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Europe, Summer 1948: A Co-op Odyssey

Emily Baruch Kirby ’52 is a psychologist and author of Yes You Can – The Working Woman’s Guide to Her Legal Rights, Fair Employment and Equal Pay, as well as many professional articles. Her career includes research in sociology and educational psychology, teaching, and community college administration. She has traveled to 50 countries, doing volunteer work in seven, and serves on several boards of community organizations.

In the summer of 1948, among the 300,000 American college students going to Europe were four of my older, wiser Antioch College friends. They said I had to go, too. My boyfriend was encouraging (he had been to Czechoslovakia the previous year on a co-op job). It was simple: just write to American Youth for European Youth (sponsored by the United Nations, American Friends Service Committee and Unitarian Service Committee), then fill out the application, arrange with the Co-op Department, and work in Europe.

It turned out, however, not to be quite that simple. There was unvarnished red tape. My parents were an obstacle (since they did not want me going to Germany). They held on to my birth certificate, which delayed my passport, which finally arrived via diplomatic pouch. Miraculously, all arrangements got made: acceptance forms, tickets, packing—with about five minutes to spare, I set off for Wolfe’s Cove, Quebec, from where the boat sailed.

The learning experience had begun. Having heard that Europe lacked both amenities and necessities, my huge cardboard suitcase (no wheels back then) contained lots of soap and toilet paper. Furthermore, I could not lift it!

Once aboard the Kota Inten, a real tub (used to sail the Malay Straits) with the passengers as ballast, sleeping on triple-decker seamen’s bunks, I learned to say “No” to the American Military Government (AMG). Word somehow got out about my being a native German speaker so I was hounded: Wouldn’t I like to be truly patriotic? Be a courier riding German trains, delivering messages for the American Military Government ? It sounded dangerous, boring, and after all, I had promised my parents not to step inside Germany.

The AMG persisted for 13 days, until we landed. Then, with five other American women, I was assigned to work in Belgian orphanages. But before that we had a day in Rotterdam.

The Dutch have college student volunteers who guide foreign college students. Two of us were with Peter Abbing seeing the city. He asked whether we would like some sweets and then took us to a candy shop to buy each of us a small bagful. A few days later, I was filled with guilt realizing that treating us had used about half a year’s worth of his sugar ration. (I tried unsuccessfully for years after to contact him with a proper “Dank U.”)

Then our whole group of 70 went to Sevres for orientation. When we arrived in Paris, following the long train ride, it was about 6 AM. Everywhere we looked couples were kissing and embracing. Four of us elected to ride atop a truck full of our luggage. Along the way to Sevres, bystanders booed us. They must have thought we were very rich Americans.

Our home for ten days was in the Chateau at Sevres built by Louis XV, which now houses a pioneer school. They were giving us a bang-up course on how to teach singing correctly, because they wished to increase the amount of music in France in order to make it an integral part of French life. There was no piano, yet we had done swell singing. The position of each person in the group was visible to the teacher, and there was none of the screaming stuff that American children sometimes call singing. We also spent considerable time constructing kites from twigs and brown paper. (Mine didn’t fly.) In lectures we learned about politics, class structure, civil service, economics, and history.

Since many of us were headed for camps, much time was devoted to them. Though I was going to Belgian orphanages, the material was useful. Since the war the camps were a fair cross-section of French economic life. The job of counselor is an all day affair, and, on weekly days off, one had to leave camp property. The aim was to have progressive camps which would influence the child’s schooling and make city schools more progressive, too.

In Belgium, a child with one parent was classified an orphan and was eligible for institutions like Brusselles Cite Joyeuse. Children were often sent there because they would be well fed and clothed, or because they had handicaps better cared for by trained personnel. I worked with a group of pre-teen boys. Mostly, I walked and sang and played with them. A walk usually lasted two or three hours, with constant harmonious singing (not too disrupted by my congenital sliding key scale), time out for a snack, a ball game, then return. There always was a staff member assigned to the group. I became friends with her and with the kids. Festivals, graduations and the like involved all of Cite Joyeuse, 250 of us, marching to field or school, applauding teams or celebrants, listening to the presentations in Walloon (French) or Flemish.

The second month we were on the coast at Adingkerk, outside of Ostende, at a health home for boys. Fear of TB was great. The health regime consisted of sleep, sea air, very, very long walks (but heck, we were in training) and, on the beach, slabs of white bread spread with a substance that later turned out to be molasses. We roamed the Atlantic Wall (Nazi defenses), climbing in the tunnels, over the gun mounts, amid sea grass, and ran down the dunes. We watched crevette fishers whose sailboats, with horsepower, pulled nets along the wet shore accumulating their shellfish catch. We visited countless cemeteries. And we sang.

We had about ten days free before journeying back to the States. Two of us made a list: see oranges growing on trees, climb an Alp, drink wine in Italy, see Queen Wilhelmina on her birthday before she retires, fly the Channel, visit Canterbury. We did them all, more besides. Near the voyage’s end, at Ambrose Lightship, we watched contraband copies of censored Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence heaved over the side. In New York harbor minutes later, a fire tug spraying streams of water welcomed us back Stateside.

I really did not want to come home.

Back on Campus

In the autumn of 1948, I felt like a different person. More of a student, a bit more mature, a little less judgmental, and slightly cosmopolitan. I was looking outward, and ready to saturate myself in another culture. I signed up for a massive tutorial with Herman Schnurer to read the classics of French literature. I worked hard at it. My French improved markedly.

The summer had positive effects on my self-confidence. A bad experience in high school physics had soured me on hard science so geology at Antioch was a revelation, a delight, and writing the best description of a geyser provided ego inflation for days. The course material was so interesting I volunteered to help grade quizzes, thus reviewed while learning more. I even forgave the instructor who tricked us with a telescope during a night time lab in the parking lot. “See that planet!” he exclaimed. We “oohed” and “aahed” at the street light.

I became a traveler, which for me is a state of mind not necessarily a matter of location. It concerns what one absorbs wherever one is, how one reacts to it, what one does with it. Persons are fascinating, but not more so than plants, birds, fossils, plays, movies, textiles, for instance. And the more “languages” one knows, the better an Antiochian one can be.

Special thanks to Pete Blos ’52 from Emily for lending her the camera!

page last updated: August 3, 2004