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Souvenirs and vignettes of my Ecolint stay (1939-47)

jeudi, 16 juin 2016   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Prof. Erik Thorbecke (LGB '48)
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Prof Erik Thorbecke

I was born in 1929 so I entered Ecolint as a ten year old kid. My father was a Dutch diplomat, which led to a somewhat peripatetic early youth that brought me from Berlin to Peking (where he was the Dutch ambassador). After my parents divorced I spent time with my mother in Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris before arriving in Geneva (or more accurately Saint-Cergue), to recover from a bad case of whooping cough in 1937. I was therefore prepared for the international spirit which reigned at Ecolint and felt immediately at home.

Two very different individuals from two different cultures, Monsieur Roquette (a German-Swiss) and Madame Maurette (a French lady) were directors of the school during my period there.1 In an era dominated by the Second World War and worldwide conflicts, they were true believers in international cooperation and tolerance for different cultures and religions. They imbued the students with the need to respect all human beings and preached the desirability of a strong League of Nations.

Their message has guided my career as a professor of Development Economics who worked and did research on Latin America, Asia and Africa. My interaction with my fellow students at Ecolint, including many refugees, enhanced my sensitivity for those individuals who are deprived, discriminated against, or poor. One of my humble achievements as an academic economist was as co-architect of the most popular poverty measure used by international organizations and researchers focusing on poverty issues. The motivation for devoting much of my academic life to fighting poverty and inequality can be traced back to my years at Ecolint and I am most grateful for this gift.

A small but diverse school

The period I spent at Ecolint overlapped much of the Second World War; one of the consequences was that the total enrolment covering all grades was very low, around 150 pupils and students, as I remember it. Switzerland was essentially sealed off from the rest of the world and only a few fortunate refugees were allowed to enter the country.

Notwithstanding the small size of the enrolment there was quite some diversity in the composition of the student body – ranging from children of the super-rich and royalty to refugees of the Holocaust who had lost everything. One advantage of such a limited number of students across as many as ten grades, meant that one could become well acquainted with students, not just in one’s own class, but also with students in higher and lower grades.

Ecolint Class 1942
A class photo at La Grande Boissière, 1942. Erik Thorbecke is in the centre of the second row, with his arms crossed, wearing a white short-sleeved short. He sent the following list of those he recognized in this photo:
Front row: 1st person:  Marianne Schwarz-Meijer, 4th Hendrik (Dicky) Pappenheim, 6th Micheline de Félice; Second row: 4th Jean Stump, 5th Erik Thorbecke; Third row: 5th Hans Dalsheim, 6th Eva (Lieblein) Bochatay; Last row; 2nd (with back to the door) Fred de Werdt, 3rd (with back to the door) Théo Cherbuliez, last person with glasses Harold Furth.

In retrospect, it is amazing how many talented students there were among this small group. Many became well-known and famous. Just to mention only a very few: Galyani Vadhana, who was six years older than me, tried to teach me how to dance at some of the weekly thés dansants, where we would congregate around a record player and listen to the latest contemporary melodies. Galyani became the much beloved Princess (sister of the King) of Thailand and was active in a large variety of social activities. I had the great pleasure and honour to be invited to visit her in her Bangkok palace shortly before she passed away. We reminisced in French about the wonderful times we spent at Ecolint.

I became acquainted with Edmond de Rothschild (later Baron Edmond and a global financier) the one year I was a boarder. I remember that we used to tease him unmercifully for his lack of aptitude and interest in sports. One of my memories is that he would receive 5 francs of argent de poche every week while I, as a poor scholarship student, would only get 1 franc. I took it for granted but perhaps less inequality would have been preferable.

Still another “interne” whose room was next to mine was Edouard van Remoortel who spent most of his time practising the cello. I can still hear the sound, which I lacked the sophistication to enjoy. All of these hours practising paid off: Edouard became a distinguished conductor and at one time music director of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Harold Furth was one of the refugees who escaped Vienna just in time. He was a year younger than me and we had one class in common, which could be described as oral arithmetic. Most of the time under the supervision of Mr Salzmann, we competed to solve orally simple arithmetic problems. I was typically the captain of one team and Eva Bochatay the captain of the other team (Eva and I had just skipped a grade presumably because of our aptitude at mathematics). I would always pick Harold as my first choice to be on my team. Harold had a very distinguished career as a physicist becoming the director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which made some fundamental contributions to the concept of fusion.

The first page of the Ecolint Annual Journal from 1946, showing Erik Thorbecke as one of its editors.

I could go on and on but let me just mention two more names: Gaspard Bodmer, who became a Swiss Ambassador and trustee of the Bodmer Foundation, and Théo Cherbuliez, with whom I had innumerable philosophical conversations as we bicycled from school to home almost daily. Théo became an influential child psychiatrist in the greater New York area and an apitherapy proponent.

Superlative faculty

The embarrassment of riches and diversity that characterized the student body applied as well to the faculty. Perhaps because of the wartime conditions and the forced insularity of Switzerland, Ecolint was blessed by being able to attract superlative teachers, including a number of University of Geneva professors and docents.

One of my favourite classes was French literature taught by Professor Baudouin.2 In those early days it was customary to learn many poems by heart and to this day I can still recite the soliloquy from Le Cid and Victor Hugo's Les Djinns. Another class I very much enjoyed was an introduction to philosophy by Jeanne Hersch, who became a well-known philosopher and recipient of the Albert Einstein medal. Mlle Hersch felt that I had certain gifts for philosophy – although as will become clearer subsequently, I was much more interested in sports and extra-curricular activities in those days than studying hard.

Mr Drummond-Thompson was the English teacher and very British in his demeanour. He was a disciple of Shakespeare and his first love was to direct plays. I remember being forced into acting in many plays against my better instincts and lacking the necessary talent to succeed. He also enjoyed boxing and I remember a few bloody noses that he inflicted on me. Being about half his size as a young teenager, I was the designated victim.

Paul Dupuy teaching a geography class
Paul Dupuy teaching a geography class in 1936.

Mr Dupuy was my mathematics teacher. He taught at a very advanced (university) level which at that time was over my head. Wherever he walked his head would be bent forward while he read equations from a little note book (in this era of smart phones nobody would notice). Fortunately, later on I got to enjoy the beauty and purity of mathematics.

Other teachers I ought to mention are Mr Le Pin who taught physics and was convinced that the half-dozen students in my class were capable of grasping the concept of derivatives and calculus. I have to confess that it is only later on that I truly grasped calculus. Mr Meyhoffer, very diligently and patiently, taught us geography and history. Finally, a teacher whose name I have forgotten, did his utmost to drill us into the secrets of descriptive geometry (at that time a required field for those of us preparing ourselves for the Maturité Fédérale Suisse Type C). We were told that we had to see into three dimensional space, an ability that escaped me then but that I gained in my old age (during some sleepless nights I try to visualize the intersection between different objects such as between a sphere and a cone).

All in all, and in spite of a lack of discipline and dedication on my part, I gained a rich culture générale that served me well in my subsequent career.

This sporting life

As I hinted earlier my passion growing up was sports. Much (in retrospect too much) of my time was devoted to a variety of different sports. I would spend hours a day playing soccer and became the captain of a good Ecolint team that was arguably the best one in the inter-scholastic league we competed in.

I also played basketball and now and then would shoot baskets with an older alumnus, Louis Johannot, who later became the headmaster and co-owner of Le Rosey (probably the most exclusive private school in the world). We would play for petits pains and would take turns shooting baskets from different spots and distances. While behind, Louis kept doubling up on the bets and at one time I recall being about a thousand ahead before Louis had to leave. Later on his sister brought me ten pastries from the student cooperative to settle his debt. One of my many regrets is not to have insisted on being fully compensated. The time practising on the basketball court paid off as later on I made the Dutch national team (really quite a modest achievement given the relative weakness of this sport in Europe at that time).

The Grande Bâtiment at La Grande Boissière in 1936.

Together with one of my closest friends, Jean Stump, we loved to climb the trees that surrounded the football field at La Grande Boissière. We had built a platform between two tall trees at about 4-5 metres above the ground and we would dive to catch a branch of another tree and parachute down. We used to call it the salto mortale. It almost turned out to be the case when, on one occasion, I missed the branch and fell on my chest and laid motionless for what appeared at the time like an eternity. Jean became one of the most beloved physical education teachers in the whole of Geneva.

I could go on and on but I fear I have stressed the readers’ patience and I shall stop here. Thank you Ecolint for all those souvenirs that I cherish….

Prof Erik Thorbecke (LGB '48)
Contact: et17 [at]


1. Mme Maurette was the sole director of the school between 1929 and 1949. M Roquette had prominent positions under her (he became the Head of the Boys’ Boarding House in 1933 and managed the school’s finances as from 1935), but became director only when Maurette retired in 1949.

2. Charles Baudouin, a prominent psychoanalyst, professor in Geneva University’s Faculty of Psychology, founder of the Institut international de psychanalyse et de psychothérapie, author of numerous major works, such as Suggestion et autosuggestion, translated as Suggestion and Autosuggestion, and Tolstoi: The Teacher. Baudoin met Freud in Vienna in 1926.



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John R. Lagnado says...
Posted vendredi, 1 juillet 2016
Wonderful article. I'd never realized Mme Maurette had been Head since 1929 - I feel all the more lucky to have been a pupil at Ecolint during her last two years! John Lagnado

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