holidays for needy children from other countries, as well as providing a conference centre for organisations with similar ideals. During the 2015 refugee crisis, they housed a group of unaccompanied child refugees, though nowadays the children have to go to school offsite as the organisation no longer employs teachers. They also rent out accomodation; I discovered a video online of a man who visited the village and the Pestalozzi museum and stayed overnight in one of the houses, presumably in a separate staff accommodation. In Britain, the village has now been sold off to PGL, a provider of ‘school trips, summer camps and adventure holidays’. When this happened, there was an enthusiastic article in the local press about growing up in the British Pestalozzi village.
I certainly wouldn’t have read this if it hadn’t been for the 1956 Club and being triggered by finally reading The Silver Sword. It’s a salutary reminder of the current fate of refugees; few people are willing to take refugee children into their own homes nowadays, unlike in times of war. I understand. I have had the opportunity to host children from Eastern Europe and Africa for a couple of weeks’ holiday or football camp and I’ve never done so; having my own children and French exchange partners visiting was stressful enough for me! In any case, this was certainly a fascinating insight into how an idealistic, utopian idea can be turned into a reality to change the world, at least for a small number of children.
Call for information about the founders of the Pestalozzi Children’s Village near Hastings.
A short biography of the British founders, particularly Mary Buchanan, author of this book.
Link to photos of Swiss village.