Servas History by Bob Luitweiler, founder of Servas  (owl@steadi.org)  

 

In the beginning......


What could  be better than starting at the beginning of Servas that too few of you know about? There was an old lady who had no children so she reached out and built a family of 5,000 US Servas hosts. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi she chose to live on bare essentials in a bungalow on the hills of Berkeley, California.  Imagine my surprise after climbing the steep hill covered with modern picture windowed homes and manicured gardens seeing at a turn in the road a smiling slightly stooping elderly woman in a shapeless dress standing in a wild field next to a milk goat with a vegetable garden behind her. Had someone picked up a picturesque piece of old time rural America and squeezed it into a modern, up beat California suburb? Or perhaps the modern architecture that had blanketed San Francisco Bay had forgotten to wipe out the much older vine covered bungalow. 
 
Grandma Esther


Welcoming me inside I found just as amazing an ambiance. Walls were covered in burlap with pictures pinned over the holes. The fire in the rustic hearth radiated her warm spirit. When darkness fell, an oil lantern was lit. She had no electricity —— no cooking gas either. The antiques of the utility companies she couldn’t tolerate. But her warm personality radiated so brightly it filled the antique dwelling more vibrantly than any modern decor could. She called herself “grandma” to her wide assortment of guests, of every race, but I took this more seriously any of the others and for the rest of her life she became my closest family member. No matter where I traveled in Europe, the Near East, then India and parts of North Africa, at every mail pickup, there was a long letter from her, laboriously hand written in an arthritic hand. No, in the beginning they were written on a typewriter that should have been in a museum. Then her fingers became so stiff she couldn’t hit the right key. Over the years, as her joints stiffened more, she wrote larger with a wider pen. The empathetic letters reached into my psyche for she could read my inner thoughts and sympathetically respond to them as an affectionate mother can to her baby. 

A Magic Connection


How, you may wonder, could a 29 year old, seeker of education on the road, connect with someone who lived out of sight in the Berkeley Hills. For months before leaving the US, to extend my non-academic education, I kept a loose leaf note book that listed geographically every news item  and contact that harmonized with my focus. Esther Harlan had an article on Gandhi in a little news letter on Danish folk high schools in America. Here were two of my favorite subjects combined, both, to me, central to peacebuilding.

Peacebuilding is more...


You see Peacebuilding, to me, includes much more than non violence and anti-war propaganda. Every project, every person, every small effort that helps to create a just and environmentally sustainable world where every person could live a healthy and gentle life is PEACEBUILDING. Whether one calls him/herself a peacemaker or not is unimportant. What is significant is their efforts to overcome the injustices, the ethnic discrimination, the selfishness that leads to anger, violence and war. Both the Danish folk school movement and the Gandhian movement are practical examples of such peace building. Imagine my joy, therefore, in sharing tea in the humble dwelling of someone who expressed all those qualities I was coming to feel were central to building a society free of the seeds of war.    

Servas Started in Scandinavia


As my first foreign lesson in sociology in life I went to Denmark to experience first hand their extraordinary adult education known as the folk high school movement. I had gained basic oral Danish with phonograph recordings before sailing from the USA. While waiting for Askov’s winter course to open, I hitch hiked around Scandinavia visiting various social movement courses and centers. At a volunteer work camp for peace, near Stockholm, a German camper came up to me and said, rather firmly in very good English, “The German youth have been cut off from the outside world first by the Nazi regime, then by the war. Now because of the control of the occupying powers we are not allowed to take more than $5.00 outside of the country. How are the German youth going to learn the meaning of freedom and democratic systems if they can not travel abroad?”

A young German girl inspired the open door net


Her very accurate observation hit me between the eyes. Being a social actionist, I considered how I might do something about it. Meeting an American who had spent a summer with a rich Swedish family, through an American international youth program, and hearing the very biased view he had gained about that country also pushed me into trying to do something. I figured, if a few broad minded families in various countries would welcome German youth, for only a couple of nights hospitality, it could offer a kind of network that would allow them to hitch hike through other countries and get to meet and talk with people who would give them other insights. This would stretch their $5.00 many times farther.

A wild dreamer


Looking back on it I am amazed how audacious my plan was. Imagine a foreigner going from country to country and asking in each capital for the names of people who might form a committee to collect addresses of possible hosts who would welcome complete strangers into their homes -- not just strangers but former military occupying soldiers. The Danes at Askov, who got to know me well enough to be quite frank, called me a “wild dreamer”. I even got reported, by a man who gave me a lift, as a suspected spy.

Pacifists gave us our foundation


What my Danish acquaintances did not realize was that I had an almost magic connection. I knew the peace action and pacifist movements of Europe. I  knew these people were more determined than ever, after just coming out of a bloody and vicious war, to do practical things to avoid another. Their organizations were strenuously opposed to condemning people, because of  their nationality, at a time when nationalism was rampant. They welcomed the opportunity to do something practical that might break down hostility between countries. in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, I visited the national offices of each of these organizations. in each country, I must have explained a hundred times my plan of setting up a committee that would gather and print a list of hosts who would accept foreign visitors. They would be mostly young people who had been screened by their home countries Servas' representative. The organizations where I got my contacts were the branches of the War Resister’s International, a non religious pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Christian pacifist organization, the branches of the International Voluntary Service for peace (SCI), an international association of work camps for peacebuilding and finally the Quakers. I was well received in every office, but finding volunteers who would do the secretarial work did not come so easy. I had to go back to most countries several times before finding someone who would take the organizational responsibility. Soon my knapsack had a file of letters as heavy as my clothes and sleeping bag and even included a light portable typewriter. 

The Low Countries joined


After leaving Scandinavia, using the branches of the same international peace groups, I started a group in the Netherlands and one in Belgium. .

We are Peacebuilders but have never been exclusively pacifist


Our hospitality network was never intended to be a primarily pacifist system, but to be honest with ourselves, Servas would never have started if it had not been for those dedicated peace minded pioneers. They were a wonderful group of caring, trusting and open minded persons. They gave their time and took the cost of postage and office supplies out of their own pockets. No one ever mentioned the idea of begging for money to cover expenses or setting membership fees. No one ever even suggested establishing officers. In fact we carefully steered away from establishing any kind of formal organiza-tion. Instead of calling myself International President, as too often happens with pioneers of a new organization, I strongly opposed even the hint of a possible personality cult. I even invented a myth of Servas starting from a group of Askov students. Excuse the dishonesty. There were no Askov students involved but myself. It wasn’t until 30 years later when there were so many wild stories about the origin of Servas and arguments about whether it was a pacifist organization that I felt it was important to clarify our origins. Servas has never been a pacifist organization. I believe pacifism, which is primarily objecting to war, is a quite different approach from Gandhian peace building. They should not be confused with each other. Gandhian peacebuilding is not primarily objecting -- but reconstructing.


Germany starts open door program

Volunteer work camps for peace


After a year in Scandinavia I went on to Germany.  It was then a country occupied  by the four allies. Just to get in I had to sign up for a volunteer work camp that was run by the American Quakers, (AFSC), and the German work camp organization (IZD). That was a great experience in many ways. The work camp movement was started by Pierre Ceresol in Switzerland after the First World War. His aim was to create an alternative service program for young men who were conscripted to military duty. This movement has since spread to many parts of the world and now includes young and old men and women. Most work camps are beautifully ethnically diverse. Camps are usually organized to give some kind of community service in a needy area and may last from a weekend to over a year. Our summer camp painted the rooms of a dreary military barracks that was crowded with displaced families. They were downhearted people who had lost their homes when their land was allotted to Poland at the end of the war. 


Enthusiastic youth


Most volunteers of college age from several countries paid their own way. The refugees, whose rooms we painted asked “Why do you come from Finland, Holland and the USA to do this instead of hiring us, who are without work?”

“But we are not paid, we volunteered mostly to encourage you.” Before the summer was over the refugees were working as hard as the international volunteers. All of us together, made one team. The experience that pulled us out of our comfortable, perhaps complacent, home backgrounds was eye-opening for all of us.
 
Converting Danish to German


After the work camp came my hitch hiker’s education. In camp everyone spoke some English but the drivers who picked me up spoke only German.  They were all so eager to talk they patiently listened to my mixed language. As I intently listened to their stories of the war I discovered most of the German words were very similar to Danish so I gradually twisted my Danish into German.  Within a few weeks I was stumbling through a rough Dano-German.  It must have been a pretty good bluff because a woman said, “Where are you from?  I thought I knew all the dialects in Germany but I never heard that one before.” 
 
Understanding occupied Germany


One could not have found a more sincere, heart felt political science course than what those drivers gave me.  They ranged from Socialist to Communist to Anarchist to Nazism. None, that I can remember, argued pro Western democracy. Under the occupation authorities they were not experiencing what it meant to live under a democratically elected government. One story I particularly appreciated was told by a former concentration camp prisoner.  He had helped a friend of his escape and was questioned by an SS officer. His defense was, “If you were in prison wouldn’t you say the caring thing to do would be to help a buddy to escape?”  Instead of punishing him the SS officer had him moved to a lighter prison.  Another driver told me how he had collected various parts from junked cars and built his own because he never could have afforded to buy one.
 
Devastation of modern war
From the work camp I hitch hiked to the Hertling home in the suburbs of Hamburg, where the family of the girl who had inspired Servas lived. My greatest shock came when I reached the center of Hamburg.  The only serious war damage I had seen before, in my year in Europe, was the skeleton of the famous English cathedral of Southampton,  a gaunt ghost in the distance.   Because the seaport was so destroyed our ship couldn’t get close and I didn’t disembark before Oslo, Norway.  Seeing Hamburg, a modern city, laid as flat as if it were struck by many tornadoes, with people living in bomb shelters and under rubble was an unforgettable experience.
 
Helmut Hertling and German Open Doors
I next visited the home of Gertraud  the young woman work camper that I had met in  Sweden, who had challenged me with the dilemma faced by the "penned in " German youth. She was not at home but her family gave me a warm welcome.  Helmud, her farther, was a remarkable world minded, peace dedicated educator who was working with  a number of activist young people.  I had not planned to start an open door hospitality system in devastated Germany, a country loaded with homeless people, but Helmud quickly convinced me it was possible.  Claus Weiss, his two sons and another college age young man became the first committee of our German program.
 
Gift of the Socialist mayor of Hamburg


A gymnasium was our dormitory and eating place at the work camp.  When I saw the  typewriter in the caretaker's apartment I asked to borrow it to type up the first Servas information pamphlet.  He replied, “I think the party will not mind.”

“What party is that?” I asked.
“Oh it belongs to the Communist Party.”

A German-American acquaintance had given me a letter of introduction to the mayor of Hamburg who had been a friend of his so I marched into the city hall to ask him where to get our first leaflet printed.  A receptionist told me to wait because he was busy. For an hour and a half I waited wondering what was happening since no explanation was offered. Suddenly a stack of my leaflets were brought to me all duplicated by the kindness of the city of Hamburg.
 That topped off the outgoing kindness of the occupied Germans.  Members of every political party had reached out to make our newly forming  Open Door program take off and I was on my way, thumbing rides  to the Netherlands, Belgium and England.

 

On to England 


The Netherlands was the next, after Germany. The attempted conversation on the phone with the wife of the national secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation was an amusing challenge. When she barely understood English, German or French I tried to ask her which of them she understood best.  “Nederlanse” was the answer. But I was welcomed and the Dutch peace people were great fun.   All the others understood my clumsy language efforts who did not speak good English.  They readily agreed to set up a committee to start the hospitality program there.  The Belgians were also welcoming.

 
Vanishing Passport
But when I reached the border with France to catch the Channel Ferry to England I could not find my passport anywhere even though I dug to the bottom of my knapsack.

After watching my furious and frustrated search for some time the French custom’s officer said, “You better go on or you’ll miss the boat”. A different identity card got me on to the boat but at Dover it was quite a different matter. Before leaving the US I had gotten seaman’s papers hoping to be able to work a ship’s passage as a temporary deck hand. Showing that was not enough for the British immigration officer. “Go in that room,” he commanded and there I waited for a half hour, wondering what would happen to me, while he checked all the other debarking passengers. 


A Communist Spy? 


Looking through my pack he found papers titled Peacebuilders*  In those days peace was a favorite slogan of the Communist Parties around the world.  The name shot up a red flag in his mind.  First he felt all the way through my thin jacket for a hidden paper list of secret addresses sewn in the lining.  When I told him I had been studying adult education in Denmark he sent someone to a seaman’s bookstore in the next block to buy a book in Danish but the messenger only found one in Norwegian.  Easily translating the passege he pointed out got one toe in the door.  Then we sat at his desk for over half an hour while I answered his questions on the purpose of Peacebuilders*. I took the opportunity to explain the philosophy of Gandhian community development which , for me, was the fundamental inspiration for Servas.  When  we finished he stood up, shook my hand and said, “That was very interesting.  I’ll give you a six months pass to stay in England but you must report to the Home Office every month and leave as soon as you get a replacement passport.”

*We had not agreed to call our program Servas then. 


Rough US State Department 
The US embassy officials were many time worse than the English.  There were no questions about the purpose of my trip or what Peacebuilder’s meant.  When I told them I was planning to go to Israel and acknowledged I had an Israeli visa in my lost passport they saw two good possible reasons why I could have wanted to sell it. In those days a passport with an Israeli visa would stop anyone from going through an Arab country, several of which I would pass through to get to Israel. Later I also learned that US passports were almost gold to the black marketers who would pay more than the cost of my trip to India for one.  I’m still not sure how it vanished in Belgium. It could have fallen out of my torn jacket pocket or someone could have pick-pocketed it. As it turned out the disappearance was a stroke of good fortune.

In London I visited all the peace organization offices.  When they heard about the hospitality plan several sent me to Birmingham with the names of key people. It was those people who put roots under European Servas. Working with them for several months was one of the high spots of my life. From them I discovered the great fulfillment of being in a warm, closely knit working community.