Saturday, September 12, 2015

Helen Mordkovitch-Viannay (1917-2006)

Hélène Mordkovitch was born in Paris on 12 July 1917 to Russian immigrants: her mother had been a doctor and her father a journalist.

To help fund her studies in physical geography, 
Hélène worked as a librarian at the laboratory in Sorbonne, France. After the French government surrendered in 1940, she joined other university students in producing a clandestine newspaper, Défense de la France. 5,000 copies of the first issue appeared in August 1941. Hélène was in charge of the machine that printed the newspaper and kept it hidden in the physical geography laboratory. She also took charge of distribution. 

In October 1942, she married Philippe Viannay [a resistance journalist] with whom she had two sons: Pierre and Francois. 

A total of 47 clandestine issues of the paper appeared over the next three years with circulation gradually increasing to over 450,000 by January, 1944. This was the largest circulation of all clandestine newspapers published in France.

After WWII, Hélène, Philippe and several other left-leaning intellectuals created 
Les Glénans, a sailing school in South Brittany, to help disaffected Parisian youths regain a sense of community. There was little sign then, other than Hélène's vision, that the club would grow to become the largest sail training organization in Europe, with an emphasis on team work, learning to sail and, most importantly, learning about life.

When she established the Centre Nautique des Glénans (CNG) in 1947, it was
at a time when there was little French commercial traffic around the coast and very few pleasure craft at all. In occupied France, German forces had put an exclusion zone around the French coastline. Getting out on a boat was a novelty and using the sea environment for social rehabilitation was a popular idea that took hold. Hélène was convinced that showing confidence in people and expecting high standards were the pillars of responsibility. She attached great importance to finding those she could trust and giving them great responsibility. She took risks by entrusting a cruising boat and its crew to a 20-year-old skipper. She was proud of such initiatives, and they worked.

Hélène wrote in 1990: "For us, the seas were empty and free; with our little cruising boats we could venture where we willed, there was always space in the harbour, foreign moorings were deserted, everywhere a friendly welcome. At that time, Brittany was extraordinarily beautiful."

During the 1960s, Glénans in France expanded greatly; new bases were opened, one after the other. The CNG had an ambition to become truly international, and encouraged the opening of bases in Italy (at Arosa and Caprara) and in Spain. But it wasn't only Glénans that was growing. So was the French economy, and Hélène became disillusioned. The movement which she had launched started to disappear; the coastline was built up, marinas were opened.Increasing regulations, she said, was "souring their dream".

"It was then we started to dream about Ireland. Our imaginations were fired by reports of skippers who since 1961 had been coming back with stories of good and bad weather, sailing conditions which were sometimes difficult, the most beautiful countryside and a warm Irish welcome," she told Ireland Afloat magazine in 1976.

The first Glénans base was set up in Baltimore, west Cork, in 1969, the second in nearby Bere island, in 1971. A west coast base was established on Collanmore Island in Clew Bay, Co Mayo, in 1979. Since 1969 more than 40,000 people have attended Glénans courses in Ireland and 320,000 in France. For the Viannays, Ireland became a symbol of rediscovered roots and freedom.

Phillippe died in 1986. In 2001, Hélène was awarded the Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur, France's highest civilian award. She died December 25th, 2006.

No comments:

Post a Comment