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 Morfe 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 her health was better for a while on her return home. It gradually worsened, however, and she was unable to breathe on waking, ‘I think it was the result of bad housing and Manchester pollution’. In August 1948, her parents agreed that her Swiss foster mother, ‘Auntie Lucy’, should come over to England to take her back to Biel, in the hope that the fresh air would bring about an improvement.
Once again, Barbara took the train the London where ‘everywhere there were bombed buildings, it was very sad’. Then onto a ferry to cross the channel, ‘the weather was really bad, with waves coming up to the porthole windows’ and she was ‘sick all the way’, although this time in the comfort of a cabin that ‘Auntie Lucie’ had booked to help her sleep. There was still a long journey to Basle but it was worth it when she met up again with her ‘Swiss cousins’, Christina Ingely and Wilfred.
We became such good friends over the next year and saw one another often. The photo at the beginning of this story, Lucy bought me a new dress and took me to a hairdresser to have my haircut. Then we went to a photographer, a friend of hers, lady Susan, and had the photo taken. I don’t know why they are called “lady” but all her friends were called this, not aunts. This was the beginning of my Swiss life. I was enrolled in school, which I loved and did well at, my languages became fluent and we had such wonderful times. I had a birthday, Easter and two Christmases and so much fun.
Barbara spent more than a year and a half in Biel and by the time she returned to Manchester had settled in so well that she’d 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 Rutlé, 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 Rutlé 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.
life in switzerland
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, wrote to her parents to let them know how she was getting on, although by the time she’d been with them for eighteen months, the warning signs of just how close they were becoming were clear:
‘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.
the final chapter
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. Alas, it was too late for a reunion, as the Swiss Red Cross told them that ‘Auntie Lucy’ had died.
My next return to Switzerland was in October 2004. It was our 40th wedding anniversary and my daughter and son-in-law arranged a week’s stay in Basle. We had never had the chance to go back to visit and were really looking forward to it, although it would be a sad visit as my Swiss family were no longer there.
We decided I would try to find my home and visit the places where Lucy had lived in her later life. We stayed in Basle and hired a car. My son-in-law did all the driving and organising and we set off to explore the country I loved.
As we flew into Switzerland over the snow covered alps I looked out of the window and felt a feeling I had not experienced before. I felt as though I were coming home. Silly really as England was my home but it just made me feel as though I needed to cry, it was really strong. We had been over in the fifties, my parents, brother and I, but this time it was different. Maybe because I knew that she as no longer there.
We visited the Biennial but it had changed over the years. We did find the little church nearby and went into the town square and saw where Roger’s mum lived. We went to Neufchâtel, which was where Lucy died. We visited the lake and sat and thought about her life.
We went to Lake Geneva and Ostermundigen, all Lucy’s favourite places. It was sad but it was good because it brought back lots of memories and the strange thing was that I could understand what was being said and could go into the chemist and ask for what I wanted, just as though it was in here somewhere and found its way out.
We took some beautiful photographs. I also I went onto the internet and found a photo of myself returning home.
This is really the last of my story although it is always with me and sometimes really upsets me. It’s an experience that I wouldn’t have missed but I think it messed me up a bit. I think I must have just gone along with things that happened and carried on.
© Barbara Lewis