Max Hildesheim – Archives of Service Civil International

Max Hildesheim

My family was Dutch, of Jewish origin, we lived in Brussels. During the war, in order for us to escape the Nazis, the Dutch government sent us to Java (Indonesia) where, ironically, we spent three years in a Japanese concentration camp. Men and women were separate, I was with my mother and I did not know my father for three years. In 1945, when I was nine years old, we came back to Belgium and I had to go to a French-speaking school, a change which later facilitated my learning of English. At the age of 20, my parents offered me a trip to Israël, hoping that I would become a Zionist, like they were themselves. My sister had been to a kibbutz, but she had not liked it, because she did not like the community life; it reminded her too much of ‘The camps’. On the contrary, I loved the manual work in the kibbutz, as I have done ever since.
The following year, while I was studying architecture, I realized that instead of spending my holidays at the beach, I could go and do a workcamp. So I went to one in France, in the Alps, with ‘Jeunesse et Reconstruction’ (Youth and Reconstruction). I often stood in and helped interpreting, and I eventually I had to replace the camp leader, which I also liked very much. In 1960, after getting my degree in architecture, I wanted to go abroad and I got in touch with SCI. Normally, I should have started with a camp in France, but with my former experience, I was sent to Greece for a month. Actually, I stayed there for three months, again replacing a camp leader. I had the opportunity to meet conscientious objectors and I became aware of the more ideological aspect of SCI. I also discovered that there were ‘long-term volunteers’.


I went to spend a few weeks with Ralph and Idy Hegnauer in Zurich and, at the end of 1960, I was sent to Morocco which had recently gained its independence. I worked in an orphanage at Aïn Sebaa, near Casablanca. There were some Western volunteers, but what I liked most was the opportunity of working with the Algerians. In fact they were not really SCI volunteers, as even though they worked in the orphanage they were members of the FTA (the Algerian Workers Federation), and the FLN. Although I was not very much interested in politics, it seemed interesting to have a closer look at the situation. I could see in Morocco very structured organizations related to Algerian nationalists. Idy Hegnauer was the team leader. There were eight volunteers, five from Algeria and three from Switzerland. A man dressed in a formal way who was also a leader of an Algerian trade union was monitoring the project. I was a jack-of-all-trades, as I was not expected to draw plans as an architect, but to do various kinds of odd jobs. This was the first time when my work was related to my occupational area, construction. I was working with a professional mason, Ahmed. We had to build a small wall and he showed me how to use a trowel (whilst I had just graduated from my architecture studies!).
It was at that time that I became aware of a number of cultural issues, and I learnt to change some of my ways. Accepting Sunday work, which was a problem for protestant volunteers, and, above all being careful in our relationship with female Algerians, especially those who were not volunteers; we had to be very cautious with regards to them. Relationships amongst volunteers in general were not always easy. As a whole, we Europeans were welcome to come and work with the Moroccans, but as soon as there was problem, they tended to have a reflex reaction behaving like colonized people facing their colonizers, or by interpreting things exclusively in terms of race or of ethnic group. There were also clear differences between Algerians and Moroccans as there were also between Arabs and Kabyles.
We were also concerned, of course, with more basic issues, such as the usefulness of our work, our individual responsibilities, and the way money was spent. The war in Algeria was also very near. The Algerians told me what they had personally suffered or seen; how the French were treating those who were fighting against them, including civilians, and noncombatants. Another problem was that we did not have enough orphans for the orphanage, because as soon as a child lost his/her parents, he was taken in by other members of the family.
During that period, there was a terrible earthquake in Agadir, but the Moroccan authorities did not ask for any outside help, especially from SCI, although it was organizing many emergency workcamps in various places. In January, I was asked to go to another children’s home for sick children, located in Ifrane, a former resort for the French colonists in a mountainous area. There were various arrangements required in the house, and my architect’s skills could be useful, but I only stayed there for a short period of time because, once again, we had too few orphans.
The workcamp in Morocco was only a temporary assignment for me as I was waiting for a one year contract. Finally, Ralph suggested that I go and help a young local association for voluntary work in Togo, in order to prepare their summer workcamps with LTV (Volunteers at Work).


There was no real harbour in Togo and I took a ship which dropped me in Cotonou (then Dahomey, now Benin). I had to get my destination by my own means; one way I did this was by hitch hiking. The first car that passed stopped immediately. They had never seen a white man hitch hiking before. The next vehicle was a truck going to Lomé. The driver came from the village of Palimé, where I was going, and he knew Gerson Konu, the leader of the association, very well. In the evening, as I had no place to sleep, the driver took me home with him. Then, I took the train for the rest of the journey.
When I reached the village market place, a lot of children appeared and clustered around me, singing a little song: Yovo, yovo,bonsoir, ça va bien, merci. ‘Yovo’ means ‘whiteman’, and I was to hear that little song very often throughout my stay in Togo. I did not need to ask which way to go as, there he was: Gerson had come to meet me. A handsome smiling young man, with delicate features, he took me to his home. All the buildings in the village looked the same, one storey, with rough-cast walls, white or claycoloured, unglazed windows with shutters, and the roofs were made of corrugated iron. There were also some wooden shops with straw roofs where a blacksmith, a carpenter or a dressmaker was working. Gerson’s house was a little bigger than the others with several rooms around a covered gallery. Nearby was a small building with a sign ‘Les Volontaires au Travail’.

Gerson had just been elected a member of parliament, within the party of President Sylvanus Olympio, who had a large majority. In a way, Gerson was not so happy, because this would give him a lot of work to do, and so he would have less time to devote to L.V.T. But they had already a good team and had run several workcamps: constructing a reservoir, a school that the villagers themselves finished afterwards, making roads, etc. They had also created an education centre for the people, where they were able to recruit their volunteers and their leaders.
Gerson, who was 28 at that time, had been invited to Europe the previous year, to participate in various SCI workcamps in France and England. That is how he had come to think of inviting European volunteers. I was the first, and the second one ( Nicole Lehmann) was to arrive in a few months time.
To begin with, I was mainly expected to advise LVT on preparing their summer workcamps, and to draw up plans for a primary school with three classrooms. We were expecting foreign volunteers from SCI and the Quakers. As a member of parliament, Gerson had to go to Lome, so he invited me to stay in his house. I got on with the people around me very easily, and they immediately took to me. Once, in the restaurant, an old ‘Père Blanc’ missionary with a white cassock, a sun-helmet and a white beard came and sat next to me. His ideas were as old as he was. It was very difficult for us to get along together, but it was interesting to see the conception some people had of Africa.
Among the first points on which decisions had to be made was the camp time-table: the volunteers would get up at 6 o clock at sunrise, work from 7 to 11 and again from 1 pm to 5pm, so that they would be able to go and have a bath down at the river before nightfall (around 6 p.m. all the year round). Then we had to organize the teams for the various tasks: digging the foundations with a hoe (the only tool available), going to get sand down at the river, digging for pieces of rock and breaking them up, and helping the carpenter and the blacksmith. Volunteers also had to cut down very big trees with a longsaw to make beams.
The American volunteers were a bit surprised to see the pace of work which was sometimes very slow. But they very soon adapted, since the conditions were very hard, the work heavy, the tools primitive and the sun very hot. So, from time to time, they would stop working in turn and sometimes pick up a guitar and sing. But the pace really accelerated when the villagers came to help to fetch the sand, shouting their ‘yovos’ while they worked, thus emphasizing the fact that they were participating. In the second week, I was glad that my friends had included me among the volunteers, and my role as a technical leader was strengthened. I really felt like an architect, but with dirty hands and clothes. I was asked to advise on any simple problem that occurred and to make decisions. When necessary I asked the African engineer in Palimé for a second opinion.
I also participated in other workcamps in Togo. Whenever there was not a camp immediately available for me to go to, I would go surveying, in order to draw up plans for the straightening of roads etc in several nearby villages.
I was also involved in a training workcamp for leaders. Nicole Lehmann, who was not usually in the same workcamps as me, also participated in the training of female volunteers. So, we were then promoted to being trainers. Our trainees were really enthusiastic and full of goodwill to listen to our experiences and, as usual, to talk about Europe. As they were not at all reluctant to work, the conditions were really very good. We also organized weekend camps where there were many volunteers. The atmosphere was really exciting when there were a lot of people involved.
Of course, at the end of my stay in Togo, it was a bit difficult for me to leave all those new friends. They had really adopted me. Whenever a foreigner asked the villagers where I was from, they would say “He is from the village”. Furthermore, they often called me by a nickname in their language. (In fact; as was customary, they used to give volunteers a sort of second ‘first name’ as they did amongst themselves). It was Koffi.
A wonderful farewell party was organized for my departure and also for the general assembly of ‘Les volontaires au travail’. The festivities and the ever-present tom-toms have remained vivid in my memory. For example, when some American volunteers arrived, during some celebration or other, the newcomers looked surprised – to say the least – to find themselves suddenly right in the middle of a crowd singing and dancing, with tom-toms throbbing. In all this apparent disorder, half-naked girls were dancing – doing more-than-suggestive contortions; people were running everywhere. What a scene !
Today, I think that my plans for the school and the African village roads were inappropriate. They reflected my training, which had been very abstract. For instance, we should have used traditional materials more often; instead of using sophisticated – and of course – expensive modern materials.
Just before leaving for home, there was an international conference on workcamps organized by UNESCO in Nigeria. I was sent there by SCI as a delegate, but also as an interpreter. I often sat beside the Soviet delegate, who spoke perfect French, but no English; I frequently translated for him in small group discussions. Later he tipped me off about a camp that was going to take place in Moldavia.
To get back to Europe, I had to go by ship, but I thought that it would be a pity to go straight back like that, since I had seen very little of the rest of Africa. So, I hitch-hiked to the river Niger, bought a dugout canoe, and went down the river all by myself, – a very exciting experience.


After resting a few weeks in Brussels, in summer 1962, I went to a workcamp in Moldavia, which was then still part of the Soviet Union. At that time, we tended to confuse ‘Russia’ and the ‘Soviet Union’, but the people insisted on their national identity, as well as belonging to the USSR. The camp was in Terespol, a kolkhoz (a collective farm) not far from Kichinev, the main city. It was organized by the komsomol (the Communist League of Youth), together with the World Federation of Democratic Youth. There were three types of volunteers there: those from the komsomol, from SCI, and those from other organizations, such as the Quakers, who had volunteers from the Third World. We travelled by train from Paris with SCI volunteers. I had to help the Indian volunteers (among them Valli – chapter 3) who had no transit visa to cross Belgium at night (!) even though we did not even have to get off the train. Georges Douart was with us, and he gave us an account of his previous experiences in workcamps. In the USSR, he recalled the discipline, the propaganda, the flag-waving, and sending telegrams of support or protest in connexion with certain events.
At the kolkhoz there was a big house for us, where only a few of us were boarded in each room, and every day we had a huge breakfast. I had never had such a reception in a workcamp. The president of the kolkhoz, a big and jolly fellow, briefly explained our work to us: helping in the fields or in the building of a new hospital. In the evenings, we were invited to see Moldavian dances by the kolkhoz company. Everyone gathered there to greet us in an informal way.
At the start, I chose to work in the beautiful orchard to collect cherries. It reminded me of my first manual work in Israel. Working together, we soon managed to mix the different groups and the members of the kolkhoz so as to create really multinational teams. So, during the breaks and even afterwards we talked a lot; in the beginning about simple subjects such as the family, studying, our work and so on.
The next day, the work (collecting green peas) was much harder, but we stopped early in order for us to greet the newly arrived volunteers from Eastern Europe, the US, Japan and Africa. As the group was now complete, there was an official reception with banners, speeches and more dances. Everything took place in a pleasant atmosphere. The most welcome volunteer was Cuban, not because of his personality, but because Castro enjoyed a lot of prestige in Eastern European countries, and in third world countries. All the volunteers – and not just the Africans – were very interested to hear about my experience in Togo.
Personal discussions often turned to religion. As often happened in workcamps, I scored a great degree of success when I revealed that I was of Jewish origin, I was from the ‘ancient religion’. But it was particularly difficult to explain to people – above all the Africans – that I was an unbeliever. Whereas, with the Soviets, it was hard to convince them that I did not agree with Israeli policies – a very sensitive subject as it was only
just after the Suez affair. Here we came to realize that Western opinions,- though often very different from one another-, were, at that time, faced with a much more uniform point of view in the Communist countries, although it was much less rigid than we had expected. The Eastern Block volunteers could argue in a more rational way than we could, and could refer to more precise facts with regards to the influence of religion on politics, on peace and disarmament, on the various conflicts in the world. There were organized discussions; the first ones were mainly concerned with workcamps, but little by little we came to discuss about our régimes, our political systems and so on, in a very free manner.
Georges Douart, – who had a lot to say about workcamps – was able to compare the situation in the USSR at that time with that of the `50s. Broad changes had taken place, there was far less rigidity and more openness in various matters. Our Soviet partners very often used to say, “In the last four years”, but they could not explain precisely what the changes were they were referring to.
As usual, living together contributed to gaining mutual understanding, not only during work-time but also when we were invited in small groups, particularly by the inhabitants, with the habitual bottle of vodka and a large number of toasts. We discovered the life of these people, much more than we expected to. They looked healthy and joked a lot, making fun of their leaders whenever the opportunity arose. We used to drink a lot of vodka on such occasions, and after the red wine, it was very effective indeed. I still remember this dinner, when the leader of the Soviet team made a great speech on ‘the evils of alcoholism’ when he was himself half-drunk and could hardly stand! Then there was a lot of singing, and the Soviets were far better at that than we were.
When the leaders found out that I was an architect, they wanted me to join the worksite. But it was a big one, and they were only at the foundation stage; on top of that they were using heavy equipment. So I preferred carrying concrete in a wheelbarrow.
We often went swimming in the river nearby. We were also taken on excursions. Once, we went to Odessa by bus and it was moving to see the famous stairs which were featured in the film ‘The Battleship Potemkin’. In this way, days passed very quickly, in a very pleasant atmosphere, and then the day came when we had to catch the train back Moscow. The workcamp in the Soviet Union was a real eye-opener. It changed my way of seeing things in many ways and influenced my political views.
With regards to SCI, my most important memories concern human relations. An important contribution of workcamping to my life has been in learning how to live with people about whom one knows absolutely nothing.
I worked as a professional architect from the time I returned from the USSR till 1978, when I gave it up, because the type of work I had to do was too much in contradiction with my political convictions, and my wife and I wanted to devote more time to ourselves and our family.
We came to live in the countryside in the Ardèche (South-East France), where we have become fully integrated in the local community; living a life which is rather similar to that of a workcamp, although much more comfortable and not so collectivist. My pacifist ideas and SCI experience, including the vision of the U.S.S.R acquired whilst workcamping, have had a lot of bearing on the subsequent choices I have made, and my way of life in general.