They Went To Rebuild Europe Haverford-trained For Postwar Task.

Posted: June 08, 1994

As she boarded the bus in the French port of Le Havre, Lois Plumb Stanton, an American almost in Paris, was surprised to see the ground covered in a fine white powder.

She asked a fellow passenger if it had snowed.

"They looked at me like I was nuts," she recalled this week. "It was rubble. Just plain rubble, ground up stone from the buildings. Everything had been destroyed."

The time was 1946; the place was the devastated European continent. As Plumb looked out the window of the bus, she got a quick introduction to the enormity of the work that lay ahead of her.

She was not scared, though. In fact, Stanton, a 23-year-old pacifist, was in Europe for one reason: to help rebuild.

Nor was she unprepared. She had already put in more than two years in America getting ready for her role in Europe.

That preparation took place at Haverford College, where Stanton was part of a small, unique contingent of war-time graduate students who spent three semesters at the school getting ready for the day the war ended. At the end of their studies they received master's degrees in Relief and Reconstruction.

The students took German and other languages. They had courses in European history and culture. They learned accounting and first aid. And they practiced relief work, first in the classroom and later in the field.

"We wanted to do something to make a difference," said Stanton.

Added her college roommate, Mary Esther Dasenbrock: "They were trying to give us a base, grounded in the philosophy of relief work. Life was going to be tough and we had to be prepared mentally and spiritually for the hardship that we were going to see all around us."

And when the war was over, a number of the students were sent overseas by the Quaker-run American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to join in the volunteer effort. Many organizations at the time contributed money and manpower to begin the process of righting Europe. Naturally, some of the work was chaotic.

"When I got to Paris nobody knew what to do with me," said Stanton, now 71 and living in Swarthmore. "We were running refugee camps. And we had a center where we were doing lectures and holding meetings and just giving people some outlets."

Dasenbrock, 72, who today lives in Haverford, studied Polish at Haverford

College, spent a year in Puerto Rico, and then was sent to Poland. The women remain friends today not only with each other, but with their third roommate, Charlotte Brooks Read of Boston. All three met their husbands in Europe and were married there within four months of each other.

The three couples will soon celebrate their 47th anniversaries.

Stanton's journey to France actually began at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., where she was a student from 1939-43. The dean of the school left to join the WAVES, and others at the all-women's college followed her example. But Stanton was not a believer in furthering the war effort.

Instead, she heard about the new program at Haverford, begun by professor Douglas Steere and grounded in Quaker philosophy. In 1943 the war had reduced enrollment at Haverford to 130 full-time students, so there was plenty of room on campus. In September, 1943 19 women - the first ever enrolled at Haverford - and two men made up the first of two Relief and Reconstruction classes. The following year 22 women and five men began R&R work.

As part of the studies, Stanton did field work first in New York City, then in Mexico, where she worked with Polish refugees. Following graduation she worked in Philadelphia with the AFSC until leaving for France in March, 1946.

Shortly after her arrival she sent a letter to her parents in New York.

"It is still evident that France has a long way to go toward recovery," she wrote. "The clatter of wooden soles, shabby costumes, long lines before bread stores, high prices of things one can still buy and, above all, the look of fatigue and apathy of almost all the people one meets, bear witness to the effects of war and occupation."

(Her letters from Europe were saved by her parents and recently donated to the Haverford College library.)

Stanton, who spoke fluent French, eventually joined a new transportation unit formed in 1946.

"Here was Europe with no transportation left," she said. "And here was all this rubble that had to be moved. And food that was donated. And people that had to get back and forth. So somebody dreamed up this idea of the Quakers converting Army trucks into relief trucks. And all these boys that had been in Civilian Public Service (the relief effort in America for conscientious objectors) came over and that was beginning of the Emergency Transport Unit. They played a good role in early rebuilding of Europe."

Stanton was eventually put in charge of the unit, which moved everything

from building materials to food to refugees to German POWs.

"One time we got a request from a monastery that had stored all their stuff in a building in Paris and didn't have anyway to get it back," she said. "We decided we could spare a truck."

Stanton later went to Darmstadt, Germany, to help build and run a community center that still stands today. She said they were welcomed by the Germans, although she learned a healthy skepticism there. "Everybody had to tell us they did not participate in Hitlerism until after a while you begin to get cynical," she said.

The living conditions were far from luxurious. They received a small monthly stipend. In Paris, Stanton lived in a converted garage. Dasenbrock, who began the courses at Haverford right after graduating from Vassar College, was housed in a wing of a bombed castle in Kozienice, Poland.

"Very spartan," said Dasenbrock. "We had no heat in the bedrooms. Food was very scarce. We ate only the local peasant food, a barrel of sauerkraut and potatoes."

In one April, 1947 letter, Stanton wrote, "I am about to take my first hot bath in months."

The letter continued: "I wish I could put into words all the impressions one gets here in Europe of an old civilization hanging on in the face of incredible obstacles, of the persistency of the human spirit and the inaneness of war and suffering. You read about it and realize that war has been a fact, and when you see what it has done . . . you just can't push it aside or yet believe people would ever fight another one. And you feel so stuffy to talk about it and yet you know that all the words that have ever been written are not enough to make people realize how vital it is to live in peace with one another and help one another."

Both she and Dasenbrock, aware of the horrors of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, know they could write those same words today.

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