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The Biarritz American University (The BAU)

by redhilllhc

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Angela Vivian
Location of story: 
Biarritz, France
Background to story: 
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Contributed on: 
17 January 2006

In the summer of 1945 the Americans opened a University in Biarritz in the south of France. It took over the entire town and all its hotels. Its aim was I quote: “For the better preparation of military personnel for a return to civilian life”. It had facilities for 4000 students and staff. Many of those students had been in the front line till the end of the hostilities. All students were ordered to remove their caps — bareheaded therefore, officers and men were equal.

The seaside town of Biarritz had been, before the war, a place of escape for the rich and famous from the cold winters of northern Europe.

The hotels were all luxurious — 5 star? There was a casino too of course. This served well as a conference and lecture Hall during the University’s time there. The beautiful villas — I suppose privately owned — were, we understood, rented to the Americans. I know the headquarters of the Liberal Arts Division where I worked was certainly one of those.

Staff were needed for this enormous enterprise. The majority were Americans but they chose British civilian secretaries working at that time in Paris since the liberation. I believe there were 40 of us “carefully chosen” as the General wrote to our Supervisor in his letter of appreciation when the University eventually closed the following March 1946.

We were billeted in a beautifully luxurious hotel overlooking the sea. Each of us had a room and bathroom. We could not believe our luck…

Work was hard but Biarritz offered us many ways of passing our leisure time. Swimming in the sea however was not pleasurable. The beach was pebbly and the sea often choppy. Some yards out to sea there was a tempting rock where many a diver had been lost. A few feet under waters from that rock was such a powerful current which carried any unfortunate diver a few miles before releasing the body to the surface. Inhabitants of that town didn’t warn any enemy bathers… One of our students didn’t heed a warning given to him…

Further along the coast of St Jean de Luz the bathing was good. We went there if we could obtain transport which wasn’t often.

There was entertainment arranged for everybody. Many well-known actors and singers came to teach and entertain us. Marlene Dietrich was one of them. She stayed a while and we got to know her well. She was natural and friendly. We pinched ourselves now and again!

There were many musicians amongst those students. They formed orchestras of all kinds. There was, therefore, always somewhere we could find to dance the evenings away.

I remember one time after an evenings dancing, my partner and I decided to paddle in the sea by moonlight. We left our boots and shoes on the beach. When we went to find them they had gone. The inhabitants in that part of France had few chances to obtain such prizes. We walked back to our billets barefooted. We had learnt a lesson.

My story of a visit to the Spanish frontier, passing through and seeing oranges and lemons in a fruit and vegetable market I have already recounted. One of my favourite escapades.

60 years ago — we were very young.

At the closure of the University in March 1946 we were returned to Paris, then to Frankfurt and reality…
Angela Vivian

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