I was born in 1936 at the village of Montana. I was the youngest of 5 children. I had two older brothers and two old sisters. My father was an medical doctor who directed a Hospital for Swiss Military who had become ill of tuberculosis. My father was of Dutch ancestry, but was born in Germany and raised and educated in Switzerland.
Montana is located high above the Rhome Valley in Switzerland. This is the part of the predominately French speaking area of Switzerland. The villagers were French speaking and Roman Catholic. We lived through the World War II as a very young boy. I do not remember much of the early years because I was so young. I recall more of the later years. These were very difficult years, even though Switzerland was not invaded by the Germans. Even so, I had a lovely childhood. I do recall my Scouting and school experiences. I was a keen Scout and joined the Cubs in 1945. At age 11 in 1949 I began boarding school and went to the same school for 8 years. This was not as common in Switzerland and other European countries as it was in Britain. Much of the clothing we wore was hand-made and when there was a hole in our stockings our Mother mended them promptly. The clothing we had was simple and functional relative to the surroundings we were in.
Our father was a medical doctor who directed a hospital for the Swiss Military who had become ill with tuberculosis. My father was of Dutch ancestry, but was born in Germany and raised and educated in Switzerland. We were German-speaking but lived in the French speaking part of Switzerland. I was born in 1936 at the small village of Montana. I was the youngest of five children, the baby of the family. I had two older brothers and two older sisters. My brothers were a good bit older than me, but one of my sisters was about my age, just a little bit older. My brothers included me in their games, or perhaps tolerated me, but it was difficult to participate fully because of the age differences.
Montana is located high above the Rhone Valley in Switzerland. Is it a beautiful place and a pectacular location to grow up. I could not have asked for a more beautiful spot. The Rhone Valley is a predominately French speaking area of Switzerland. The villagers were French speaking and Roman Catholic. Montana, at that time was a small village with a few Sanatoriums for people with tuberculosis. Since then Montana has become a world renowned Golf and Ski-resort. That came inhandy because as a teenager I was able to earn a little pocket change a s ski instructor.
The hospital my father directed, used to be an old hotel that was converted into a sanatorium. It was above the small farmers-village with a commanding view over the Rhone-valley and the Alps. The village was very small and the inhabitants were all poor mountain-farmers. While my father was in charge of the hospital, he also treated the local villagers and made frequent house-calls. As these farmes did not have much cash, they paid us with produce from their farms, such as cheese, sausage, vegetables, wine etc. That is how I got the wine cask for my play house. Most of the employees came from the German speeking part of Switzerland and were
protestant. Part of the hospital was an extensive farming and workshop area. There was a chicken-farm with more then 2,000 chickens. There was a carpenter shop, a forgery, a weaving shop, a leathercraft shop etc. Some of the patients at the hospital during their treatment worked in some of these shops or the farm, depending on their degree of ilness and were thus able to earn some > income towards their living. The products producesd were sold commercially and the patients received part of the income. My mother, who was a professional weaver and very artistic, ran a die weaving shop.
My parents had an apartment at the hospital, then a house was built to accopmodate the employees of the hospital and my parents had an apartment there. Then they bought a piece of land and decided to build their own house. That was in
1931. So, I was born in that house. The house was about 10 walking-minutes distance from the hospital. It was a pleasant little home. We had our own vegtable garden which was very important during the War.
We lived rather isolated for the rest of the population, therefore the nature and resources around us became our "play-ground". My playmates where my older sisters and brothers and a few kids who had come to our home to recover from illness. We had to help a lot around the house. Our play-ground was the nature around us. In summer we built tree-houses or, to the dismay of the farmers, we diverted the irrigation canals and built lakes for our small, handmade boats etc. Our parents took us on many hikes into the mountains. In winter-time we took advantage of the ice-rink in the village and the one and only ski-lift which gave us an opportunity to go skiing. We learned at a very early age to skate and ski.
Since I was born in 1936, I lived through World War II as a very young boy. These were very difficult years, even though Switzerland was not invaded by the Germans. I do not remenber much of the early phase of the War because I was so young. I do have some memories of the later phase. All the food was rationed. We never had any meat but lots of vegetable etc. which we grew in our garden. We had to keep all the windows covered so that no light could be seen by the planes who flew over our country to drop their bombs in Italy. Once in a while a bomb was dropped at the wrong place and we saw the explosions. After the War we saw American GIs involved in the occupation of Germany. They would take tourist trips to see Switzerland.
Naturaly, as we were in the French speaking part of Switzerland, we also learned French. That was the language we needed to communicate with the local population.
We spoke German at home, but had lots of French-speaking friends and visitors and therefore we were as fluent in French as in German.
I had a lovely childhood, despite the difficult times. Most of our games were out-doors. In the evenings we did a lot of crafts, read a book or playd cards. I really do not recall any specific game. Naturally there was no TV and the radio was mostly used to listen to the news, which of course during the War was very dramatic. We could pick up both Swiss radio stations and the NAZI German broadcasts. Once in a while a talk-show or comedy was broadcast as well as music. My sisters natrually had their dolls and we boys had some craft-games, kind of redecessors of "Lego" etc. Most of our day time was spent outdoors, where our imagination was the only limit we had. We playd indians or built castles ot tree-houses etc. and in winter
there was always a big igloo under construction or we built our own small ice-rink or went sledding on the nearby road etc.
Much of the clothing we wore was hand-made and when there was a hole in our stockings our Mother mended them promptly. The clothing we had was simple and functional relative to the surroundings we were in. I do not recall the clothing worn by my older siblings. I recall that when I was a small boy I wore Shorts, Knee-socks a shirt and when needed a sweater, during the summer. I had a pull-over shirt with fancy embroidery. Underneath I wore a "combinaison" which today is called a union-suit with short or no sleeves and short legs. I did not like these suits, because I had always difficulty in keeping them open when I had to go to the bathroom. Once it would get cold, I was made to wear long stockings und a waist to hold them up. For outside, we had knickers-type pants that reached down to the ankles and were tied together there. The "combinaisons" were exchanged to the same garments with long sleeves and legs. Back inside the knickers came off, so that they could be dried and we ran around in our stockings or we put on short pants.
Actually our village had two primary schools which was unusual for a small village. Switzerland of course is a multi-lingual country. The convention established for schools was that in small villages, instruction would be in the language of the majority language group. Towns and cities would have schools in both Frech and German. The village school was supervised by catholic nuns and the priest and was only in session for 6 months, as during the summer all the kids had to help with farming. The instruction was in French. Therfore my parents organized a German speaking school without the catholic component. It was attended by the chuldren of the sanitorium employees as well as the children of some patients. At that time antibiotics did not yet exist and many patients spent months or years at the sanatorium. Therefore many
families followed them and lived near by. Our primary school was very small and was a one-room school. We had kids in every grade from 1st to 6th grade. In school we had to wear the obligatory smock.
I am very intrigued over the wonderful HBU section on the Boy Scouts. I was active in the Scouts from my early youth on in Switzerland and then became a member of the professional service of the American BSA, where I spent 27 years, before taking on the position of Director of the World Scout Foundation in Geneve Switzerland. Now retired from the Scouts I am still active ion Fundraising for a local Hospital. Enclosed you find a picture of me as a "fresh baked" Cub Scout at the age of 7 years in Switzerland. As you can see I wore the long stockings, which were common at that time. The were held up by a waist. As we grew up in the mountains, we wore them all winter long and well into the spring. During son-time we wore long knickers-type ski pants which were held together at the ankles. Once it was a bit less cold it was tradition to wear short pants and stockings. As we grew older these stockings were replaced with either woolen hand knit tights or commercially bought tights.
At age 12 in 1948 I began boarding school and went to the same school for 8 years. This was not as common in Switzerland and other European countries as it was in Britain so I thought I write you a few notes about my years at the boardingschool. It was an all boys' school. It was called "Evangelische Lehranstalt, Schiers." There were about 350 boys boarding there from the ages of 11 to about 19 years old. We were housed by age. I was about 11 years old when I got there and I had to share my room with three other boys. Discipline was strict and our daily schedules were coordinated from morning utill bed-time. This was a dramatic change for me. Surrounded by 350 boys from all over Switzerland, far away from home, required considerable adjustment on my part. I was very ill prepared for my step from the elementary school to the secondary boarding school and had to repeat one year. I was not trained well enough to keep up with the fast pace of teaching at the boarding school and was also very shy and had problems interfacing with so many class-mates. After about a year, I had adjusted to the changes. Our school had a well used court yard. Here we would often gather after classes fr a range of of fun activities. I will tell you a bit about clothing. During the summer months all the boys wore in shorts and knee-socks and depending on the weather wore a sweater over their shirts. On Sundays we had to wear something nicer, which consisted mostly of knickers with knee-socks and a jacket. While I was at boarding school I was active in the Scout-troop at the school. We too had many activities and many weekend-camping trips. The one thing we did not do, we did not organize a summer camp, as all the members of the school understandably wanted to remain at home during the summer.
A British reader writes, "Tom's pages about growing up in Swtzerland during the 1940s makes extrordinary reading. Stange to think that in the midst of World War II that a boy could experience an ordinary childhood in Switzerland."
Voûte, Tom. E-mail message, May 13 and 16, 2006.
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