Tuesday 19 Oct 2021

Ecolint's Jewish Heritage

Not long ago, a fellow-teacher who joined us relatively recently (though from my Palaeozoic perspective, anyone who hasn’t spent at least a decade in Ecolint seems like a newcomer) asked me what truth there was in the story that the school opened its doors on the 17th September 1924 with three teachers, eight students and a rabbi. My colleague was wearing a mask (aren’t we all these days?), so it was hard for me to gauge the earnestness of her question. I nevertheless assumed that she was pulling my leg (the legendary anecdote is, of course, that one of the students came to school with a pet rabbit on that day) and chortled accordingly, but on second thought the question wasn’t as surrealistically comical as one might initially think. Given the facts about Ecolint’s enrolment in the years that followed its fragile 1924 foundation, the symbolic presence of a rabbi would not have been out of place. Similarly, it was not inappropriate that our first director, Paul Meyhoffer (who appears behind the rabbit hutch in our earliest, iconic photograph) had been trained as a pastor before becoming an educator and member of the prestigious Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Ecolint's Jewish Heritage
Ecolint opens its doors in September 1924 with 8 students and one rabbit.

Since its inception, Ecolint has been a secular school, but only in the sense that it does not promote any particular religion, and not because it seeks to exclude religion and spirituality. On the contrary, it has sought to embrace with understanding, respect and affection all bona fide forms of belief (and lack of belief) that are compatible with the school’s moral principles. These principles − most famously encapsulated by Article 4 of our Charter, which affirms the “equal value of all human beings” −  have, in turn, religious and spiritual roots. They are certainly not derived from Biology −  nature, “red in tooth and claw” (as Tennyson famously put it), knows nothing about ethics. 

The distinguished historian Tom Holland, in his most recent work (Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, 2019), traces back to Christianity with a wealth of evidence the revolutionary conviction that every human being has equal value −  a conviction that is central to Ecolint, and underlies every aspect of its educational mission. Christianity, in turn, is rooted in Judaism, which − together with Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Baha’ism and other major and minor religious currents − has over the decades enriched Ecolint’s moral outlook and sensibilities with its own particular wisdom and insights. 

Consciously or unconsciously, this spiritual concord has also given rise to the school’s recent and concise formulation of its mission statement, which sets as Ecolint’s educational goal the collective creation of “a just and joyful tomorrow.” Justice, wrote Sophocles in Antigone (442 BC), emanates from “the unwritten unalterable laws of God and heaven.”1 The human aspiration for Justice is transcendental and universally shared, as is Joy, in its most profound sense − so memorably expressed by Beethoven in the final movement of his 9th Symphony. The poem by Schiller that he set to music sums it all up, from an Ecolint perspective: through Joy, “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (“All people become brothers”). 

Ludwik RajchmanAt the moment of the school’s conception, the above-mentioned Paul Meyhoffer contributed one spiritual strand of Ecolint’s DNA, complementing that of the Polish physician Ludwik Rajchman, another of our founders − a benefactor of mankind (he went on to found UNICEF as well) and one of the most noble, selfless individuals you’ll ever have the pleasure to read about.2 Although Rajchman was not an observant Jew, his Jewishness sufficed for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to hound him out of the League of Nations (where he was the Director of its Health Organization, in which role he laid the foundations of the future World Health Organization) in 1939, and for the French doctor and novelist Céline (whom Rajchman befriended and supported professionally), a brilliant writer but vile anti-Semite, to caricature him viciously as “Yubelblat” in Bagatelles pour un massacre

More high-profile was the Jewish identity of Ecolint’s student number 3 (as attested on the first page of our original, handwritten register), Irène Hersch. She was enrolled in the school from the first day of its existence by her father, Pesach Liebmann Hersch (1882 -1955), Professor of Demography at the University of Geneva, a leading member of the Jewish Labour Bund, and author of Le Juif errant d'aujourd'hui (1913), L’Inégalité devant la mort (1920) and Mon judaïsme (1941). It is significant that someone so intensely aware of the plight of Jews in Europe should have immediately identified the embryonic Ecolint as the ideal school for his 7-year-old daughter. Equally noteworthy is the long-term involvement in Ecolint of Professor Hersch’s elder daughter, Jeanne Hersch (1910-2000). She was a philosopher of great distinction, author of L'illusion philosophique (1936) and Le droit d’être un homme (1968 – translated into English as Birthright of Man), who taught French, Latin and Philosophy at our school for 23 years before becoming one of the first female university professors in Switzerland, when the University of Geneva appointed her in 1956.3

Postage stamp dedicated to Jeanne Hersch
Postage stamp dedicated to Jeanne Hersch in 2010

Ecolint’s credentials as a nascent bastion against all forms of prejudice was further consolidated by the arrival in 1925 of Paul Dupuy, a former doyen of Paris’ prestigious École normale supérieure. This distinguished educator, who returned to the classroom at the age of 70 (and continued to teach with undiminished energy for the next 10 years), had played a prominent role during the 1890s (alongside the likes of Émile Zola) in defending fearlessly the Jewish French army officer Alfred Dreyfus − a victim of contemptible but deep-rooted and widespread anti-Semitism, who had been unjustly convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. A man of unshakable integrity, Dupuy never hesitated in confronting the Establishment when justice, fairness and equality were at stake, and his beneficial influence during Ecolint’s formative years was incalculable. 

Portrait of Paul Dupuy by Milein Cosman
Portrait of Paul Dupuy by Milein Cosman, 1937 

Let’s pause at this point to reconsider this article’s purpose. Given the rich interweaving of national, cultural, religious and ethnic strands that composes the glorious fabric of Ecolint’s distinctiveness, one might reasonably wonder whether there is any point in plucking out a single strand and highlighting it, as I am doing. Ecolint is, as British television (ITN) described it in 2017, “the most diverse school on the planet.” Isn’t it somehow wrongheaded and divisive to draw attention to one particular ingredient in the Ecolintian melting pot? 

Well, to begin with, Ecolint is not intended to be a melting pot. It has never been an aspiration of our school to ignore or blend away all the specific characteristics of its constituent members − we are the International, not the Non-National, School of Geneva. Furthermore, while it might be otiose to segregate, other than for purely statistical purposes, our alumni or staff into categories based on nationality, language, religion or other affiliations, it is intrinsically interesting and arguably meaningful to trace the influential presence in our community of a minority −  a tiny minority, 15 million, about 0.2% of the world’s population  − who have generally been discriminated against or actively persecuted since their diaspora, which can be traced back to the 6th Century BC. It ennobles Ecolint to provide a secure and welcoming home to persecuted minorities, and we cannot but be proud if these minorities flourish in our midst. And, as our records show, a remarkably large proportion of Jewish parents in Europe and elsewhere in the world entrusted to Ecolint their children, who did indeed prosper within the idealistic framework of an “education for peace.” 

I have in mind here the concept of Jewish identity in a broad sense. It would take some chutzpah on the part of Ecolint’s Archivist to attempt a definition of what constitutes “Jewish identity” − this is a matter that is best left in the hands of Jews themselves − but it would be reasonable to point out that, in addition to the obvious religious facet of Judaism, there is also a major cultural dimension, and arguably also an ethnic one (as exemplified by the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim). Suffice it to say that a Jewish identity exists, and that, over the decades, thousands of individuals who in one way or another identified with Judaism elected to join the Ecolint community. 

From the outset in 1924, and for several successive decades, the full personal details of each new Ecolint student were carefully inscribed by hand in large, hardcover, rectangular registers − something of a 19th Century relic that survived until the sheer number of enrolments in the mid-1960s surpassed its capacity. One of the columns in the register was intended to specify the student’s religion. Usually it was filled in, though here and there are intervals of a few months when it is left blank for no identifiable reason, other than a change in handwriting (the varying idiosyncrasies of the latter is one of the register’s charms), indicating that a different member of staff took on the registration role for a period.4

A page from Ecolint's registers, 1940s
A page from Ecolint's registers, 1940s

Each page of the register unvaryingly lists a total of eight names. Remarkably, few pages − year after year, decade after decade − do not include at least one student whose parents had not classified him or her as “juif” or “israélite” (often there are several per page), and, even during the intervals when religions were not recorded, the family names tell a story of their own. What is particularly poignant, and worthy of historical interest, is how many Jewish families sent their children to Ecolint, from all over Europe and further afield, during the sinister build-up of the most abominable episode of anti-Semitic hatred that the world has ever known, throughout the 1930s. In those dark days, with the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust lurking just out of sight, Jewish children from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Latvia, Russia (this list is not exhaustive) were entrusted to an educational environment that their parents saw as sane, secure, fair, just, unprejudiced and egalitarian. Even in the early 1940s, when Switzerland was totally surrounded by the Axis powers, a constant trickle of them still managed to make their way to the perceived safety of Ecolint. 

It might easily not have proved safe. Geneva was indefensible, and Swiss resistance to a Nazi invasion would have begun in earnest 25 kilometres away, at the concrete “Toblerone” anti-tank fortifications running between the Jura and the Lac Léman, with the intention of gaining time to withdraw into the impregnable Réduit national (National Redoubt) in the Alps. Acutely aware of the risk, in 1940 Ecolint’s legendary director Marie-Thérèse Maurette organized and courageously led the evacuation of a group of students who were particularly vulnerable (including some Jewish boarders), via her house in south-west France, to Bordeaux and to safety, in the form of a ship heading for England − even as the Nazis were advancing into that city. 

However, what is most striking about Ecolint’s Jewish students is not how many had to flee, but how many came, stayed and flourished, regardless of the Nazi tidal wave that threatened to engulf Switzerland.5 Young people representing an astonishing diversity of national, cultural and religious origins have enriched Ecolint over the decades (have a look at this recent video to get a taste of it), but it would be perverse not to highlight the extraordinary contribution to the school of this particular minority. 

Consider Edward Tenenbaum, the son of Polish Jews who emigrated to the United States, settled in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and sent their son to Ecolint in 1937. Already in 1938 Edward displayed outstanding writing skills and humane sensibilities with his two-part “Monologue in Unison,” published in Ecolint (the school’s flagship magazine at the time), which won him the First Prize for fiction. Subsequently, he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in 1942, where his B.A. thesis on “National Socialism vs. International Capitalism” was deemed the best of the class of 1942 and immediately published as a Yale University Press book. Tenenbaum served as First Lieutenant and intelligence officer in the U.S.’s Twelfth Army Group during World War II. In this role, he was the first non-captive Allied soldier to enter Buchenwald concentration camp on 11th April, 1945. Most remarkable of all, as an economist Tenenbaum played a crucial part in fostering West Germany’s post-war economic recovery by masterminding the creation of the Deutschmark – an extraordinarily unresentful and generous undertaking vis-à-vis a country he had every reason to dislike. (Indeed, his father, Joseph Tenenbaum, a physician and Jewish Federation official, had been one of the organizers of an early boycott against Nazi Germany in the United States.) 

Edward Tenanbaum at Ecolint in 1937-1938
Edward Tenanbaum at Ecolint in 1937-1938

Tenenbaum overlapped in Ecolint with two other Jewish students destined to shine later in life, both German: the budding artist Milein Cosman, who sketched his likeness (which we have preserved in the school’s Archives) and went on to become one of the most famous 20th Century portraitists of the United Kingdom;6 and the future novelist and poet Ilse Barker (née Gross), who eventually achieved high-profile literary recognition, also in the English-speaking world, under the pen name Kathrine Talbot.7 

Maya DerenA few years before Tenenbaum, Cosman and Gross, the school had hosted Eleonora Derenkowska, now celebrated in cinematographic history as Maya Deren, the film director and actress. In 1922, her family had escaped anti-Semitic pogroms perpetrated by the counter-revolutionary White Army in the USSR, and settled in the State of New York, where her father worked as a psychiatrist. In 1930 her parents singled out Ecolint as a desirable school and sent her to La Grande Boissière as a boarder for three years. Bearing in mind the family’s traumatic experiences in Europe, this was an extraordinary act of faith in a remote, idealistic school that was barely six years old. Eleonora did not take long to stand out, publishing a poem and an essay (a remarkably mature and balanced assessment of unfolding developments in her country of origin) in successive issues of one of Ecolint’s earliest magazines, Philia (a beautiful and apt title for an Ecolint publication). She also wrote a stirring, deeply-felt haiku in honour of Mahatma Gandhi, whom she had just met, together with other Ecolint students, in Geneva’s Victoria Hall.8

Touchingly, the confidence of Jewish parents in Ecolint after the horrendous World War II years never wavered, and throughout the following decades a comparatively large number of their children continued to be enrolled in our school. There is no evidence of which I am aware that there was ever an articulated, explicit identification of Ecolint as a “Jewish-friendly” school, but our reputation as a safe haven of egalitarian education for young people of all creeds, nationalities, ethnicities and cultures continued to elicit trust among all communities who happened to live in the Lac Léman area or even (when our boarding school still existed) in distant lands, and who aspired that their children should be educated in a truly humane, enlightened milieu, free from class consciousness and snobbery.  

Consider as an example Holocaust survivor Imre Rochlitz, author of Accident of Fate (WLU Press, 2011) – one of the most compelling non-fiction accounts of its kind ever written, about an eight-year escape from, and resistance against, the Nazis and the Ustashe (Croatian Fascists). For Rochlitz, as for so many others who had seen at first hand the abominations of World War II, Ecolint was the obvious school in which to enrol his children – all four of them. For Jews whose families had providentially eluded the Shoah by emigrating earlier from Europe to the United States, such as Robert Hofstadter, the Nobel Prize-winner in Physics, Ecolint was also an obvious choice – which is why his son Douglas (a recipient in 1979 of the Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant study of consciousness, Gödel, Escher, Bach, which became an instant classic) is now one of our most illustrious (and unfailingly loyal) alumni. The same can be said for the distinguished film director Jules Dassin, similarly descended from Jewish immigrants to the United States; his son Joe, an Ecolint boarder in the 1950s, eventually became an iconic, immensely popular singer in the French-speaking world, overshadowing his father’s fame among the general public. And while on the subject of pop music, how could one overlook another alluring singer with Jewish roots, Lori Lieberman, author of the haunting “Killing Me Softly,” who attended Ecolint for eight years in the 1960s?

Joe Dassin's portrait in the yearbook
Joe Dassin's portrait in the yearbook

Within the context of this overview, it would be strange not to mention at least some influential members of Switzerland’s Jewish community whose education was also entrusted to Ecolint, such as the scion of the famous banking family, Edmond de Rothschild (in the 1940s), or Michel Halperin (in the 1960s), who edited the intelligently cheeky student magazine Ecolint Libérée, and became not only a lawyer of great distinction but also the president of Geneva’s legislature, the Grand Conseil. Neither would it make any sense to overlook the acclaimed American writer Nicole Krauss, whose parents – though living in Basel at the time (1987) – decided that Ecolint was the right school for their children. Krauss is a clear case of someone who is not incidentally Jewish – much of her work (already translated into 37 languages, despite her relatively young age), such as the 2017 novel Forest Dark, is intensely and richly concerned with the Jewish condition and perspective.

At this point an obvious risk for an article such as this might be apparent to the reader: that it should deteriorate into a list of noteworthy individuals selected according to their faith, or faith-related identity, as if one were homogenizing them, or exalting them for reasons unrelated to their personal merit. Nothing could be more alien to the Ecolintian spirit, which is concerned with individual human beings, not with labels. Another danger would be to convey the sense that the subject is being dealt with exhaustively, whereas the full story of what I have called “Ecolint’s Jewish Heritage” doubtless merits a book-length study researched and penned by a professional historian.

It would also be wrong to give the impression that historically Ecolint has singled out and cultivated some particular communities, minorities or identities, thereby establishing a privileged rapport with them. The essence of Ecolint is far better captured by the famous aphorism of the Roman playwright Terence (who was once a slave): “Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“I am human: therefore, nothing human can be alien to me”). Everyone’s perspective and concerns matter. The school was created to provide an environment in which, without dilution or homogenization, every student can feel at home: secure, respected and loved as a unique individual, rather than as a member of a particular category of human being.

Nevertheless, Ecolint inescapably exists in a specific geographic and historic setting, to which it must respond educationally, in the light of unfolding events and in accordance with its fundamental principles. Everyone everywhere matters equally to the world’s first international school, but the surge of murderous anti-Semitic insanity that swept through Europe in the 1930s and 40s stopped barely a few kilometres short of Ecolint’s doorstep, and could have spilled over into Switzerland at any moment. Immediate proximity to this horror generated antibodies, and it was therefore natural that The Diary of Anne Frank should have been required reading for me in Year 8 (like for so many other Ecolint students before and since), and that (also in 1968) the school should have staged a production of the play based on her diary in the presence of Otto Frank, Anne’s father. Equally organic to Ecolint is the yearly visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau for Year 12 and 13 students – a day-trip that takes place in the chilly depths of November, with a pre-dawn departure and single and sombre but salutary purpose. 
I can only hope that this topic’s intrinsic interest is clear to the reader: how a particular “identity” (for want of a better word) that constitutes an infinitesimal minority of the world’s population, and has moreover been victimized by centuries of discrimination and persecution, has intersected felicitously with the International School of Geneva since the latter’s birth, resulting in fruitful cross-fertilization from which everybody – not least Ecolint’s non-Jewish majority – has benefited. 

Needless to say, there are multiple other minorities that have distinguished themselves and contributed much to Ecolint’s values, character, traditions and flavour. Their stories also need to be told. It would equally be a mistake to disregard the more obvious “majority” religious, national and cultural currents that have flowed into Ecolint from the outset, setting it on its noble course as one of the world’s greatest educational institutions (and doubtless its most diverse). But let’s do one thing at a time. 

Alejandro H. Rodríguez-Giovo
Foundation Archivist

Milein Cosman (second from right) and her friends at Ecolint, 1938
Milein Cosman (second from right) and her friends at Ecolint, 1938

1Sophocles, The Theban Plays (translated by E. F. Watling), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1947
2See “The Noblest Ecolintian of Them All,” Echo, Autumn 2015, page 19
3There is no evidence, however, that the religious background or convictions of Hersch or of any other teacher over the decades have ever been an issue in Ecolint. The religions of faculty members have typically not been recorded, specified or referred to; nor have they influenced intentionally the content or teaching of any courses, or the conception of our curricula. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the brilliant but eccentric Ecolint educator Robert J. Leach (who more than anyone else can be credited with the conception of the International Baccalaureate), from arguing otherwise in his unofficial history of the school, self-published in 1974 to mark our 50th anniversary. Leach – himself a convert to Quakerism – had a bee in his bonnet about other people’s religions, and in his historical account he listed the faiths (as he perceived them) of influential colleagues, implying that their presumed spiritual allegiances gave rise to dubious biases (without pointing out that, even by his reckoning, there was a healthy variety of them!). It is perhaps understandable that the Director General at the time, René-François Lejeune, declined to publish officially Leach’s idiosyncratic chronicle (though he was authorized to print it and distribute it as he pleased). Nevertheless, given the topic of this article, it is worth quoting Leach’s description of Ecolint’s first Director General (the post was created in 1967), Professor Irving Berenson, as “a practicing Jew.” Tragically, Berenson died suddenly less than six months after taking up the role, though in that short time his impeccable bilingualism and cultural versatility (he was a US citizen, graduate of Columbia University, former professor at the University of Rennes, recipient of the Palmes académiques award and former high-ranking UN official) made a highly positive impression in the school.
4Ecolint no longer records a student’s religion upon enrolment. When I was enrolled in 1963 it still did, and to my astonishment I discovered not long ago in that year’s register that I was a “Humanist” – which my agnostic father doubtless specified without consulting my Roman Catholic mother.
5In 2019, Ian Hill (former Deputy Director General of the International Baccalaureate Organization) and I conducted a filmed interview with Ecolint alumna Dora Gautier, who is now in her late 90s. Mme Gautier studied in Ecolint during the 1930s and later worked in the school as a nurse during World War II. Among other reminiscences, she testified that Ecolint was fiercely loyal and supportive towards its Jewish boarders throughout the War, many of whom were totally cut off from their families, who could obviously not be charged any fees or boarding costs. Mme Gautier’s father, a pastor, also worked intensively through his church’s network to shelter and support Jewish and other refugees.
6See “Cosman and Tenenbaum, Paragons of Art and Economics,” Echo, Summer 2020, page 19
7See article “Some Facts About Ecolint’s Fiction”
8See “A Legendary Alumna”, Echo, Autumn 2019, page 19

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