Distant memories of schooling in Gstaad
This June my wife and I spent some time in Gstaad for the express purpose of giving me the opportunity of recapturing the wonderful memories which the two years (1938-40) of schooling at the Chalet Flora had implanted in my mind. Although the time I spent in Gstaad represents only a small segment of the 77 years of my existence, it played a major role in shaping my outlook on life. This can best be understood in the context of the turbulent events which were shaking Europe at that time.
My family, which had resided in Germany since the early Middle Ages (tracing their history back to the Rhineland city of Speyer, then known by the Latin name of Spira), were the victims of the religious persecution which precluded my further schooling in my home town of Berlin. It was my great fortune that my parents were able to send me to Gstaad to pursue my studies in the boarding school of Chalet Flora. At that time Gstaad was a small laid back village known primarily for its excellent international schools; its world fame as a tourist haven was to come only in the distant future. However its immutable natural beauty and calm in a chaotic world was apparent even to a ten year old boy.
There are many things which I remember from these childhood years at the Chalet Flora and I will recite only a few. Most importantly I began to love school and this fondness for books and study set me on a course which ultimately led me to become a physician and a professor at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. The gentle and caring methods of imparting knowledge practiced at the Chalet Flora were a world away from the frightening experience of attending school in the Third Reich. My favorite subject was classical mythology which was taught by a beautiful young blond lady who must have been my first “love”. In any case I won as a prize in this subject a book (Contes et Légendes de Suisse) which I have kept in a place of honor in my library to this day. Frau Flora Würsten (Tante Flora) insisted that all students speak French and with the amazing ability of a child I mastered this beautiful language in a couple of months; the communality of language made possible easy discourse among the students who came from many countries of Europe. The school (now a private home), located between two rushing mountain streams (which after merging flow into the Saane river), provided fun for us in crossing from bank to bank by jumping on the exposed rocks; in the summer a swimming pool was filled by one of the brooks but not surprisingly this glacial water provided a chilly experience. Each child was assigned his/her own little garden and I remember walking to Saanen to purchase flowering plants. The school provided a magnificent view of the Wildhorn and I remember one summer hiking to the snowline and having a snowball fight. On other hikes we collected mushrooms under the supervision of teachers. We were treated to bus trips to a chocolate factory near Gruyère, to the Castle of Chillon on Lake Léman and to Interlaken to view Schiller’s William Tell play. On one memorable occasion we were taken to the Palace Hotel where I saw my first movie, namely the Walt Disney Picture “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”.
Of course winter was the most exciting; I learned to ski (there were no ski lifts in Gstaad at that time) and promptly broke my leg. Skating was carried on in the center of the village on a modest flooded tennis court and this was usually followed by a treat of coconut cookies at the bakery next to the rink. We ate our meals at a long table presided by the kindly Herr Würsten, who was the superintendent of the Saanen school system and I remember that such delicacies as brook trout were occasionally on the menu.
Since my parents were not allowed to leave Germany to visit me (an irony in view of the fact that a few years later members of my small family were forced to leave Germany on trains destined for the extermination camps), Herr and Frau Würsten served in loco parentis and they did a most wonderful job; Tante Flora took me into her own apartment (with a balcony overlooking the Wildhorn) after I broke my leg and Herr Würsten wrote kind notes to my worried parents in Berlin. In 1940 a Zurich businessman accompanied me through war time France to London where I joined my parents who had escaped Nazi Germany and had procured the valuable US visa. With the last passenger ship to cross the Atlantic we came to America under the protection of a convoy. Although I had left Europe for good, the memories of Gstaad and its kind people have remained with me.
By Robert Spiro
Top photo: 1938 - Günter skating and skiing. Skating on the rink in Gstaad village and preparing to ski at Chalet Flora.
Middle photo: 1938 – Günter recovering from broken leg on the balcony of Chalet Flora
Below photo: 2006 – Robert Gunter visiting Gstaad sixty six years after attending school at Chalet Flora (since English speakers can not pronounce the umlaut in “Günter” the name “Robert” was added).