The Children’s Village by Mary Buchanan: Pestalozzi then and now

A fascinating insight into the Pestalozzi Children’s Villages in Switzerland and Hastings in England. Set up for children affected by WWII, it offered international education together with mother tongue education and curriculum. An early example of crowdfunding, it was founded on utopian principles, hoping to promote world peace and understanding.

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.

The contrast between a refugee child’s drawings when they first arrived in the village and after they had settled.

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).

Photo from Mary Buchanan’s The Children’s Village (Pestalozzi)
The French house mother and children

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
Pestalozzi Village, Switzerland
Eating and reading together like one big happy family

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)

International ideals

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. 

“Is there a country in this world of ours where the inhabitants can truthfully say they have no feeling of prejudice, perhaps even of hatred, against another people, race, religion or class? There is room for supra-national education in every corner of the inhabited world – not only for the select few, but for the great masses, from whom leaders frequently arise. It is even probable that, hand in hand with supra-national armies, trading schemes and governments, supra-national education could eradicate wars from this planet within 100 years by wiping out mistrust, hatred and prejudice which invariably have their roots in ignorance. To some people the idea of international education may seem utopian. But times change. The world is going through a process of integration. If the best in civilisation as we know it is to survive, then it is essential that peoples of different nations and races come to understand one another, and to respect and appreciate their differences. Young children know nothing of national or racial barriers.” (p.38)

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.

Read more

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.

#1956Club – The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

Ian Serraillier’s 1956 children’s adventure book about child refugees travelling from Poland, crossing Germany to find their parents in Switzerland remains as relevant today as ever, though today’s refugees come from different countries.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

This was a book I had on my BookCrossing wishlist, so I was delighted when a Finnish Bookcrosser sent it to me as a so-called RABCK (random act of BookCrossing Kindness) in 2011. 

Somehow I had expected this to be about knights and probably Arthurian. I remembered the name Ian Serraillier from shelving books in the school library and thought I had either read this or another of his books. Now I’m certain I didn’t read this and I’m not sure I read any others of his, unless the hated Beowulf the Warrior was the version of Beowulf we had to study in the first year of secondary school (horrible story!). But this is something quite different.

One of the extraordinary things about this particular book is that only one edition of it is listed on Goodreads, not the Puffin edition I have. There is, however, also a script version for the radio adaptation and it was serialised twice by the BBC in 1957 and 1971. Yet everything I have managed to find about Ian Serraillier says that The Silver Sword is his most popular book and I have found multiple blogs online where this is listed as a favourite childhood book. Looking at his other books, the only one I could imagine having read as a teenager is Beowulf the Warrior which we studied in the first year of secondary school, much to my horror; I’d never read anything where a creature’s arm had been ripped off before. Perhaps that’s why I remember his name. The Silver Sword is definitely more enjoyable, even if the story is grim in other ways.

A WWII refugee tale

This is the story of an epic journey undertaken by three siblings from war-torn Warsaw (Ruth, Edek and Bronia Balicki), accompanied by another boy, Jan, who they take under their wing. The children’s father was deported to work in Germany and after being dragged from her home, the children’s mother has fled to Switzerland, her home country, leaving the children alone. Their house is then bombed flat so they live in the rubble. Jan, a wild, thieving boy, presumably an orphan, becomes attached to them because the children’s father gave him a paper knife as a talisman, begging him to tell the children to head for Switzerland. The book is the story of their adventure, the people they meet along the way and the setbacks and strokes of good luck that befall them.

In spite of everything that happens, I can’t say it’s the most exciting children’s book I’ve ever read, but that may be due to my advanced age. Plenty certainly happens; there are numerous incidents that ought to be full of tension and places where it could all have gone horribly wrong.

Nuanced and humanised cameos

Later on in their journey, the children meet a range of adults: a British officer, an American officer at a military tribunal who is sympathetic to Jan’s antics when stealing food, a German farming couple who give them farming work. All these encounters give the opportunity to present a nuanced picture of the post-war landscape. Farmers exploit refugees for their labour, but provide them with food and sometimes shelter. The allied military forces are helping keep order, organising relief efforts, running refugee camps and helping repatriate displaced people.

People like the children in The Silver Sword don’t fit into the grand scheme of things. They are travelling against the flow to a country that is not their own, following the dream of being reunited with parents who may very well have gone back to Warsaw to look for their children or may not even be alive. And it’s worth pointing out, these children aren’t Jewish, so they are allowed more hope than those whose families have been sent to prison camps or have been in hiding. As such, the Balickis and Jan can more easily be accepted by the German farmers.

The military personnel are also humanised: the British officer writes home to his wife and is missing his baby daughter, Ivan the guard in Warsaw is helpful and compassionate, the farmer and his wife have lost their two sons in the war. Nobody is unscathed by the years of war. They pass convalescing soldiers (presumably German) who wave from their sunny balcony as they pass. Everyone is trying to resume life and return to something resembling normality.

Animals

Jan has a great affinity with animals. When the other children first meet him, he is carrying a scrawny chicken which he protects against all suggestions he might be eaten. There are other animal encounters along the way. I suspect it’s one of the reasons so many people have such fond memories of the book. While in the transit camp in Berlin, Jan tracks down a chimpanzee that escaped from Berlin Zoo during the aerial bombardment. This reminded me of something else that I read where someone had seen an unusual bird – a stork or a swan perhaps – in somewhere like the Reichstag just after the war. Annoyingly, I can’t remember which book, but I did save this link to Storks in Berlin Zoo, 1936. If anyone knows which book I read it in, I’d love to know.

A personal connection

One particular incident mirrored an incident in my grandfather’s wartime experience. While in Germany, Edek is stopped on the road by the local mayor, who has the job of sending Polish refugees back to Poland. During the war, Edek had been sent to work as a labourer in Germany and could therefore convincingly speak the language. Jan, on the other hand, cannot and so has to pretend to be deaf. This is very like one of my own grandfather’s wartime tales. He had become detached from his unit in France and had to hide in a cave until forced to rely on the generosity of a local family. In return, he helped around the farm. One day, when he was sawing wood with a big two-handed saw, a German soldier came along and offered to help. My grandfather had to pretend to be deaf-mute so the soldier didn’t realise he wasn’t French. I’m sure it’s a ruse that has come in handy for many people in many similar circumstances.

An unexpected Dutch phrase

Just a little aside: something that surprised me was that Ian Serraillier uses the phrase ‘to make a long nose at someone’, in other words, to thumb your nose. I have never heard this in English, but it is a ‘false friend’ translation of ‘een lange neus maken’ in Dutch. I wonder where he picked up that phrase!

Switzerland at last

Even when the children finally reach their destination, the situation is still nuanced. After reuniting with their parents with the help of the Red Cross ITS (International Tracing System), they all have the good fortune to live in an international village, with the Balicki parents becoming house parents to the Polish house. Yet all is not perfect after the traumas of war and their refugee experience: Jan has to unlearn his thieving ways and remains wild, Edek has to recuperate from TB in a sanatorium – of which there were many in Switzerland due to the pure air – and perhaps most tragically of all, the formerly decisive Ruth loses all her self confidence and clings to her mother for security. Only Bronia, too young to really understand and always protected by her substitute mother Ruth, finds it easy to readjust, though at first she can draw only scenes of destruction and escape.

Serraillier doesn’t name the 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 Mary Buchanan. More about that in my next post.

I’m very glad the 1956 Club gave me a good reason to read The Silver Sword, as who knows when I would have got round to it otherwise. I’m not sure if today’s children would find it that exciting because of the way it’s written, but I’m sure a screen adaptation would work very well even today. And sadly, the issues about refugees are just as relevant today as they were back then. It’s still a story worth telling.