A view of the exhibition ‘Vom Glück vergessen’.
A view of the exhibition ‘Vom Glück vergessen’. Rätisches Museum

A dark chapter in Switzerland’s history

Abused, not cared for – these few words sum up the fate of countless children, adolescents and adults in Switzerland up into the 1970s. Under the title ‘Vom Glück vergessen’ (Forgotten by happiness), the Rätisches Museum Chur vividly brings to life for its audience the reality of ‘enforced welfare measures’.

Hibou Pèlerin

Hibou Pèlerin

For many years, Hibou Pèlerin has been winging his way to cultural and historical exhibitions. For the Swiss National Museum’s blog, Pèlerin picks out one or two pearls and showcases them here.

Even as a child, Ruedi had to get up between three and four in the morning and start by milking his way through a stable full of cows and goats – a stable in which he himself also slept. Then he was given a bowl of goat’s milk. Needless to say, he was constantly falling asleep at school. For lunch, he got what the pigs got: boiled potatoes in a swill-like broth. In the stable. The pigs went first. When he was eight years old, he was sent that summer to move a fence on an alp. There was an unexplained incident – an explosion, probably related to nearby military exercises – which resulted in him being severely injured. Ruedi lost half a hand, and spent several weeks in a coma (it was pure chance that he was found in time and taken to hospital). But afterwards he had to continue toiling away, despite his disability. The boy was also sexually abused. He was passed on to more than 30 labour placements, from Romandie to Graubünden. The reason for this is still unclear. When he was born, his mother was working in a restaurant and his father was on active service. The child was sent to his grandmother; he had only just turned three when she gave him away. His happiest childhood experience was when a social welfare worker once took him to the zoo in Basel and the lion chained up there licked his hand when he held it through the bars. Ruedi developed a special connection with animals. He had every reason to distrust people. Ruedi Hofer (name changed) was born in 1943 in the Canton of Bern. Today he lives a reclusive existence in the remotest corner of a valley, where he has spent many years training rescue dogs. The victim support centre ‘Opferhilfestelle Graubünden’ helped him access a long-overdue, modest financial compensation of CHF 25,000. Small consolation for a stolen childhood and ruined adolescence that has left indelible impacts.
‘I’ve been treated like a package.’ How indentured child labourer Ruedi Hofer* (born in 1943) was shunted from one place to another and suffered a serious injury. Interview: Tanja Rietmann, in Swiss German. Rätisches Museum
His story, outlined here only in rough detail, is not an isolated case. Quite apart from the moving personal fate of this particular man, that is particularly disturbing. Today’s young people find it hard to comprehend that until well into the middle of the 20th century there were thousands of Verdingkinder (indentured child labourers) – child slaves, in reality – in Switzerland. They were the product of a society that in many places was still grappling with extreme poverty, was heavily reliant on cheap labour, and lacked appropriate structures to mitigate the consequences, especially for its most socially deprived members. Children from the families concerned were sometimes offered for sale in markets, like cattle. They were among the more than 100,000 people in this country who, up until the 1970s, were victims, for a variety of reasons, of what were known as ‘enforced welfare measures’ and foster care placements. It is only in the last 10 years that this dark chapter has moved front and centre in the public consciousness, since the apologies given by Federal Councillors Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (2010) and Simonetta Sommaruga (2013). In addition to the now abundant accounts of those affected, starting with Mariella Mehr’s shocking work Kinder der Landstrasse (Children of the Country Road), released in 1987, a very moving exhibition at the Rätisches Museum in Chur now adds another layer to this awareness.
'Schwabenkinder' (Swabian peasant children) in Ravensburg. Children from Graubünden were traded at the large Ravensburg market and hired out to farmers on ‘foster placements’.
'Schwabenkinder' (Swabian peasant children) in Ravensburg. Children from Graubünden were traded at the large Ravensburg market and hired out to farmers on ‘foster placements’. Wikimedia
In highly atmospheric audio pieces of around 10 minutes each, created by journalist Christina Caprez, visitors can hear Ruedi Hofer’s story, together with four other examples of the fates of individual casualties of this system. If you don’t have time to travel to Chur, the audio can also be accessed via the Museum’s website. But the impact is more powerful if you listen to the dramatisations at the Museum. The audio stations are located in rooms made of cardboard which place us in the specific living conditions of the narrators of each story. In Ruedi Hofer’s case, it’s a stable; for the story of Florian Branger, who as a rowdy and therefore ‘difficult’ teenager began his ‘career’ as mandated by the guardianship authorities in the notorious Realta labour institution (Cazis), we take our seats in a punishment cell. The device using the immersive cardboard rooms designed by scenographer Karin Bucher was initially born out of necessity: apart from files and mostly documentary photographs and portraits of the people involved, such as those of Theo Frey, there is scant historic evidence of this portion of Switzerland’s past. Poverty leaves few traces. The threadbare teddy and the battered children’s shoes in the Albin family’s tiny room (the family, with its eight children, was split up in 1953 ‘for social welfare reasons’ due to poverty and alcoholism) are meagre vestiges of the kind that normally end up in the garbage, and not in a museum. At the same time, the theatrical cardboard staging saves us from falling into the realism trap: no, even if we can now begin to vividly imagine the lives of those affected, there remains an insurmountable distance. And that’s a good thing, because it respects the dignity of the victims by making it clear that, at most, we can to a rudimentary degree understand their suffering.
A view of the exhibition ‘Vom Glück vergessen’.
A view of the exhibition ‘Vom Glück vergessen’. Rätisches Museum
Text, documents and photographs on the exterior of the cardboard rooms explain how the ‘enforced welfare measures’ came to be enacted in the first place, and what ideas and individual parties were responsible. This notion began with a fundamentally new understanding of poverty from the 16th century onwards, when a crucial distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ poor was introduced. While the giving of alms as a response to begging and ‘divinely ordained’ poverty was still common in the medieval period, both the practice and the notion now fell into disrepute. The connection with the Reformation and with Protestantism, which advocated a new work ethic, is not overtly made, but seems likely. Eventually, in the 19th century, poverty was seen as self-inflicted through one’s own laziness and vice. This ‘slovenliness’ had to be responded to with an appropriate, in most cases religious-based, regime of education and ‘correction’. Whether the backdrop to the victim’s socially abnormal reality was hardship, despair, alcoholism, physical handicap or mental impairment was of no interest. That was the genesis of the ‘institution’, that establishment whose unhappy history as the dark underbelly of Europe’s Age of Enlightenment was brought into the spotlight by Michel Foucault’s pioneering studies in the 1970s. ‘Forcible confinement for welfare purposes’ was first implemented in Graubünden in the labour institution in Fürstenau, set up in 1840 – as if in mockery of their new inhabitants, the ‘institutions’ were housed in former mansions. There, the inmates were to be educated to be ‘useful members of civil society’. It was by no means the only example of a repressive social policy in which underfunded and overstretched lay panels and authorities imposed stretches of confinement sometimes lasting many years, and fraught with consequences. Archaeological excavations in the cemetery at Cazis, where the notorious Realta ‘correctional institution’ was located, show that huge numbers of those buried there from Realta have broken ribs or other signs of physical abuse.
A view of the exhibition ‘Vom Glück vergessen’.
A view of the exhibition ‘Vom Glück vergessen’. Rätisches Museum
The economic background for these circumstances, including in Graubünden, was situations of extreme hardship as a result of crop failures and ensuing famines in the first half of the 19th century. Although attempts were made to react to this with ‘poor orders’ (Armenordnungen), the resources for this fell far short of what was needed. Sadly, we only get to see reproductions of Albert Anker’s large-format paintings depicting these conditions, such as his well-known Armensuppe. But this makes the punchline almost more apparent: clearly, poverty was appropriate as a subject for the genteel parlours of wealthy art-lovers and for display in museums. Those circles of society, who owed their wealth not least to the cheap labour provided by the underprivileged, were less inclined to think about and reflect on these issues. There is always the risk of observing from the sidelines the misery of others whenever distress and hardship is on display in some way. Today we have the concept of Elendspornografie (pornography of suffering) to describe this. The exhibition also looks at the role of various private foundations, associations and church organisations, which in this context mostly tended to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. For example, Pro Juventute’s organisation Hilfswerk für die Kinder der Landstrasse (Charity for the Children of the Country Road), which was dissolved in 1973, was guilty of massive interference in the family life of Roma and Yenish peoples. One of those affected, Uschi Waser (born in 1952), recounts this experience.
'Die Armensuppe' (Soup for the poor), painting by Albert Anker, 1893.
'Die Armensuppe' (Soup for the poor), painting by Albert Anker, 1893. Wikimedia / Kunstmuseum Bern
From the 1970s onwards, Switzerland finally drew a line under this dark chapter. The signing of the UN Convention on Human Rights in 1974 played a role in this, as did the criticism of the institutional system that gathered pace in the wake of Foucault’s theories. But even in the early 2000s, the federal government still refused to acknowledge and engage with this history of orphans, forced sterilisation and indentured child labourers. Only when Federal Councillor Widmer-Schlumpf offered a formal apology, as mentioned above, did the tide of thinking start to turn at the political and administrative level as well. The Canton of Graubünden is playing a leading role here. In 2013, State Councillor Jon Domenic Parolini apologised to those affected and set up a commission of experts. In addition, historian Tanja Rietmann researched the subject on behalf of the government. She also devised this illustrative exhibition on the basis of her published work on the subject.
A view of the exhibition ‘Vom Glück vergessen’.
A view of the exhibition ‘Vom Glück vergessen’. Rätisches Museum
One of the merits of this highly focused exhibition is that it doesn’t give us answers; rather, it poses very uncomfortable questions. At the end of the presentation, these questions lead very directly into our contemporary era. ‘Whom will we be apologising to tomorrow?’, ‘Is someone keeping a file on you?’, ‘How private is family?’, ‘How much misfortune can a person endure?’ From an administrative perspective at least, enforced welfare measures may be a thing of the past. Nevertheless, we have only to look around us a little more attentively and we can hardly overlook the fact that these questions and, concomitantly, the issue of how to deal responsibly with the most vulnerable members of our society are still a long way from being settled.

Vom Glück vergessen

22.08.2020 29.08.2021 / Rätisches Museum Chur
The exhibition is centred on five people affected by the system of enforced welfare measures, all born between 1881 and 1957. In accessible rooms made of cardboard you, the visitor, are invited to enter their world. Audio dramatisations and archive documents tell their stories. And the question is raised: how does what happened affect us today? The exhibition is available in German, Italian and Romansh and is accompanied by a free booklet. Well-prepared teaching materials (secondary level) are available for teachers (in German). For instruction at tertiary level, there is a Moodle course at www.sorgeoderzwang.ch The audio pieces are also available online, along with a film on the subject.

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