Eloquent witnesses to World War II: the sandstone reliefs in the Töss Valley
More than 100,000 soldiers from foreign armies were interned in Switzerland during World War II. Reminders of their presence can still be found today – in the Töss Valley in the Zurich Oberland, for instance.
Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.
If you hike along the Töss from Winterthur’s Sennhof district to Kollbrunn, with a little luck in the cold season you’ll be able to make out, in a rock about 20 metres above the path, a figure: a man at work viewed from behind, hewn into the soft sandstone. It was the work of Polish internees during World War II, the old people in the valley say. But there are also other explanations; the figure could have been carved into the cliff even before World War II by a man who then left Switzerland forever. Our guide in the valley points out a second sandstone relief. It’s on a steep hiking trail between Rikon and the hamlet of Dettenried. The relief, which you cannot fail to see from the path, shows a man wearing a hat and strange, curvy houses that look a bit like those painted by Marc Chagall.We show the pictures to Polish-Swiss sculptor Romuald Polachowski, who lives in Aadorf, just a few kilometres from the Töss Valley. Polachowski is himself the son of a Polish internee. When he sees our pictures, he is electrified: ‘The picture from Rikon shows the head of a farmer from Zakopane in Poland’s Tatra Mountains.’ And the houses are also typical of that part of the country.Romuald Polachowski has an unusual and moving life story. His father Pawel was one of those 12,500 Poles who crossed the Swiss border in the Jura in June 1940, together with 20,000 French soldiers. After the German-Soviet invasion of their country the same year, the Poles had set out to fight alongside the Allies against Nazi Germany. In the region of Belfort in France, these troops were surrounded by the German Wehrmacht. They made their way to safety in neutral Switzerland, as provided for in the Hague Land Warfare Regulations. Switzerland disarmed the soldiers, and had to accommodate them until the end of the war. Larger camps proved to be unsuitable for this; there were problems and even revolts. In the Federal Archive we find the voluminous final report of the Eidgenössische Kommissariat für Internierung und Hospitalisierung (EKIH), the Federal commission tasked with handling the internment and hospitalisation of these soldiers. The document lists no fewer than 1,200 Swiss towns and villages that took in internees – practically every village in the Töss Valley.There are clear traces of this period in the valley: for instance, there is a ‘Polenweg’, a Poland trail, above Gibswil. It was mapped out during World War II by a young man who was very keen on sports, and built with the help of 30 Polish internees at a cost of what was then 800 francs. There are more than 25 of these trails in Switzerland. Constructing them was a way to keep the young men occupied without competing with local businesses.But the story of the soldier Pawel Polachowski doesn’t end there. After the war, he married a Swiss woman. This meant the woman lost her Swiss citizenship, and the family had to leave the country. Their son Romuald was born in Poland in 1947. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that the family was allowed to return to Switzerland. There were hundreds of such marriages in those days, and we know of more than 500 descendants of Polish-Swiss couples; Zug journalist Marie-Isabell Bill retold some of their life stories in a book published in 2020.There are other traces of this era to be found in the Töss Valley. French internees paved the floor of the Hirsgarten schoolhouse in Rikon, and as a reminder they left a mosaic, still clearly visible today, featuring the coat of arms of Mulhouse. Older people still remember this time well, and many kept up the contacts they made at the time long after the war. Ursula Vetter from Turbenthal was a child at the time. She has vivid memories of Italian and English internees. One of them, an Italian named Gino Bollani, walked her to kindergarten from time to time when she was five years old. Ursula’s mother, Emma Frei-Gubler, continued to exchange letters with Gino Bollani after the war. Emma Frei had gone to England as a young woman to live with a pastor’s family and learn English. At the time of the internments, she was probably the only person in the village who spoke English fluently. This fact quickly became known among the English-speaking internees, and the Frei family’s front room soon became a gathering place.We can find structural evidence from that era in Bauma, further up the Töss Valley. Two plaques at the Reformed Church commemorate the French and the British internees. The French and Polish internees have already been mentioned. But how did the Italian and British internees come to be in Switzerland? In Bauma’s Chronikarchiv, or chronicle record office, we find the translation of a document that provides the explanation.In the letter, one of the interned British soldiers describes how he was captured as a prisoner of war in the desert near Gazala in Libya on 6 June 1942. One of the great desert battles of World War II took place there. Troops of the British Eighth Army fought against the troops of German Field Marshal Rommel and his Panzer Army Africa. The German forces were supported by Italian units. The Briton was held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Tripoli for the first six months. Then he was taken by train via Naples to Rome, where he spent another three months in a prison camp. In September 1943 – Italy had just announced the armistice with the Allies – he was to have been transferred to Germany. Because his guards missed the transport train, they had to spend the night in the open at Pavia in northern Italy. Under cover of thick fog, he and three other prisoners of war managed to escape, and they eventually made it to safety in Switzerland. Bauma was one of the centres for British soldiers who managed to escape from captivity as prisoners of war. One group photo shows around 60 British soldiers in uniform in front of a house in the village.The French internees were allowed to return home in 1941. All the others stayed until the end of World War II in 1945. Most of the interned Poles didn’t want to go back to their country, which was now part of the Soviet zone, and tried their luck by emigrating elsewhere. Some also stayed on in Switzerland.
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In 1940, General Guisan stood on the battlefield and called for resistance. Meanwhile, French internees wanted to sing the Marseillaise. Yet again, women were responsible for their welfare. ‘Allons les femmes de la patrie.’