The Book of the Homeless/Preface




Last year, among the waifs swept to Paris by the great torrent of the flight from the North, there came to the American Hostels a little acrobat from a strolling circus. He was not much more than a boy, and he had never before been separated from his family or from his circus. All his people were mummers or contortionists, and he himself was a mere mote of the lime-light, knowing life only in terms of the tent and the platform, the big drum, the dancing dogs, the tight-rope and the spangles.

In the sad preoccupied Paris of last winter it was not easy to find a corner for this little figure. But the lad could not be left in the streets, and after a while he was placed as page in a big hotel. He was given good pay, and put into a good livery, and told to be a good boy. He tried... he really tried... but the life was too lonely. Nobody knew anything about the only things he knew, or was particularly interested in the programme of the last performance the company had given at Liège or Maubeuge. The little acrobat could not understand. He told his friends at the Hostels how lonely and puzzled he was, and they tried to help him. But he could n't sleep at night, because he was used to being up till nearly daylight; and one night he went up to the attic of the hotel, broke open several trunks full of valuables stored there by rich lodgers, and made off with some of the contents. He was caught, of course, and the things he had stolen were produced in court. They were the spangled dresses belonging to a Turkish family, and the embroidered coats of a lady's lap-dog....

I have told this poor little story to illustrate a fact which, as time passes, is beginning to be lost sight of: the fact that we workers among the refugees are trying, first and foremost, to help a homesick people. We are not preparing for their new life an army of voluntary colonists; we are seeking to console for the ruin of their old life a throng of bewildered fugitives. It is our business not only to feed and clothe and keep alive these people, but to reassure and guide them. And that has been, for the last year, the task of the American Hostels for Refugees.

The work was started in November, 1914, and since that time we have assisted some 9,300 refugees, given more than 235,000 meals, and distributed 48,333 garments.

But this is only the elementary part of our work. We have done many more difficult things. Our employment agency has found work for over 3,500 men. Our work-rooms occupy about 120 women, and while they sew, their babies are kept busy and happy in a cheerful day-nursery, and the older children are taught in a separate class.

The British Young Women's Christian Association of Paris has shown its interest in our work by supplying us with teachers for the grown-up students who realize the importance of learning English as a part of their business equipment; and these classes are eagerly followed.

Lastly, we have a free clinic where 3,500 sick people have received medical advice, and a dispensary where 4,500 have been given first aid and nursing care; and during the summer we sent many delicate children to the seaside in the care of various Vacation Colonies.

This is but the briefest sketch of our complicated task; a task undertaken a year ago by a small group of French and American friendsmoved to pity by the thousands of fugitives wandering through the streets of Paris and sleeping on straw in the railway-stations.

We thought then that the burden we were assuming would not have to be borne for more than three or four months, and we were confident of receiving the necessary financial help. We were not mistaken; and America has kept the American Hostels alive for a year. But we are now entering on our second year, with a larger number to care for, and a more delicate task to perform. The longer the exile of these poor people lasts, the more carefully and discriminatingly must we deal with them. They are not all King Alberts and Queen Elisabeths, as some idealists apparently expected them to be. Some are hard to help, others unappreciative of what is done for them. But many, many more are grateful, appreciative, and eager to help us to help them. And of all of them we must say, as Henri de Régnier says for us in the poem written for this Book:

He who, flying from the fate of slaves
With brow indignant and with empty hand,
Has left his house, his country and his graves,
Comes like a Pilgrim from a Holy Land.
Receive him thus, if in his blood there be
One drop of Belgium's immortality.



One day last August the members of the "Children of Flanders Rescue Committee" were waiting at the door of the Villa Béthanie, a large seminary near Paris which had been put at the disposal of the committee for the use of the refugee children.

The house stands in a park with fine old trees and a wide view over the lovely rolling country to the northwest of Paris. The day was beautiful, the borders of the drive were glowing with roses, the lawns were fragrant with miniature hay-cocks, and the flower-beds about the court had been edged with garlands of little Belgian flags.

Suddenly we heard a noise of motor-horns, and the gates of the park were thrown open. Down toward us, between the rose-borders, a procession was beginning to pour: first a band of crippled and infirm old men, then a dozen Sisters of Charity in their white caps, and lastly about ninety small boys, each with his little bundle on his back.

They were a lamentable collection of human beings, in pitiful contrast to the summer day and the bright flowers. The old men, for the most part, were too tired and dazed to know where they were, or what was happening to them, and the Sisters were crying from fatigue and homesickness. The boys looked grave too, but suddenly they caught sight of the flowers, the hay-cocks, and the wide house-front with all its windows smiling in the sun. They took a long look and then, of their own accord, without a hint from their elders, they all broke out together into the Belgian national hymn. The sound of that chorus repaid the friends who were waiting to welcome them for a good deal of worry and hard work.

The flight from western Flanders began last April, when Ypres, Poperinghe, and all the open towns of uninvaded Belgium were swept by a senseless and savage bombardment. Even then it took a long time to induce the inhabitants to give up the ruins of their homes; and before going away themselves they sent their children.

Train-load after train-load of Flemish children poured into Paris last spring. They were gathered in from the ruins, from the trenches, from the hospices where the Sisters of Charity had been caring for them, and where, in many cases, they had been huddled in with the soldiers quartered in the same buildings. Before each convoy started, a young lady with fair hair and very blue eyes walked through the train, distributing chocolate and sandwiches to the children and speaking to each of them in turn, very kindly; and all but the very littlest children understood that this lady was their Queen....

The Belgian government, knowing that I had been working for the refugees, asked me to take charge of sixty little girls, and of the Sisters accompanying them. We found a house, fitted it up, begged for money and clothes, and started The Children of Flanders Rescue Committee. Now, after six months, we have five houses, and are caring for nearly 900 people, among whom are about 200 infirm old men and women whom the Sisters had to bring because there was no one left to look after them in the bombarded towns.

Every war-work, if it has any vitality in it, is bound to increase in this way, and is almost certain to find the help it needs to keep it growing. We have always been so confident of this that we have tried to do for our Children of Flanders what the Hostels have done for the grown-up refugees: not only to feed and clothe and shelter, but also to train and develop them. Some of the Sisters are skilled lace-makers; and we have founded lace-schools in three of our houses. There is a dearth of lace at present, owing to the ruin of the industry in Belgium and Northern France, and our little lace-makers have already received large orders for Valenciennes and other laces. The smallest children are kept busy in classes of the "Montessori" type, provided by the generosity of an American friend, and the boys, out of school-hours, are taught gardening and a little carpentry. We hope later to have the means to enlarge this attempt at industrial training.

This is what we are doing for the Children of Flanders; but, above and beyond all, we are caring for their health and their physical development. The present hope of France and Belgium is in its children, and in the hygienic education of those who have them in charge; and we have taught the good Sisters many things they did not know before concerning the physical care of the children. The results have been better than we could have hoped; and those who saw the arrival of the piteous waifs a few months ago would scarcely recognize them in the round and rosy children playing in the gardens of our Houses.



I said just now that when we founded our two refugee charities we were confident of getting money enough to carry them on. So we were; and so we had a right to be; for at the end of the first twelvemonth we are still alive and solvent.

But we never dreamed, at the start, that the work would last longer than a year, or that its demands would be so complex and increasing. And when we saw before us the certainty of having to carry this poor burden of humanity for another twelve months, we began to wonder how we should get the help to do it.

Then the thought of this Book occurred to me. I appealed to my friends who write and paint and compose, and they to other friends of theirs, writers, painters, composers, statesmen and dramatic artists; and so the Book gradually built itself up, page by page and picture by picture.

You will see from the names of the builders what a gallant piece of architecture it is, what delightful pictures hang on its walls, and what noble music echoes through them. But what I should have liked to show is the readiness, the kindliness, the eagerness, with which all the collaborators, from first to last, have lent a hand to the building. Perhaps you will guess it for yourselves when you read their names and see the beauty and variety of what they have given. So I efface myself from the threshold and ask you to walk in.

Paris, November, 1915

Gifts of money for the American Hostels for Refugees, and the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee should be addressed to Mrs. Wharton, 53 rue de Varenne, Paris, or to Henry W. Munroe, Treasurer, care of Mrs. Cadwalader Jones, 21 East Eleventh Street, New York.

Gifts in kind should be forwarded to the American War Relief Clearing House, 5 rue François 1er, Paris (with Mrs. Wharton's name in the left-hand corner), via the American offices of the Clearing House, 15 Broad Street, New York.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1937, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 85 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.