Swiss 'contract children' speak out

Two "contract children" at work (Paul Senn Archive, Bern) "Contract children" were expected to perform hard labour on the farms

A dark chapter of Swiss history is getting increased attention, with the release of a feature film about "Verdingkinder" or "contract children" and an exhibition about them which is touring the country.

A common feature of Swiss life until the mid-1950s, Verdingkinder were primarily children from poor families in the cities, forcibly removed from their parents by the authorities and sent to work on farms.

There, many of them were regularly beaten and even sexually abused. They had little education and consequently, as adults, little chance of making careers for themselves.

Many also found that the abuse experienced in their childhood made it difficult to establish relationships as adults - former Verdingkinder have high rates of divorce and many now live alone.

Peter Weber was a Verdingkind. Now 55, he lives in a small flat in Basel, and he has never forgotten the day, over 50 years ago, when his childhood ended.

"One morning, when I was four," Peter remembers, "my mother took me on a train way out into the country, to a farm."

"Then she said, you have to stay here now. I think that was the moment I lost my faith in people, I had to work from the start, they hit me almost every day, it was bad."

Child labour

Peter, who eventually ran away from the farm aged 17, shared his fate with tens of thousands of other Swiss children. The authorities, explains historian Ruedi Weidmann, always insisted they were acting in the best interests of the child.

"Up to the 1950s there were regions in Switzerland that were really poor," he explains. "The Verdingkinder were taken from poor families in the cities.

The 'poverty inspector' examines a contract girl's teeth (Paul Senn Archive, Bern) Little concern was shown for the wellbeing of the children

"Families were deprived of custody if they didn't live according to a middle-class family model - unmarried mothers, or divorced people, or people who weren't able to keep their money together.

"The authorities took away a lot of children and placed them in agricultural environments where they had to work really hard."

Some children were lucky enough to stay in farming families who cared for them, but by and large they were used as child labourers, in an era when, as Mr Weidmann points out, Swiss agriculture was not mechanised, and a great deal of work had to be done by hand.

Worse though was the way many children were treated. Often they were not accepted by the families they were placed with. They were not allowed to eat at the same table, were given very little food, and some were even forced to sleep in the cellar. Beatings were a daily event.

The exhibition "Verdingkinder Reden" or "Contract Children Speak", contains first-hand testimonies from former Verdingkinder, memories they have now shared with Ruedi Weidmann and his colleagues to draw attention to what happened.

In one room of the exhibition (on show in Zurich until April), the walls are painted with quotes from contract children:

  • "In winter they sewed my trouser pockets up (so I couldn't put my hands in them). They said, if you work, you'll stay warm" - Werner
  • "I wasn't allowed to talk. They talked about me, but never to me" - Clara
  • "I had to eat in a little windowless shed next to the stable. I was never allowed to eat in the kitchen at the table with them" - Johann
  • "I was so happy when I could go to school, because no one hit me there" - Alice
Brutality

Other rooms show a variety of farm implements - rakes, wooden shoes, leather straps, cast iron pans. These, explains Mr Weidmann, were things the contract children mention regularly because they were used to hit them.

A group of "contract children" (Paul Senn Archive, Bern) Many "contract children" say their treatment has affected them well into adulthood

Other exhibits include small toys, and letters and postcards sent to the children by their real parents.

"These were nearly always taken away - presents for Christmas they were not allowed to have… to interrupt the contact with the real family," says Mr Weidmann.

The exhibition depicts cruelty on an institutional scale. There are ledgers and files showing how the authorities removed children from parents, and turned them into Verdingkinder.

Nevertheless, despite all the documentation, it is a period in Switzerland's past which even historians find hard to comprehend.

"We can explain many things when we remember that it was a poor country," says Ruedi Weidmann.

"And some of it was moral, a way to discipline the lower classes. But the aggression against these children, that I can't understand."

Waiting for an apology

Many Swiss historians are calling for more research into the way Switzerland's fledgling welfare state operated, in the hope of understanding how the authorities could have condemned so many children to such terrible lives.

Meanwhile the feature film Der Verdingbub (The Contract Boy) is bringing what was once a taboo subject to a wider public. The film has been number one at the Swiss box office for weeks.

"It's time to talk about it," says Mr Weidmann. "Since we began working on this exhibition we talk about it, we tell our friends, and I would say every third or fourth person we talk to says 'yes, my mother', or 'yes, my grandfather was a Verdingkind'."

"It's something that affects a large part of Swiss society in one way or another."

For surviving Verdingkinder however, life can be very difficult. Peter Weber lives alone - his best friend is his dog. Still he takes comfort from the fact that what happened to him is now, at last, a matter of public record.

Contract boy at work, Sonnenberg, 1944 (Paul Senn Archive) Former "contract children" say they would like to see an official apology

"My childhood was stolen from me", he says. "Imagine it, someone takes your four-year-old child away and gives it to strangers - imagine.

"It's very important that this is addressed openly. It's not about money, it's [so] that we are believed, and that the government says sorry. That would do us good. "

It is thought the Swiss government is now considering some form of apology to the Verdingkinder, although no financial compensation seems likely.

Meanwhile Peter's neighbour Magda, who only learned of the history of contract children by talking to Peter, points out that some things can never be put right with words or money.

"I think the worst was that no-one ever told them a bedtime story, never took them in their arms, never a hug - I can't imagine the loneliness.

"I think the worst wasn't the work, it was the beating, and no love, no nothing."

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