Yehuda H. Zeilberger's Article: Adolphe Ferriere and Paul Geheeb: A true Friendship

Translated from French by Doron Zeilberger (Dec. 29, 2005)

[This is a translation of the article "Adolphe Ferriere et Paul Geheeb: Une Amite Veritable" written, in French, by Yehuda Zeilberger, (Yehouda Heinz Zeilberger) that appeared in "Autour d'Adolphe Ferriere et de L'Education Nouvelle", Cahiers de la Section des Sciences de l'Education No. 25 (Daniel Hameline, ed.), 1981; 2nd edition: Jan. 1989, published by the University of Geneva.]

If A. Ferriere is, justly considered as one of the great theoreticians of the so-called "new" education, as well as the founder and promoter of the so-called "active" school, Paul Geheeb ("Paulos") may be considered one of the great practitioners and implementers of this education...

These two personalities have grown up and spent their youths in different cultural and intellectual environments. One belonged to the French civilization and is completely Francophone, while the other was purely German. Yet starting at a relatively young age- the former in his thirties and the latter in his twenties,- personal relations of great intimacy have developed and deepened throughout the years, turning into a true and beautiful friendship.

Ferriere is known as a French author, in any case in French-speaking Switzerland and in France. On the other hand, for the above-mentioned reason, it seems to us necessary and important to say some general words about Geheeb. We will try in this article to outline his role in the history of contemporary pedagogy, or more precisely in the history of the pedagogy of the first part of our century. The name of Paul Geheeb is probably forgotten even in post-WWII Germany, since he left Nazi Germany for ideological reasons, and the school that he founded, and that still exists today, does not carry his name. Furthermore, since his school moved to Switzerland, in the canton of Geneva, at Pont-Ceard near Versoix, he named it "School of Humanity", and this school continues to exist in the canton of Berne (at Hasliberg, near Goldern s/Meyringen). This fact is in tune with the cosmopolitan tendencies of his "scholarly community" (in German: Schulgemeinde, a term that he coined himself)... It is no doubt for that reason that he is well-known beyond the boundaries of Germany and Switzerland, and even beyond Europe: he was in close contact, for example, with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who visited him in his school, as well as with the first president of (independent) India, Pandit Nehru, whose grand-children were educated by him. Their mother, Indira Gandhi - the daughter of Nehru and daughter-in-law of Mahatma Gandhi- chief of government (former and current) of India, was a close friend of Paulos Geheeb.

Another character trait of Geheeb (see below for more details) was the variety and diversity of his intellectual and spiritual interests on the one hand, and the serious and conscientious way in which he conducted his university studies, on the other hand.

From the other side, his future friend A. Ferriere - son of a French-Swiss family of old stock and young teacher and pedagogue- was interested in novel pedagogical experiments throughout Europe, and especially in Germany, where one could find the most die-hard and consequential ones. We have found by chance a copy of a letter of Ferriere (between the pages of his, still unedited, Great Diary) addressed to the director of Ecole Normal of Rouen and dated April 29, 1949. This letter contains, among other things, interesting information about Hermann Lietz, the founder of one of the most important experiments in the new education, that of Landerziehungsheime (which means: the Foyers of education in the country). But we also find, in a way, a key to a better understanding of the pedagogical work of Ferriere:

" ... This is indeed the psychology of the unconscious and the philosophy in their reciprocal relations that became the "center of interests" that dominated my life and my pedagogical practice... and I was able to see the magnificent results of such a conception of education. The words of Pindar that Geheeb has adopted himself: "Become whomever you are!" seem to me as true as ever (...)".1 In an article about Geheeb2, published on the occasion of the centenary of his birth, there is an autobiographical note entitled "Lebenslauf" ("curriculum vitae") where Geheeb writes:

"After studying in Berlin and Jena, during twenty semesters, occupying myself in the most diverse subjects, like theology, philosophy, oriental languages (Hebrew and Armenian), as well as the sciences and medicine (especially neuro- and psychopathology), I realized that, in order to help others, one shouldn't become a priest inside a church, but rather an educator of youths! I was helped by the encouragement of Hermann Lietz whom I have gotten to know at Jena, in 1892, and whose friend I became- our friendship was deep and fruitful-just until our separation in 1906... In working out the ideas of Fichte (a German philosopher, a disciple of Kant), we developed together these ideas, and our aim was to implement them and put them to practice in the framework of Landerziehungsheime. The spiritual point-of-departure was indeed the Human and Humanist ideal, the idea of civilization developed by Goethe in his novel Wilhelm Meister: Goethe and Ficthe were, in our eyes, the spiritual sources of our pedagogical movement. Later on, we worked together in the "pedagogical seminar" of Prof. Rein, in Jena... When Lietz spent a year collaborating with Doctor Cecil Reddie in his New School in Abbotsholme, I occupied myself editing his book Emlotshobba where Lietz narrates his experiences in this new school... In the spring of 1898, Lietz himself opened the gates of his first Landerziehungsheim, the first in Germany, near the small town of Ilensburg, at the foothills of the Hartz mountains of Northern Germany... After directing a similar establishment on the Island of Foehr in the North Sea, I have ceded to Lietz's call, in Spring 1902, and I have collaborated with him on founding Haubinda, his second Landerziehungsheim. In 1904 I accepted to direct this school by myself. In 1906, after I separated from Lietz (see above), I have founded first myself-and later with the collaboration of Gustav Wyneken- the Freie Schulgemeinde (the Free scholarly community) of Wickersdorf. It is there that we tried out, for the first time in Germany, the idea of co-education... I parted ways with Wyneken for personal as well as educational reasons, leaving him to direct the school by himself. After a year of travel, I founded the Odenwaldschule (the school of Odenwald, situated in the forested mountain ranges of Western Germany...) "

Meanwhile, Adolphe Ferriere joined Lietz as a collaborator at Ilsenburg, in August 1900; it is there that he probably made the acquaintance of Geheeb, that never worked for Liets, but has certainly visited him for pedagogical and administrative reasons...

In a letter to Ferriere, dated towards the end of July 1939, a little before Ferriere's 60th birthday, Geheeb wrote3:

"... This is almost a "man's age" that we know. Although you are a Swiss, you are, to a certain degree, a product of of the Landerziehungsheim of Doctor Hermann Lietz, which is purely German. It has been several decades since we became friends. Since a long time ago, you have attracted me towards Switzerland, and I still find it hard to believe that this exceptional country has become my second homeland..."

Paul Geheeb considered Adolphe Ferrriere as his best friend, a fact that one can deduce from the numerous letters in the above-mentioned book, a fact that has, furthermore, was confirmed to me by Edith Geheeb, the spouse of Paulos, who is now more than ninety-five years old, when I visited her in September 1980.

Concerning this, or more exactly, his attitude to friendship in general, and how to put it to practice, it is interesting to quote the following passage from a letter to one Miss Hofer (from the "School of Social Work" in Zurich):

"Concerning my attitude to matters of friendship, I am still the way I was when I was a young student. Perhaps even the habit to see in a friendship something sacred, gets amplified with age... When I was still in Germany, the Prof. Adolphe Ferriere, that was then a collaborator of Lietz, became my friend and colleague, and he visited me in my Odenwald school several times, and so he became my first true Swiss friend... Furthermore, as I visited him often in Geneva during the vacation, I developed a close relationship with the Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that was under the direction of my friends A. Ferriere, Pierre Bovet, and E. Claparede. I soon become a kind of collaborator, and they even asked me to replace them in case of emergency... After several years, our dear friend Claparede passed away (in 1940), Pierre Bovet returned to his parental home in Neuchatel, while Ferriere had to retire because of his complete deafness... One didn't simply change the name of the Institute from "The Rousseau Institute" to "Institute of of the Sciences of Education", but also the new director of that Institute, Jean Piaget, was a complete stranger to me." 4

When the National-Socialist party rose to power (end of January 1933), the Odenwald school was on the "black list". Because of his international renown, they were willing to keep Geheeb as director, but on the condition that all the administrative and teaching staff be replaced by party members... In March 19, 1933, Paulos wrote to Ferriere:

"The day-before-yesterday, I mailed a letter to your address. Have you received it? The situation here is becoming more and more critical, all I wish is that my nerves will stand the blow..."

"... I am wondering to whom may I address myself in Switzerland... I have been thinking of Pierre Bovet, and Edouard Claparede, who once briefly visited our school... I wish to ask you, one more time, dear Mrs. and Mr. Ferriere, not to worry about your son Claude5: he is doing very well, and in what concerns the children in general, everything continues at before." In April 11, 1933, Geheeb wrote to his Genevian friend:

During the last few weeks, I very much wanted to see you and to discuss with you: this was probably the hardest time of my life. All that tension, for weeks, of waiting to get arrested! Can you imagine what is passing now in Germany? Thousands of people thrown in prison! Four concentration camps, each for three to five thousand prisoners! With such brutality. The atmosphere is unbearable. Did you learn the truth? The German newspapers are not only forbidden to print the truth, but are forced to lie; For example, the Jewish organizations are forced by the police to declare that the Jews are doing well... One feels thrown back into the Middle Ages, and even before..."

Ferriere did everything to help his friend in these difficult times for him and for his school; It was only after considerable effort and pain that it was possible to move the Odenwald school to Switzerland, but even there it was hard to find a canton favorable to the progressive spirit of the school...

We do not have the letters that Ferriere wrote to Geheeb, and we can only imagine the response... But Ferriere was preoccupied by the problem of the exile of Geheeb and his pupils. He wrote a little book during the War on Our refugee children and another entitled Our children- the principal victims of the war, that appeared in Germany (Paderborn) in 1949, with the subtitle: A psychological, psychotherapeutic and pedagogical study, as well as Our refugees, that appeared as a special issue of the "Messager Social", Geneva, in 1943 and 1944; a chapter deals with the "future of refugee children"...

Paul Geheeb did not write any books. He only wrote a few articles concerning his school and his educational principles. The only "literary" document that he left was his correspondence. The numerous letters to Adoplhe Ferriere witness a long and true friendship of fifty years...

Geheeb, born in 1870, died in 1960, a little after his ninetieth birthday, while Ferriere was able to celebrate his eightieth birthday, on Aug. 30, 1959: they were "extinguished" almost at the same time... They both lived a full life, a life full of ideas and action, for a better education of the children of their country and of the whole world, and one can think of them as "sub specie aeternitatis", according to the idea of Spinoza, with whom Geheeb as well as Ferriere felt a spiritual affinity.


  1. Geheeb used to dictate his letters to his secretary, Mrs. Hartig, who made carbon copies. These copies were made available to the editor of the book mentioned below, by Mrs. Edith Geheeb, the wife of Paul Geheeb, who until recently was the co-director of the L'Ecole d'Humanite, while other letters were found in the archives of Odenwald School, or have been lost... It is difficult to estimate the number of letters written by Geheeb, as the editor indicates in his preface with the exception of the letters in several large files dedicated to conversations with Adolphe Ferriere, his hard-of-hearing friend for a very long time, who later became completely deaf.
  2. Paul Geheeb, Briefe, subtitled Mensch und idee in Selbstzeugnissenheimen that appeared in the series "Texte zur Schriftenreiben aus den Deutschen Landerziehungsheimen", Stuttgart, Ernst Klett Verlag, 1970.
  3. Ibid, p. 50.
  4. Ibid, pp.56-57.
  5. Adolphe and Isabelle Ferriere, between 1920 to 1930, traveled abroad several times due to the International activity of Ferriere. Ferriere's deafness, as well as the draconian diet that he imposed on himself and his modest financial resources that prevented him from hiring a secretary made it necessary for Isabelle Ferriere to constantly accompany her husband. Their only son, Claude Ferriee, born in 1916, was educated at several progressive schools. He stayed with Geheeb between 1931 and 1934.

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