A Unique Social Experiment Was Carried out in 1959. Gifted Children from All over Europe Were Taken from Refugee Camps and Set Down in Rural Sussex. the Idea Was to Turn Them into Future Leaders. Here's What Really Happened to Them

Article excerpt


Nearly 40 years on, Roman Probodziak still remembers his first meal at the Pestalozzi Children's Village in Sussex. It was Friday, August 21, 1959, and he was among the original group of war children to arrive in Britain from Europe's so-called displaced persons camps, armed only with the promise of a new life.

`The table had been set, and my friendJurek and I couldn't stop laughing because we didn't understand how you could eat soup with a knife and a fork.

You see, all we had ever eaten in our lives was soup. Soup with potatoes, soup with bread. Always soup.' That day, Roman ate a lunch of ham and eggs, followed by plums and custard.

Then 13, Roman had grown up at Marienthal, a displaced persons camp set up in the aftermath of the Second World War in Brunswick, Germany. His mother was from the Ukraine. His father was Polish, but Roman never knew him. He, his mother, a violent stepfather and three brothers and sisters all lived in one room, sharing their shack with six other families.

His story was not untypical. The five teenage boys who had arrived that day, and the others who came later, all had similar tales of violence and deprivation to tell. One boy had seen his mother battered to death. Another boy's father had lost both feet from frostbite while escaping from the Russians. Their stories were invariably of rape, incest and death.

The plight of these children, destined for wasted childhoods spent in the refugee-style displaced persons camps, had been the impetus behind the founding of the original Pestalozzi Village by Swiss journalist Walter Corti in Trogen, Switzerland, in 1946. Horror at the lingering atrocities of war mingled with the euphoria of victory to create a climate sympathetic to innovative social experiments.

Designated for war orphans from France, Germany, Italy and Britain, the Village was named after the Swiss humanitarian and educationist, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. One of the founding premises was that human beings were above nationality, and that war could be eliminated if children from diverse cultures were educated together in peace and harmony. The children were handpicked:it was important that each pupil was bright and could contribute something to the international village, as well as benefit from it, as they were destined to become ambassadors for internationalism.

The Swiss Village soon developed into a high-profile centre of education.

The children spoke their own languages, followed their native customs and religions, and were cared for by surrogate parents of their own nationality.

At the same time, they learned a second language and, from secondary education onwards, were integrated into the community. According to Peter Court, a former headmaster interested in Pestalozzi-style education, the method is unique: `It provides education for the head, the heart and the hands. We ensure that the children are motivated and have practical skills as well as being educated.' Afterwards, it was hoped they would return to their own countries to pass on all they had learned. This became known as the Pestalozzi Circle of Success; children who were stateless were trained for a life in the Commonwealth.

When the founder and chairman of the Pestalozzi Children's Village in Britain, Dr Henry Alexander, and secretary Mary Buchanan began fundraising to set up a sister project in Sedlescombe, Sussex, they had a number of famous supporters, including Benjamin Britten and Dame Sybil Thorndike, all keen to see the establishment of a British counterpart.

Sixties schoolchildren will remember the ubiquitous ladybird pins, sold in aid of the Pestalozzi Village. By 1959, two million pins bearing the emblem had been sold at a shilling a piece. The money was spent purchasing Oakland Park, 174 acres of land with a 150-year-old manor house designed by Decimus Burton (who also designed Hyde Park). …