This is the place where the Servas program was born in 1949.
At Askov and in other folk high schools which I visited, and even children's schools in the same tradition, sometimes cramped in children's seats, listening in a strange tongue I discovered a new meaning of education. Experiencing the teaching with what they call "the living word" and understanding the philosophy of this unique program changed some of my fundamental perceptions. It was a life changing experience to be a part of this remarkable movement. Its purpose was not to fill students with facts or train them in skills but to change them from passive observers into active community builders. As a result they turned their society into one of the most enlightened in the world.
It was a painful struggle trying to follow the lectures with my inadequate Danish but the students all embraced me as one of them. I could not have felt more at home. I watched the awakening of the farm youth who had come there not to get a degree, to prepare themselves for a better paying job or to get any other practical advancement. Unlike most youthful students I had known in the US they were there solely to get a broader understanding of life, of society, of literature and history.
The teachers were all inspired storytellers who brought past ages and great authors to life. History was an adventure into the past. Special consideration was paid to the people and social conditions of the time and place of the story. Listening made one feel the narrator had just come from the streets of Paris during the French Revolution or had a first hand experience in another world shaking historic event.
Then another gifted story teller introduced us to a writer with such feeling and insight we were sure he was a personal friend. The community in which the author lived, his or her concerns and disappointments and the conditions of the society at the time were all illustrated by passages from the literature. I could well understand how this kind of education motivated the students to want to know good writers and to make learning a vital part of the rest of their lives.
As I sat among them in the classes I began to understand how this very special educational
movement had lifted farmers out of their fields and barns into, first the urgent issues of their country, and then into becoming enlightened citizens of the world. Soon the awakened farmers became the leaders in the country's very democratic government. Then the cooperative movement that sprung from this education, in only a short time, became central to the life of the country. Since the primary exports were agricultural products and these were handled by the dirt farmer's cooperatives the folk high school "graduates" turned their country into an exceptional economic democracy. Actually no one graduated from these schools. Their time in school was viewed as an introduction to a long life
The spirit of growing and sharing permeated the life. Athletics were not competitive-- tumbling for the men and rhythmic exercises for the women. We learned folk dancing and enjoyed music appreciation and no class started without a group song.
The Danish folk high school movement is an outstanding example of a peace building program. It generated a people centered community that had more concern for quality of life and compassion for others in need than for gaining power and wealth. There was a strong desire among many Danes to find alternatives to violent conflict on all levels of society, local, national and international..
When Iceland, which was a dependent colony, wanted independence the Danes just said "yes".
When missionaries and merchants threatened the culture of Greenland's Eskimos they were prohibited from going there while all others were welcomed. One of the main tasks of the Danish underground had been to spirit Jews from Germany to the safety of Sweden. During the boycott of South African apartheid products Denmark was one of the few countries where South African oranges could not be found.
It is not surprising that when we started Servas this ideal of peace building became central to our purpose and so many Danes wanted to be hosts we could not accept them all.
Seeds of Servas a review by Eve Hale
1999 marks the 50'h anniversary of our beloved Organisation and our venerable founding father, who in November '98 celebrated his 80 th birthday, is now hard at work marking the Servas anniversary with a small book about its very beginnings.
He clearly paints a picture of the varying conditions in parts of Europe just after WWII. Whilst, as he states, Sweden " the clean modem town, the cosy villages, the picturesque countryside with hardly a car on the road, were a cyclists paradise", elsewhere in war-tom Europe people were trying to get their lives toge ther again and even a typewriter was "something rare in fleeced Germany."
After describing the reason for his jour ney to begin with, he goes on to explain how his original purpose changed somewhat after discovering the gulf of separation that had developed between the two sides and especially the isolation felt by young people. As one young acquaintance put it. "Now can our German youth, while closed into one country, learn the meaning of democratic ways when they can never see it?'; This, caused him to try and think of ways to bring formerly opposing peoples together and find ways of understanding each other.
His Danish friends couldn't help but think of him as a "fantast" wild dreamer but this did not deter him and he continued to pursue his ideals as given him by his "Quaker mentors - a view into the soul of mankind."
He is, however, the first to admit that had it not been for the dedication and hard work of a number of people involved in reconciliation organizations, workcamps for peace and other 'institutions , his dream might never have materialised. He gained much experience in various European countries by meeting and working with the leaders of these and anti-war groups and goes on to tell of the first countries to form Peace Builders (as Servas was first called).
Also important were 'chance' meetings whilst travelling, like the one with the misinformed young American who "told me at great length how terrible the Socialist Swedish government was in his strongest reactionary terms," when in fact, "at that time there was almost no country in Europe which cared more for the working people." Or even more so the Communist who "told how he won the sympathy of his SS officer while a prisoner in a concentration camp", thus causing Bob to remark that "Servas was helped, knowingly and unknowingly, not only by dedicated pacifists but also Communists, Socialists, an Anarchist and Nazis" - people of widely differing outlooks.
'Some important contributors , like "Gertraud Hertling, a German student in a volunteer workcamp for peace near Stockholm, who sowed the first seed of Servas", together with her father, "a dedicated teacher and fellow idealist who had started youth groups" and "was determined to make Servas work in Germany despite lack of housing ......... etc - as well as Esther Hartland in the US who though in her late seventies and living on a small pension "squeezed her small income so as to cover the cost of stamps and stationery" for the many letters she typed, wrote and posted for the "open doors" as she liked to think of Servas ; all these and others are fondly recalled with details of their outstanding achievements in helping to make Servas a reality.
Though it seems somewhat amusing in retrospect, his arrival in England after having lost his passport, was anything but pleasant, largely due to the unfriendly treatment by British officials who couldn't understand his motives and tended to view him as a possible Communist spy. Even his own country's officials were very suspicious and seemingly hard-hearted and "accused me of having sold my passport". Fortunately, however, "after some fifty people wrote to the US State Department on my behalf, I got a new passport".
During his 61 month stay in Birmingham, England which he remembers as.' "one of them high spots of my life", after "discussing methods and systems" with firm believers in the cause of Servas, he succeeded in writing the first handbook for national secretaries. Of considerable help in thi's endeavour was Connie Jones. Indeed, as he points out, "the format, slightly modified, is being used..." today.
Thereafter, on getting his new passport he gained permission to go on to India, making some good contacts for Servas in France, Austria, Greece ...... Turkey and also Israel , where he "connected with a gem, a violinist in the Israel Symphony orchestra who led Servas there for many years."
His further'travels were much complicated by the fact that he had an Israeli visa with which he could not travel through Arab countries. So he had to go instead to Cyprus where an English official gave him a visa for Kuwait, but "no guarantee the Kuwaitis will let you in." They did, however, giving him no problems regarding red tape. In contrast he recalls the kindness and friendliness of the Islamic pilgrims returning from Mecca with whom he spent several days and nights on the boat sailing there. He marvels that they "did not dump me into the Indian Ocean ..... not because I intentiony insulted them or did something they asked me not to do. My sin was taking pictures of the families... " for "pictures are the equivalent of worshipping images, prohibited by their sacred books... I guess they were used to naive Western vagabonds because they treated me with the same respect I tried to show them." On arriving in India he describes some of his travels and encounters and how fruitful his time spent there was for Servas.
Then, after receiving a letter from his English friends, he cut short his planned journey through Burma, S.East Asia, and on to Japan, to return to England where he was to attend the first International Servas gathering and in his own words, "we agreed on the name *Servas in Espetanto. The idea was we would see ourselves as servants of Peace and Justice." But the name was just the beginning. Where would they go on from there ......?
* Changed because during the cold war the name of Peace Builders was considered rather suspect and the name of Servas seemed more neutral.
You can contact Bob at:- P 0 Box 28808, Bellingham, WA, 98228, USA
Ph: 360 714 1 043 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org