A new book has unearthed the hidden history of the orphanage Refuge des Petits in France during World War II, where a privileged American man named Seymour Houghton struggled to establish a haven for desperate children.
“This orphanage influenced hundreds of youths who would have floundered if not for their blessed good fortune in finding their way to its wooden gates that never closed,” says Marty Parkes, author of The Children’s Front: The Story of an Orphanage in Wartime France (2023, Indie Books International).
This orphanage provided needy, displaced youngsters with a worthy place in the world, while Houghton found his own. The Refuge des Petits would flourish. It played a leading role in what became known as The Children’s Front.
The Children’s Front is a term for children during World War II who spent their formative years amidst the extraordinary events that impacted childhood. For those under Nazi occupation like the children of France, it was a time when children were in mortal danger and psychological pressures.
“It is a tale that is both sad and full of joy,” says Parkes. “It describes the direst of circumstances, of death and destitution. It recounts the barbaric treatment that one human can inflict upon another—for no reason other than living on different sides of a national border, or for having a different skin color, or for speaking a different language, or for worshiping at a different church, or for coveting the possessions of another individual or country.”
This book about the Refuge des Petits concentrates largely on the World War II years of 1940–1941, a little more than 80 years ago. Countless refugees were then displaced from their homes, churches, shops, businesses, schools and communities.
“Much human progress has been made during this eight-decade interval,” says Parkes. “But in other ways, few—if any— steps forward have been achieved as this comparison of yesterday and today demonstrates.”
One day on a lark, Parkes typed Seymour Houghton’s name into Google’s search box and hit return.
“One item caught my attention,” said Parkes. “In the archive of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary appeared ‘The Story of a Refuge in France‘ written by Seymour himself. I had been unaware of its existence. I secured a copy and devoured its two dozen pages.”
Parkes read the text again and again. He shared copies with others and highlighted passages that brought the horrors of wartime alive in Houghton’s articulate voice.
“At the same time, the story contrasts these circumstances with uplifting daily instances of generosity, hope and love that combined to nurture France’s next generation,” said Parkes. “It is a tale of compassion and courage carried forth in a deprived and perilous environment. Ultimately, it stands as a testament to heroism and honor.”
Parkes gave up gainful employment in the corporate world many years ago to write about golf for the United States Golf Association (USGA). His service there spanned 16 years, including the last 11 as its senior director of communications.
After the sports world, he moved to higher education as the chief communications officer at three academic institutions: Maryville University in St. Louis; Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania; and Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania.
Parkes has published articles in many varied publications such as The New York Times, Golf Journal, and Sports Illustrated. He has authored or contributed to six previous books, including: Classic Shots, which featured the greatest images from the USGA photo collection; and Disrupter, a profile of innovation regarding Maryville University.
He earned his BA degree in economics from Trinity College in Hartford in 1981. He completed the graduate program in international relations at The London School of Economics & Political Science in London, England, in 1983. He and his wife, Catherine, live among the beauty and history near Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.