Refugees Buy Estate Near Paris and Turn It to Training Center
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Refugees Buy Estate Near Paris and Turn It to Training Center

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(Leo Lania, the author of this penetrating analysis of the refugee problem in France, is a well-known German novelist and journalist.)

“Remember always that this land has given you generous hospitality. Always show yourself grateful.” —Extract from the Statutes of the Institute at Montesson.

Herr Sommerfeld is a German Jew, whom no one would take for a German, and few for a Jew. Seeing him for the first time, in his blue blouse, with his yardstick or the axe in his hand, you would think he was a peasant, an American farmer. You would never dream that this robust, broad-shouldered man of about fifty, who is now helping to unload stone from a lorry, was two years ago one of the wealthiest citizens of Berlin, one of the biggest contractors in Germany, and that his name was known in every country of Europe, that his work has impressed itself permanently on the appearance of the city of Berlin.

It was Sommerfeld who transferred the open spaces lying on the outskirts of Berlin into the fine, modern, hygienic, residential colonies that rouse the admiration of all visitors to Berlin, and provide hundreds of families with good, inexpensive dwelling accommodation. The architecture, the modern building style, and the low cost of construction held the interest of all foreign experts. Sommerfeld did away with the ugly sham decoration of the Kaiser period, substituting a sound, practical form of structure, and he was responsible, too for the march towards the open, that has taken the city #weller out of his confinement and congestion, and the worker out of the slums.


The Sommerfeld firm won world fame when Greece, confronted with the need of providing quickly accommodation for the vast stream of Greek refugees from Turkey, decided to leave it to Sommerfeld. In a few months, he had built 10,000 houses, and he received an official expression of gratitude and appreciation from the Greek Government and from the League of Nations, under whose authority the Greek refugee colonization work was carried on.

Today Sommerfeld is an emigrant German refugee. Though his family had been resident for generations in Germany, and he had always been a good Berliner, he shook off the dust of this city in which he scored his biggest success and triumphs, refused to consider any compromise, and like many other German Jews he came to Paris.

Some of these Jews have a little money, were able to save a part of their possessions, and they are waiting in Paris to see how things develop. The great majority are in desperate distress. They have fallen a burden on the relief committees, whose funds are shrinking day by day. The funds dry up, and the friendship of the French under the influence of the crisis, grows to indifference and hostility.

Sommerfeld was able to bring with him some of his big possessions. It was enough for him to live on. But he could not bear to be inactive. He could not sit still, eating up his capital. He is a man of action. So he collected a few of his friends, who had a little money, and they acquired a large estate in the vicinity of Paris. There is a big park, a vegetable garden, an orchard, and a poultry yard. There is an ancient castle, with plenty of stables providing accommodation. But their intention was not to live at ease, on their estate.

The great majority of the Jewish emigrants are intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, writers, journalists, teachers and merchants. The economic crisis has hit these professions hardest. And in any country to which they might go, they would find their professions practically useless. So they decided to drop their professions and learn to do something more in demand. Doctors, lawyers, intellectuals are learning to become peasants and artisans.

Sommerfeld turned his estate into a training center. The residents pay about £7 a month for their keep, housing and training, and the money goes into a common funds for mutual purposes.


All luxuries and comforts are prohibited. All the residents work hard, in the garden, the kitchen, the fields, the stables, on building work, at whatever it may be. You will find in the kitchen the sister of one of the leading Berlin bankers, a man whose art collection is famous. A young woman working in the garden of vegetables is the wife of a famous doctor. Her husband was recently released from a concentration camp, where he had been confined for months.

When they have finished their work for the day, the colonists come together to listen to lectures. The ex-teachers run classes in French and English, the doctors continue their research. There is a very active intellectual life in the colony.

Of course, the whole thing is insignificant judged by the size of the problem, but it represents a quiet, unostentatious movement towards self-help, an indication of how things might be done, and in the midst of the shouting and the hub-hub it is a good thing to turn to this quiet oasis, where a small group of eighty colonists, without asking anything from any one have got together, and have taken their fate into their own hands, independent, self-reliant people, working out their own future.

Herr Sommerfeld, in his blue blouse, unloading stones from a lorry, turning his back on his wealth and his past fame, is a symbol of the spirit of the best type of German Jew, who does not plead or beg, who does not cringe to those who have cut the ground from under his feet, but who sturdily and steadily, and with a sense of his own worthiness and ability, is working out his own destiny.

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