The 1950s

“We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind. “

These are the opening words of the Charter of the United Nations Association (UNA) which was opened for signature in June 1945. Growing out of the League of Nations Union after the First World War, the UNA actually preceded the United Nations which was formally established in October 1945 in San Francisco. The UNA was a grass roots, membership organisation with this stated first aim:

 “ To work for friendship and understanding between the peoples of different countries and their co-operation in the tasks of peace. To foster among the people of this country through education and through personal service a conception of national obligation to world interests and a sense of loyalty to the international community.”

Following extensive storm damage in England in 1952 a group of volunteers from the Netherlands came to help with restoration work. The following year, 1953,there were devastating floods in Holland with the loss of over 1,800 lives and the National Secretary of the UNA, David Ennals, along with Jean Inebnit, a Professor at Leeds University, lead a team of 11  British volunteers to help repair the flood damage.

This first outreach of practical action meant UNA International Service (UNAIS) was born. International Service gave a practical expression to the aims of the UNA.

Work camps – where young people volunteered their time to address practical tasks in an area of need - dated back to the end of the First World War and were in virtually every country in the world, including the UK. They were revived in 1945 when reconstruction schemes were begun in Germany and volunteers from a variety of European Nations were invited to take part. From 1953, the UNAIS volunteers got involved in the work camps. 

By 1958 there were more than 650 UNAIS volunteers working through their summer holidays in European work camps. More than ten years after the Second World War had ended, many thousands of refugees were still living in temporary wooden barracks that housed German soldiers .1959 was designated World Refugee Year, the first ever UN International Year and one million pounds, a vast sum of money then and far greater than any previous public effort, was raised in the UK. With other world-wide funds and the work of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) all the Second World War refugee camps were cleared in the course of the decade.

This extract from the 1958 UNA International Service bulletin written by the then Chair, Robert Blackman was sent by a former volunteer as a perfect summary of their condition:

“Over 600 of you came and worked in UNA’s camps this summer. If we had enough staff and money, many more could and would have come.

I know what a minute contribution all this is towards solving the refugee problem………but I have no doubt that when you have long forgotten the train journeys on wooden seats, the aching muscles and the blisters, sunburn, fleas, all those ills the flesh is particularly prone to on a work camp, getting out of a sleeping bag at 5 am, kitchen fires that only smoked, lukewarm cocoa and those monolithic lumps of rubbery cheese, you can look back on your work this summer with justifiable pride. You gave up your holidays, or part of them, to come to UNA’s camps, and at considerable expense to yourself. You worked hard. You lived more roughly than you probably ever have before done before and you did this voluntarily and with gaiety.

Everyone in UNA is (or ought to be) aware of the work you have done and proud of it…May I on all our behalf say thank you.”

And so say all of us.

Austrian work camp in the 1950s, Eleanor Jones

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