Denis Healey in the Pyrenees
Denis Healey recalls a Quaker retreat, climbing Canigou and the “bottled sunshine of the Pyrenees.”
I talked to Denis Healey a few years ago, in the course of researching Love and War in the Pyrenees, about his visits to the Pyrenees, cycling across Europe in the pre-war 1930s. He stayed at La Coume, a small farm above the village of Mosset in the foothills of the Eastern Pyrenees, acquired by the Quakers in 1933 as part of a scheme by the Friends Committee for Refugees and Aliens to resettle young German refugees on land in France.
La Coume was almost derelict and unoccupied and available at a modest rent, partly because it was difficult to irrigate with only a small stream running through it. It was surrounded by forest, at 800m altitude, with only a few acres truly suitable for cultivation. Here German teachers, Piet and Yves Kruger, their young daughter and several others found refuge. They were among the many thousands of anti-Nazi Germans who fled to France at that time, believing they would be safe from fascism.
“We had no idea of our future,” Kruger recalled in an interview not long before he died, “but I thought, here at least we have wood to keep warm, we can grow potatoes, kill rabbits to eat, we are far from Nazi Germany and we have the Pyrenees behind us.” Still, he stressed, “I had no desire to retire from the world.” Already he had the idea of a community of like-minded people, devoted to peace and cooperation. They had very little money, just a small grant from the Quakers, and overnight had to turn themselves from teachers into peasants, farmers and woodcutters.
Piet observed, “ Until the Nazis occupied France in 1942, I think the villagers of Mosset believed all Germans were nice people, and that like me, they all wore glasses!”
Nature, fresh air and hiking were then all the rage, and Kruger had been involved with the Wandervogel in Germany, a romantic back to nature movement, attractive to both sides of the political spectrum ( later hijacked by the Hitler Youth.) In 1936 La Coume had become one of the first youth hostels in France, appealing to a pre-war generation reacting against the bourgeois restrictions of society.
I sent some time at La Coume researching my book, Love and War in the Pyrenees, rummaging through a large armoire full of yellowing newspapers and tattered school books, for any remaining material from that period. Among the accounts books listing purchases of cabbage, books, sugar, bread, wine, stamps, eggs, potatoes, the repair of a lamp and the cost of a telegram, was the first visitors’ book from 1937. I leafed through the notebook with its marbled cover and faded brown pages inscribed in ink. I looked with curiosity at the names, Patience Scott, Winifred Smith, Patricia Walker. They came from Oxford colleges, from Yorkshire, from the Welsh valleys. There were German names, Polish, Jewish, Swedes and Dutch. They arrived on foot, by bicycle, and by car. It was already an international community.
On the first page was the name of Denis Healey, the bushy-eyebrowed English Labour politician and peer, sometimes described as, “the best prime minister Britain never had.” He visited La Coume twice in the thirties, (24 June to 5 July 1937, Balliol, he had inscribed, when he arrived.)
In his autobiography, The Time of My Life, Healey writes with enormous respect for Kruger and his work, creating picture of a lost pre-war world of hope and idealism. Of the Krugers he wrote, “they represented all that was best in the Germany of the Weimar Republic.”
In response to a letter Lord Healey agreed to talk to me on the telephone of his memories, “La Coume certainly made a deep impression on me,” he said in his distinctive gruff voice, “I had gone there on my first trip to France via a Quaker friend – I will never forget the time I spent with them, gathering crops, tiling the roof, improving that dangerous track up from the road.” He recalled climbing trees to pick the cherries – “bottled sunshine Piet used to call them.”
“They grew their own food, and got water from the stream, there was no electricity then of course.” But they enjoyed good simple food, fruit, local wine, sweet wine from Banyuls, “ We would talk for hours far into the night, on everything from Bach to psychoanalysis.”
Healey and his friend stayed in a hut a 100 yards from the farmhouse. He writes of those clear Pyrenean nights, “a brilliant incandescent moon lit the valley, its contours broken by the black trees which rose above it as we advanced, while the snow-capped peaks of the Canigou glistened on the horizon, emerging above a wreath of cloud.” He spent two days climbing Canigou alone, sleeping out in the forest below the summit. The next year he returned with his girlfriend to spend another week with the Krugers. But by 1938 the world was changing fast. It was to be a long time before Healey returned to La Coume.
World events eclipsed the nascent Youth Hostel movement and by 1939 La Coume was full of refugees, providing sanctuary for Spanish children who had fled across the frontier from Franco’s forces. Throughout the war it was a sanctuary for many refugees, mainly children and many Jewish. At La Coume the night war was declared, there was a rainbow of different nationalities taking refuge there; Russians, Germans, French, English, Italians, Belgians and Spanish. Suddenly many of them were technically enemies. They sat silently together and listened to Beethoven’s Ninth symphony on a wind-up gramophone. No-one knew what would befall them all.