Barbara Lewis (née Fowler) was one of the youngest children to travel to Switzerland. Only six, she was chosen because her bronchitis and asthma were so bad. Barbara stayed with a couple called Lucy and Robert Morse in Biel, a bilingual area also known as Bienne, in northwestern Switzerland, at the foot of the Jura mountains.
Barbara enjoyed her three months in Biel and returned to Manchester much healthier. Over the following winter, however, her health deteriorated and her parents agreed that her Swiss foster mother should come over to England to take her back to Biel, where she stayed for 12 months, attending a local school and quickly picking up German; by the time she returned to England, she had forgotten how to speak English.
My Swiss home was a mixture of languages. Roger spoke only French Lucy spoke French, Swiss German and English so I had to learn two new languages as my school was German speaking, and if I wanted to speak to Roger I had to learn French. I don’t remember being taught these languages they just came naturally.
I loved school and had many friends, my special one being Rutledge who lived across from the apartment I lived in. Our place was next door to a small farm. They had pigs on the front of the farm and Rutledge and I used to go and feed them. The farm was on the edge of a forest and his other animals grazed in a field just in front. Roger used to ride me to school on his bicycle over the bridge and there we were.
Barbara was a resilient little girl whose spirit had been shaped by her early experiences of illness, which helped her settle into her new home: I never seemed to be homesick, but I had been away from home so many times convalescence I suppose I was used to it. I did used to be homesick then, but my life with Lucy and Roger seemed so right.
It was certainly very different from life in Manchester.
At weekends we went up into the mountains and took our skis with us. We stayed in a chalet with several other people. The beds I remember were in rows and were just made of wooden slats all joined together, one row facing another and we all had a pillow and a blanket you had to get on as everything was shared. It was so strange to me but lovely. We also went to the lakes Lucerne and Geneva; these were so nice.
‘Auntie Lucy’, Barbara’s foster-mother, kept in touch with her parents. She wrote regularly and described how ‘Bobby’ had learned to ‘write in German very nicely and she makes lovely drawings. Only in knitting is she a bit backwards, little Swiss girls are usually good at knitting’.
The Swiss family and their English foster child grew very close; so close, in fact, that ‘Auntie Lucy’ wrote to Barbara’s parents in Manchester:
‘I must say I don’t like the thought of giving her away… she is now just like our own little girl. I am sure we shall feel very lonely when she won’t be here any more’.
Lucy’s poignant comment suggests how Barbara’s life-giving visit brought heartache to both families. Her mother missed her being away so long, while ‘Auntie Lucy’ and ‘Uncle Roger’ in Switzerland grew so fond of little ‘Bobby that they asked to adopt her. That was too much and Barbara’s parents brought her back to Manchester. Nonetheless, they appreciated how the prolonged stay in Switzerland had probably saved her life and the family’s links with Switzerland continued for many years, with letters passing back and forth and a yearning on Barbara’s part to return. Lucy came to visit as much as possible in Manchester.
I think she wanted to keep an eye and see how I was growing up. The last time she came over my daughter had been born, I think she was about eighteen months old and Lucie was just like a grandmother seeing her grandchild for the first time. I can still hear her just looking at her and saying ‘Oh Bobby she is so beautiful’; she was really proud.
These childhood experiences of moving between countries and the relationship with her Swiss foster family left deep and confusing feelings: loved by her mother, who sent her away for good reasons, and also by ‘Auntie Lucy’, the foster mother, who found it so difficult to let her go. Barbara describes how ‘Something like that never leaves you’, although time has left her with a different understanding off her foster mother’s kindness: It is so sad really looking back and understanding her pain.
On her 40th wedding anniversary, Barbara’s family arranged for her to go back to Biel, to find out why the letters from Switzerland had dried up. Sadly, it was too late for a reunion, as the Swiss Red Cross told them that ‘Auntie Lucy’ had died.