Relief Work as Pilgrimage: "Mademoiselle Miss Elsie" in Southern France, 1945-1948.
The story of Mennonite relief work in France during the 1940s conjures names well-known to readers familiar with Mennonite Central Committee's wartime and postwar involvements: Jesse Hoover and J. N. Byler, directors of MCC France; and Henry Buller, another MCC administrator who in 1942 had married Beatrice Rosenthal, a Jewish staff member in the MCC Lyon office. Lesser-known are stories of North American teachers and others who traveled to France for isolated service assignments, far from French Mennonites (concentrated in Alsace) and removed from the central offices of relief organizations. In 1945, one such volunteer, a 32-year-old Brethren in Christ woman from Pennsylvania, Elsie Bechtel, arrived in southwestern France. For the next three years, in diary entries, correspondence with family members, and photographs, Bechtel amassed a detailed record of local life in the countryside while providing "relief service" to hundreds of French, Spanish, and Jewish children and youth displaced by war.
Seven decades later, M. J. Heisey, an American historian, and her sister Nancy Heisey, a religious studies scholar, have edited Bechtel's writings and provided geographic, historical, and literary contexts, offering readers a close lens for postwar work in a French commune, a place of farms, grazing lands, forests, and village life. While the authors' research, especially in MCC files, is extensive, their main claim is not situated in the rich literature on international activism focused on children, families, and human rights in the postwar period, an analytic frame that readers might expect. Rather, Relief Work as Pilgrimage takes as its focal points women's biographical writing and religiously-motivated travel. The authors argue that the long-forgotten diary and letters of this mid-twentieth-century American Protestant woman--with musings on daily life far from home--provide a window into the centuries' old tradition of religious travel and sojourn. They introduce their work with the modest hope that "our study will encourage interest in the significant contributions of quiet stories, such as Elsie's" (xviii).
Although not a biography, the book highlights the worldview of a woman educated at Goshen College whose farm upbringing prepared her for rural living, and whose qualifications as a teacher led her to accept a service assignment caring for children whose lives had been uprooted by war. Bechtel's call to service mirrored that of many other young American women with historic peace church backgrounds. In 1944, she had participated in MCC's summer unit for young women at Howard, Rhode Island, a companion program to the Civilian Public Service camps and units that accommodated religious conscientious objectors. From 1945 on, her continued work with MCC led her to deemphasize her Brethren in Christ background. She readily embraced an identity as a Mennonite relief worker in France, writing in her diary that "I was proud of being a Mennonite... That's true religion!" (7).
Origins of MCC's involvement in the French commune of Lavercantiere had roots in prewar and wartime displacement of Spanish populations. Mennonite relief work in Spain had begun in 1937, during the civil war, with food and clothing distribution coordinated by American Mennonites, the American Friends Service Committee, and European religious pacifist groups. By 1940, Mennonite Central Committee established programs in southern France to address the humanitarian crises enveloping the region. During the Second World War, the authors note, "MCC volunteers and their Spanish and French co-workers continued to serve under the direction of the Quaker group... while trying to carve out distinct Mennonite programs.... The pattern of men administering relief efforts from urban offices and women providing direct services persisted through Elsie's time" (38). In wartime France, Mennonites directed food distribution programs and several children's colonies, including one at Canet-Plage, some thirty miles north of the Spanish border, directed by a Goshen College French professor, Lois Gunden, an MCC worker from 1941 to 1944 (in 2016 Gunden was honored posthumously by Yad Vashem--the World Holocaust Remembrance Center--and the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., for saving Jewish refugee children from deportation and death).
In late 1942, after U.S. diplomatic relations with Vichy France ended, American aid workers were exiled. The following year, French staff and Spanish refugees relocated the Canet-Plage colony to Lavercantiere, a small commune in the Bouriane region of southwest France. At the time that Elsie Bechtel arrived in 1945, soon after the end of the war, fewer than 400 people lived in Lavercantiere. In a chateau leased by Mennonite Central Committee and staffed with French housekeepers, instructors, and children's caregivers, Bechtel offered sharp observations of "daily life in close quarters [and] intimate portraits of her neighbors' lives" (xviiii).
Bechtel reflected on her struggles to learn French; disciplining her charges; adjusting to a monotonous, bread-based diet; procuring food and supplies amid shortages; planning for renovations and improvements; and navigating tensions within her community and among MCC personnel in France. Reflecting on the beauty of the natural surroundings and the occasional breaks in daily routines, Bechtel wrote, "I love Lavercantiere with all my heart" (13). Her diary and letters provide ample evidence of the authors' claim that while Bechtel was occasionally "impulsive, passionate, and often critical" (5), she was also a keen observer at the edges of French rural culture, with proclivities that were staunchly American. Her stereotypes of French neighbors, the authors note, and her "intolerance of Catholicism and French Communists were American bred, fed by Anabaptism's Protestant ties" (5).
Two unusual aspects of this text-centered story are its structure and its frame of religious pilgrimage. Organizationally, the book's preface and two of its five chapters offer historical context and analysis, while two chapters rely on edited excerpts from Bechtel's letters and on her diary (a more robust source at the beginning of her French experience than toward the end of it). A final, fifth chapter departs from the postwar world, describing instead the authors' travels to Lavercantiere in 2006 and 2007 to conduct research for this book and to participate in a reunion of individuals who had lived at the colony--through its seven years of existence--as children. Most striking in this section is the appearance of Serrano Abadie, one of the Spanish refugees who, along with her sister and mother, had experienced the MCC-staffed commune as a haven.
Although the book's chapters move back and forth from the 1940s, as well as in and out of the writings of Elsie Bechtel, a more streamlined approach to structuring might have yielded a more satisfying conclusion. Because the volume offers little insight into the subjective experiences of relief aid recipients--children or adults--the book's final focus on survivors' memories and a recent commemorative ceremony at the Lavercantiere chateau seems oddly out of place. But the authors' central argument, that Bechtel's sojourn there from 1945 to 1948 evokes ancient traditions of cross-boundary migration and reflection, lingers with the reader.
RACHEL WALTNER GOOSSEN Washburn University
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|Author:||Goossen, Rachel Waltner|
|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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