A Pied Piper in Switzerland

Tomorrow was created yesterday. To ignore history is to ignore the wolf at the door.

                                                                        John Le Carre

The Swiss government has recently admitted to ‘oversights’ in adoption regulations that resulted in 900 babies from Sri Lanka being illegally sold to Swiss parents between 1973 and 1997. Following an in-depth investigation, prompted by a parliamentary question, it transpires that the Swiss federal authorities were aware of what was happening as early as 1981. Illegal adoptions were also negotiated with Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

Unfortunately, Switzerland’s practice of separating children from their birth parents has a long legacy. Between 1860 and the early 1970s, a practice known as ‘verdingen’ (indentured servitude) operated in Switzerland. Children, considered to be at risk of poverty, were forcibly removed from their families and sent, either to orphanages or to work as farm hands. Unmarried, divorced or widowed mothers were rarely allowed to keep their children. Many ‘Verdingkinder’ were sent to live in neighbouring cantons and lost touch with their parents and siblings. The Swiss government took the view that hard work and self-discipline were a natural corrective for these potentially wayward children and would provide them with the means to support themselves as adults.

In 2016, I was researching my own Swiss family history and I met with a group of former Verdingkinder. Their stories were heartbreaking: many spoke of relentless hunger, of eating slops from the pig trough and stealing fruit from the orchard. Some slept in attics or on old sofas in the barn. Others were beaten with leather belts, wooden posts or the ‘Teppichchlopfer’.

We had a Teppichchlopfer at home, a carpet beater which my mother used to discipline the dogs. She insisted that it didn’t hurt them but that the whistling sound passing through the bamboo paddle frightened them. Teppichchlopfer was a word both labradors learnt to recognise early on and the mere mention of it would send them cringing to their beds.

One former Verdingkind I met back in 2016 has since become a family friend.

Gottlieb Brunner was born in Zurich in 1931. When his father, a bricklayer, lost his job during the Great Depression, he turned to petty theft. ‘Godi’ was sent to live with his grandmother before being verdingt to a Bernese farmer. Although his grandparents lived in a neighbouring village, the eleven-year-old was forbidden from visiting them. The farmer’s wife persisted in telling the boy that he was a good-for-nothing scoundrel, just like his father. When he was fifteen, he was sent to a psychiatric clinic near Bern where he spent twelve months undergoing treatment for bed-wetting. He was medicated, given injections and forced to undergo electric shock therapy. Godi apprenticed as a joiner and at the age of 20, he was finally released to his own fate. He found work as a hotel porter, a butcher and later as a construction worker on the Jungfraujoch. On Saturday nights, he would go dancing in Bern and it was on the dance floor that he met a young widow with two small children. As he had nowhere else to stay, he began spending his weekends with Getrud. Three months later, Godi was called to attend an interview with social services where a panel of four administrators informed him that, unless he married this young woman, both she and her two children would be sent to an institution. He saw no alternative but to comply.

Godi will be 90 years old in March and has been happily married to his second wife, Renate for more than 50 years. When our granddaughter was born, Godi carved her a Swiss chalet. It has a cedar-shake roof, red shutters, window boxes full of flowers, a neatly stacked wood-pile with its own tiny axe and a water pump. The chalet also doubles as a money box. Godi told me that he had inserted a flap behind the slot so that any deposited coins could not be retrieved by searching fingers. Thriftiness is a quality many former Verdingkinder have in common. They recognised, early on, that financial independence offered greater freedom of choice and self-determination, something very few of them had experienced as they were growing up.

Thea’s chalet bank sits on the shelf of her nursery, as yet empty of coins, but overflowing with the generosity of a man she has never met.