I started high school in 1939, and passed the first part of matriculation in 1945. More than half of my schoolmates had been Jews. They had all been rounded up by the French authorities and sent to concentration camps. It goes without saying, that my generation was already familiar with situations of injustice and violence.
Being an only child and rather isolated, I sorely wanted to meet other young people. One year after matriculation just after the War, my parents offered me a trip to England, which at that time was a rather unique opportunity. Nevertheless, I refused, preferring to visit my grandmother (who died soon afterward), but I promised to go to England the following year.
Even before discovering SCI, I had had experience of workcamps in Central Europe. In 1948, through the Student Travel Agency, I went to Czechoslovakia with a group of about one hundred French people, all members of the Communist Party. This was shortly after the communists took control of Czechoslovakia. It was just after the start of the struggle with Tito, and the coming down of the iron curtain. My parents did not receive any news from me for weeks and no one knew whether I would be able to come back. It was a very difficult time, but I was in a real vantage point for observing what was going on. This experience radically cured any leanings I might have had towards communism. But, at the same time, I had discovered the value of work camps. It was one incredibly big camp involving about 1 000 volunteers. We were organized in national teams or ‘brigades’ for the work. Our job was to rebuild a railway, the work was quite gruelling. We were encouraged to work as ‘shock’- workers, and medals were distributed at the end. I received the silver medal of ‘oudarnyka‘. The brigades were separated from one another, and not supposed to mix. Opportunities for meeting people from different brigades were limited to mealtimes and during free time after work when we would sometimes dance. Dancing anything different from folk dances was considered a form of political opposition. But secretly (we had to be careful ) we managed to do other forms of dancing, as the regime deemed it decadent or even degenerate Young Czechs would explain that, if they were sons of the bourgeoisie, they would not have any chance of entering university. I remember attending the political examination which applicants had to sit and pass before being admitted to university, which took place under huge pictures of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. I was also able to see how the French communist brigade functioned, and discovered its bureaucratic language. One day, Yugoslavia was a ‘socialist paradise ‘, and the next Tito was described as ‘a venomous toad’ (common language among communists at that time). The young militants justified the changes, at the same time claiming “You cannot tell everyone everything”, and so on. For me, it was an exciting experience, very negative with regards to communism, but very positive from the point of view of discovering what ‘working together’ meant.
A year later, thanks to a cousin I became acquainted with SCI and went on one of its camps in the South-East of France, at a place called Vercheny. It is in the part of the Alps called the Vercors, where the Resistance had been very active during WWII. Following the derailment of a train organized by the Resistance, all the men of the village had been rounded up by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp. Only a few of them had come back.
The workcamp was organized to help a Paris-based association, which worked with street children in a Paris suburb. The oldest and highest part of the village, which had been almost entirely destroyed during the war, had been donated to the association, and SCI had been asked to assist in its reconstruction and conversion into a holiday home for the street children. The village had agreed to host some German volunteers in the group. Despite its dramatic story; it was the first time that any German people had come to the village, since the War. At the end of the camp all the volunteers, irrespective of nationality, were invited by the villagers into their homes. A fine gesture of reconciliation .The work camp only lasted two weeks. I was very enthusiastic. The volunteers (among them two Germans) were really friendly. The team leader was a charismatic personality, who had a long experience of dealing with people living on the margins of society, which had encouraged him to take care of children. Boys did the construction work, and girls had to work in the washhouse, as huge quantities of children’s clothes had been donated by the Canadian Embassy. I also did some digging. Half of the volunteers stayed on after the camp, in order to train the permanent staff. I do not remember any organized discussions, but the atmosphere was very different from that of my previous camp in Czechoslovakia. In Vercheny there was a real feeling of freedom, which was such a big contrast. Genuine relationships were established and real friendships were created among the volunteers. Some of them are still in touch with one another today.
I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to give up my university studies (I had done two years studying English and one of law) and go and work as a long-term volunteer. Against my parents’ advice, I went to England (Lincolnshire) where I worked for six months with SCI. Part of the time I worked in a camp organized by the Quakers, and the rest of the time in another organized by the British branch of SCI (IVS). There were about 20 volunteers (British, Germans, Scandinavians and Italians – I was the only French person). We worked for farmers who were conscientious objectors. Most of the money we earned was used to finance SCI projects in India. We got along very well with the farmers, who received the volunteers into their homes, where sometimes they would read poetry or plays. We lived in tents, or in barrack huts which had been used for German prisoners of war and for displaced persons.
The work was hard, especially potato picking. We were so tired in the evenings that we were unable to have formal discussions, but nevertheless we were able to get to know each other. We had a deep feeling that we were building peace in our daily work. I am very grateful to SCI for this.
After three months of farming work, I was assigned to a kind of youth hostel in London, managed by the British branch of SCI (IVSP). It was a sort of clearinghouse, which would dispatch volunteers to the various workcamps. There I met some of the early companions of Pierre Cérésole – the founder of the movement. There were also paying guests in the hostel, just like in a boarding house. We were on friendly terms with them. There was, of course, household work to do, mainly cooking, but I also had the opportunity of meeting lots of other volunteers. Afterwards, I was sent back to France, where I was employed by SCI International Secretariat, which was at that time in Paris (rue Guy de la Brosse). The Secretary at that time was Willy Begert assisted by his wife Dora. I was full of admiration and affection for them, even though they were much older than me. We worked with one another on an equal-footing, and I learned a lot from them.
I worked with them for a year. I did secretarial work. I had to deal with all sorts of activities and I met many people. From time to time, I had to organize workcamps, for example for a new handicapped people’s association. Among other things, I remember the arrival of American volunteers and how amazing it was for me to discover how their concerns were so different from those of us Europeans. Their lifestyle seemed to situation, and appeared exceedingly cautious, which sometimes made relationships rather difficult. There was a black man among them. Everyone went out dancing with him. At that time it was an extraordinary experience for a black man from ‘the South’, to be able to live with white people. It was during this same period that the first Algerian volunteers came over to France.
At that time, the International Secretariat had an on-going relationship with the Youth Division of UNESCO. Willy Begert was very competent, and he often had to chair the coordination meetings with other organizations. He was highly considered, and he went to work for the UNESCO later on. From the point of view of practical organization the International Secretariat was very modest. Apart from generally lacking in equipment and having only extremely limited resources, it was very rich from the human point of view.
My voluntary work experience was then further extended in a displaced persons camp in Donaueschingen, South-West Germany, where there was a very long-term camp. It was very interesting and it gave me the opportunity of seeing another aspect of an enormous European problem of the time. The camp housed refugees from Sudetenland – the Germanspeaking part of Czechoslovakia – and from other Central European countries expelled from their homelands after 1945. Their total number in Europe was then around 10 million. It was a terrible situation, which is not well-known to-day. These people did not even understand the variety of German that was spoken by the other Germans around them. They had been first received in Schleswig-Holstein, and then some of them had been sent down to the camp of Donaueschingen. The whole camp was made of barrack huts; we Service Civil people lived in one of them .The refugees were paid to build their own houses. They only received help from SCI. This decision had been made by the chief administrator, who wanted to open the minds of the refugees to something more positive beyond camp life. I did not speak German, but I had learned some basic vocabulary for shopping and for construction work. With the bitter cold weather people would remain indoors, and so we only had limited contact with the families, except for one who frequently invited the volunteers in. We also had contact with the French soldiers, since this was part of the French occupation zone. As I was ‘head-sister’ in the camp and the only French person, I was delegated to liaise with the Army. I remember once visiting the local commanding officer to ask for permission for the soldiers to visit the camp. He appeared to suspect the camp of being a brothel! A few soldiers came during their free time for a change. Once an armed French military-policeman told me “You must be a saint working for the Germans”.
We were long-term volunteers. The work was very hard, especially since the winter was cold. The water in the rooms froze overnight. There were few women volunteers. Women did the construction work, but also looked after the cooking and did the house work. Every week, they had to hand wash dozens of sheets in freezing water. There was always a man who would help them, and he would say that it was harder than construction work. Women also had to carry big cooking-pots full of food to the men on the construction site. It was in this camp that I received a letter from Pierre Martin asking me to be in charge of the Algerian branch. At first I refused. I had already been a volunteer for two years and at that moment I was more interested in Scandinavian countries. A Finnish volunteer I had met at the camp in England, had found me a job as a teacher of French in Finland. I really liked the idea and was shortly expected to start working there.
I remember very well how I came to change my mind, realizing that it was a vital decision. Since then, Algeria has left an indelible mark on my whole life. In those days I used to receive ‘Le Monde’ newspaper, and one day I read an article about a general strike in Spain. It was the first one since the beginning of the Franco regime. By then, I had already turned down Pierre’s offer, because I could not see what I could possibly do in such a colonial set up as there was in Algeria at that time. Then, suddenly, while reading the article about that strike, it occurred to me that things might possibly change, that some events could actually bring about a new situation; even under a totalitarian regime like Franco’s. I was, in a way, shaken by this act of liberation. “I am going to Algeria” I said; and that is how, thanks to that strike, I left for Algeria shortly after.
Fifty years later, Algeria still stands out as a decisive time in my life –a strong point, something that is always with me. I left Metropolitan France in May 1951. Arriving in Algiers I was met on the quayside by an Algerian volunteer, Kader (who is still a very good friend today). The welcome I received was typical of the friendly group with whom I was going to work. I was taken to SCI headquarters: a small flat in a narrow alley, where meetings took place on the ground floor, whilst a mezzanine was used as a bedroom above. But I did not live there for any length of time, since I managed to move in with SCI friends (In fact I moved about twenty times in a year and a half.)
Pierre Martin was working in the south, and we only met briefly now and then to liaise with one another. The Algerian branch included several regional groups, with which I had only a limited administrative relationship. In the Algiers group, the most important one in the whole country there were, in fact, only a small number of active members. However, there were French people from France and Algeria, particularly men in their 30s 40s, mostly middle management types, who had taken part in WWII. Initially there were no students and no young people among the membership, but they did come later when we started the new work in the slums.
Then, the Algerian members (they were called ‘French-Muslims’), were almost all students, and there were even some secondary school pupils. Amongst them there were also a few Algerian girls. The young Algerians did not hide their passionate nationalism, and openly denounced the evils of colonialism (the massacres of 1945, electoral fraud, non implementation of the 1947 statute etc.). At the same time, they were attracted by the international character of SCI, happy to have contact with ike-minded people, and more than willing to discuss issues. Mixing French and Algerians, boys and girls, working together on common projects was unique- a challenge; but, on the other hand, for many people around us, it was scandalous. Only a very small minority of Europeans and Algerians used to meet in a friendly manner on an even footing. Every European family used to have their own ‘Fatma’ (servant) or a native gardener, but fraternal relationships did not exist between them.
Very soon, I had to make a choice. Through other connections, I had come into contact with French people who had told me, in no uncertain terms, that one should not fraternize with the ‘bicots’ (‘niggers’ or ‘wogs’). I had to choose, and I said: “I have chosen”. We used to go out together and to meet with SCI people. Social life was very rich from that point of view. I remember once, when Willy Begert was in Algiers, we went out with an Algerian friend. We were coming back home on foot, when a police patrol arrested us, truncheons raised. The men were searched with their hands up. The policemen asked us for our identity cards. They wanted to know what we were doing, and added: “A French girl does not go out with “bicots”. In the Kabylie region, when the villagers saw European volunteers working hard on a SCI workcamp with native Algerians, they could not believe that they were volunteers; they thought they were convicts.
Upon my arrival, I went to a workcamp that had been set up by Pierre Martin. It was an international workcamp, a very tough one. In the middle of nowhere, it was a three-hour walk to the nearest bus-stop, and it was nearly impossible to find food supplies in that area. The objective was to set up a mains water supply for a dispensary belonging to a Protestant mission. Later on, SCI stopped cooperating with those missionaries, as they had decided only to admit local people to the dispensary on condition that they first received a Christian religious education. Obviously it was not the best way of being accepted in Algerian society.
Before then, the work of SCI had been limited to the Kabylie region, but, Pierre Martin recommended that new activities should be developed in urban areas throughout the country, as there was an urgent need and our work would be more visible there. One evening, at ‘La Robertsau’, the restaurant for Muslim students (where I later went regularly), I dined with a priest and two friars. We did not establish a close relationship that evening, but they suggested that I should meet Marie-Renée Chéné, who was working alone in a slum at Berardi-Boubsila, an eastern suburb of Algiers. One of the friars told me “That woman is a bit crazy, but she certainly does a lot of work”. That was how it all started.
So I went to see her. To give an idea of SCI working conditions at that time; Beradi was approximately 17 kilometres from the centre of Algiers, and I didn’t even have the money to pay for a return ticket by bus. It was summertime, so I went on foot thinking that I would be tired by the time I got back. That’s how it was for a SCI secretary in those days. In Berardi, I found the rather squalid dispensary, where Marie-Renée worked in two small rooms.
She was a social worker. A very religious-minded person, she was nevertheless secular in her ways. She worked for the Parish of Hussein Dey (an Algiers suburb) for virtually no salary at all. Her only material support was the municipal health centre, whose van would take her there so that she could take care of the people. She was an extraordinary person. I have never met anybody who had such compassion for people.
She really suffered for them. She was not really an organizer, and she did not like institutions, and red tape. She was fully committed to her work, and she drove others through her example. I was rather taken aback by her welcome. “What are you doing here? I don’t need anybody! I don’t need people who come and gawp, or talk about ‘the poor’. “Precisely”, I retorted, “our motto is Deeds, not Words.” Clearly, she appreciated my attitude, and we started working together right away.
I began going to the slum regularly. Initially, my duty was to stand against the door to prevent people from invading the treatment room. Later on, although I am anything but a good dressmaker, I gave sewing lessons to the little girls. Then, a volunteer who was in charge of the laboratory at the hospital came. Others followed. Consequently, it was decided to organize a workcamp for girls to include developing care activities and sewing courses. In September 1951, the first international volunteers arrived: first from Norway, but unfortunately after only two weeks they had to be sent back home for health reasons. Then an American and a British volunteer were also sent back home after a month for the same reasons. They were falling like flies, because the slum was so dirty, so squalid and so full of all sorts of diseases. Clearly the French volunteers were more immune to such ills. Then two Swiss nurses arrived: Rachel Jacquet and Gabrielle Uzzieli. They had just been working in a mining area in Belgium where the conditions were really tough. With them the turnover of volunteers decreased. But tragically, shortly after returning home to Switzerland, Rachel Jacquet died. She had been exhausted by the work, and this had been compounded by the fact that she had refused to eat more than the little children she took care of.
While female volunteers were developing educational work and making it a permanent activity (Rachel had opened a girls’ school), SCI boys were building barrack-type school buildings. First of all, one for the girls, and then another for the boys. Simone Chaumet taught there later on. They improved the road, dug gutters and drains, and stairs along the steep streets. Then, extraordinarily (for those times), around the workcamp in Berardi, different organizations started cooperating with us .Students from Muslim and Catholic centres came, as well as a few girls. The Confederation of Education showed films, and the Organization for the Promotion of Active Teaching Methods sent along instructors.
SCI workcamp with Marie-Renée became a centre which attracted young people who wanted to give a helping hand, and almost all our activities expanded. After the girls’ school, a boys’ school, literacy courses, a social secretariat (in the shell of an old ambulance), a dispensary with more medical staff, a People’s Committee. A comprehensive survey of living conditions was carried out, and the road system improved. An association of Algerian Youth for Social Action was established in 1952, and was involved in the work carried out at Berardi. In other words, there were important spin-offs (most of which did not, unfortunately, survive the War of Independence). For the first time, not only individuals, but organizations bringing together French and Algerian youth were working side by side, and all of it because of projects initiated by SCI. This boom in activities, aimed at improving conditions in the community, was not only proof that there were real expectations (even from a small number of people), and a possible response to be found from these young people of different origins; it was also the start up of Community Centres created in 1955 on Germaine Tillion’s initiative.
After being sent on an official mission to Algeria, – for which she was eminently competent in view of her earlier work as an ethnologist – in 1955 Germaine Tillion joined the staff of the Governor-General Jacques Soustelle. Her appointment was made with a view to implementing social and educational policies, which, in turn, would lead to the creation of Community Centres. After seven years experience in the Aurès (a
mountainous area South-East of Algiers) she had thought a lot about ways of helping people struggle “against the evils of nature and the wickedness of traders and bureaucracy”. But, as an ethnologist, she insisted on visiting people in the field, and among those she visited, was Marie-Renée Chené.
What had been done in Berardi-Boubsila was, to a large extent, the prototype of the urban ’Community Centre’, and it became a training centre for the staff of the new organization, which recruited several people from amongst SCI volunteers. There is so much continuity between the two experiences that I find it sometimes difficult to differentiate between them. The former rural teachers and trainers in basic education had probably the same impression: each one found in the ‘Community Centre’ the best elements of their previous experience. Apart from that, the work of SCI has left another legacy: ‘l’entraide populaire familiale’ (an association promoting self-help between working-class families), created in 1950 to assist the social work of Marie-Renée on legal matters. It is still in operation in 2006, and receives trainers working with mentally handicapped people.
Soon after my arrival in Algeria, I realized that being the Secretary of the Algerian branch was not a job for me. In the context of this period, this function should have been filled by an Algerian. I wrote to Hélène Monastier, one of the earlier volunteers, and the then President of the International Committee, to tell her that this was a very interesting job, but that it should be done by an Algerian, not a European. So I put forward the name of Mohammed Sahnoun, then a student and an active member of the Algerian branch. She agreed with me.
After thus finding a successor, I stayed on another year in Algeria, still involved with SCI, and at the same time, teaching at the university to make a living. I carried on going to Berardi. Marie-Renée, who had become a very good friend, told me that I had a gift for social work, and that I should not remain just an amateur volunteer, but should get a vocational degree. So I went back to France and undertook studies in social work. Three years later, with my degree under my arm, I came back to Algeria and became fully involved in the adventure of the Community Centres, together with friends from SCI; but I was much too busy to be able to go back to actually taking up employment with SCI.
By then, Emil Tanner had replaced Mohamed Sahnoun as Secretary of the Algerian branch. The War of Independence had already started, and from the beginning SCI was kept under surveillance, and had to limit its activities. But solidarity and personal relationships between people remained. When members of SCI were put in jail, others took care of them and their families at their own risk. People would cross the country to visit the camps to find those who had disappeared, and they carried parcels to the prisoners. During this period, the Algerian branch was efficiently supported by the International Secretary (especially Dorothy Abbott). Consequently money was collected to help SCI members who had been incarcerated, so that they could obtain a lawyer.
This story would not be complete without mentioning the tragic events, related to the War of Independence which are now history, but which have had a long-lasting effect on SCI.
Simone Chaumet, after working at Berardi, had lived for two years in Kabylie teaching. Then, she settled down in an Algiers suburb, with Emil Tanner, who had been Secretary of SCI and was training apprentices. Their neighbours would come to ask for help in writing letters, and for caring for people; the house was open to everybody, and their car was used as an improvised ambulance. On the 25th of May 1962, the two of them were kidnapped, and were never to be found again. Along with Rachel Jacquet, three losses were thus directly brought about by the work of SCI (Madeleine Allinne, op.cit).
The fate of the Community Centres has been referred to elsewhere. First of all, they had to bear the persecution of the French authorities. In 1957, several of its members, including Nelly, were arrested and subjected to torture, and again in 1959.
The fact that SCI had mixed groups, working in harmony, having positive relationships with the local people, without the protection of the army; all this, at a time when people were shooting at each other, was , to say the least, highly suspicious. It meant that we were necessarily involved in a ‘guilty relationship’. We were doing what other people were not doing, thus demonstrating that it was possible to bring about change, and consequently for the status quo to be brought into question. This could evidently not be tolerated by many people. All the projects for reform had failed because there was, in fact, no willingness for change. The criticisms made of the Community Centres had probably already been addressed to SCI, but the Community Centres were working on a much larger scale and they were ,after all part of a government department.
In March 1962, a few days before the ceasefire, six heads of Community Centres were killed during a meeting by an anti-independence commando group, supporters of French Algeria (l’Algérie Française). The most eminent among the victims was the writer Mouloud Feraoun, who had supported SCI since 1948 when one of the very first SCI workcamps in Algeria had taken place in a nearby village to where he was teaching. Albert Camus was also a supporter of SCI.
I came back to France and worked with a group of sociologists and in so doing – rather ironically – I joined Germaine Tillion at the Ministry of Education. Later on, I worked as an adviser in several African countries. In post-independence Senegal I really worked like a militant, which was rather unusual for that kind of mission. Again the idea was to promote change by giving more responsibility to ordinary people. But, again, as always, I was faced with resistance to change, and to the ideals which underpinned my experience with SCI; to which I have always been faithful.
Today, most of my friends are those with whom I worked with in Algeria; an experience which has had a deep influence on all of us. Despite the passing years, and whatever direction our individual paths have taken, we are united by a sort of closeness. There is no divergence between us, and none of our paths have deviated.
Some years ago I received a letter from an Algerian friend who after his workcamp experience with SCI had gone on to a prestigious career. 30 years had gone by, and he wanted to meet Marie-Renee again, but he was unable to. He wrote:
“I would simply like to tell her how important her example has been to me. Despite a quarter of a century of constant and disorderly changes, a period of confused and violent excitement, she has represented something which has determined my way of building my life, and my attempts at making it useful. Her memory has been a constant benchmark for me, something bright and warm”.