By Bernard Wilson

Love and War in the Pyrenees

Love and War in the Pyrenees

Glancing at the bookstall in Carcassonne airport recently, I noticed this book, written by an author I was already familiar with. I had read her “Life in a Postcard” some time previously, and knew it dealt with her purchase and conversion of an old abbey on the mountain road over the Col de Jau which connects the Aude with the Pyrenees Orientales.  I opened the book at random, and was surprised the find a chapter headed “A Quaker Refuge”. A few minutes later, I knew I had to have this book!

The book deals with the troubled history of the Pyrenees Orientales before and during the second world war. In particular, it tells of the Spanish refugees escaping from the civil war, and the refugees from all over Europe who found their way there from 1933 onwards.  There are many mentions of Quaker relief work in the hastily set up camps, and especially among the horrors of the concentration camp at Rivesaltes.

I was fascinated to read of Quaker presence and activity in this region so long ago, and wondered whether this was known among the Toulouse friends.  Some emails later, I was convinced that this story was not widely known. Rosemary Bailey did not find it easy to conduct her research, local people are reluctant to talk much about the Vichy period. She also found it difficult to piece together the Quaker contribution; in a note to me she says “It is frustrating that the Quakers are so modest, that it is hard to glean the history!” I’m not so sure that it is modesty on the part of today’s Quakers, more of ignorance I would say! However, by dint of much research in the archives at Friend’s House, she has put together a fascinating account of the part played by Friends in the Languedoc in the 1930’s and 40’s.

Of course, there are far more than just Quakers mentioned, but it is that section of the book that I want to refer to here. La Coume is an isolated farm near Mossett, in a narrow valley just off the main Castellane valley running down from the Col de Jau to Prades on the main road from Perpignan. I have driven over the Col de Jau many times without ever knowing of its existence!

In 1933, with the advent of Hitler coming to power, Friends became interested in the farm of La Coume as part of a scheme to resettle German refugees. The first refugees to the area were the Krugers, German teachers with socialist and pacifist views who immediately had fallen foul of the Nazi regime. Through the efforts of Corder Catchpool, the British Quaker representative in Berlin, they were introduced to the Friends at La Coume. The farm needed a great deal of hard work to make it habitable, and other refugees joined them in the work.  Two British Quakers, Hilda Clark and Edith Pye were prominent in those days, Hilda Clark (of the Clark’s shoes company in Somerset) purchased the farm outright, and the two of them began sending refugees to convalesce there. Apparently there is still a visitor’s book at La Coume, dating from 1937. It contains the names of many British visitors, including Dennis Healey. By 1939 the farm was full of refugees, and by the outbreak of war many of them were technically enemies of one another. When the British Friends were obliged to leave France, their place was taken by American and Irish Quakers, and the work at La Coume continued. Alice Resch, a Norwegian nurse tells in another book “Over the Highest Mountains” how she came to La Coume, and also how she visited a house in Toulouse, just opposite the Gare Matabiau, which had on its door a shiny brass plaque with the words “Society of Friends, Societe Quaker”. Apparently the Quaker relief work was coordinated from a room in the Archbishop’s Palace in Toulouse.

Other chapters in Rosemary Bailey’s book tell of the work of the passeurs, and of the Resistance generally. The whole book gives a very readable account of life during the war years in our region, and is meticulously researched, including several eye-witness accounts.

I feel that we owe it to the friends of 70 years ago to learn more about their work and witness. I hope soon to visit La Coume and see what more can be learned there, and perhaps also Friends’ House in London to find out what other information they may have.