Society

Switzerland's 'Contract Children' - Abused, Exploited, Forgotten

A report turns much-needed attention to a dark and long-ignored chapter in Swiss history.

Until as late as the 1970s, Swiss children born out of wedlock were taken from their mothers.
Irene Caselli

In Switzerland, well into the 1970s, children of unmarried mothers or from poor families were taken away from their parents and sent to live with new ones. They were placed in new homes, especially on farms, where they were made to work.

In many cases, they were exploited, beaten and abused at the hands of those who were meant to look after them. And yet attacks were rarely investigated, not least because foster families were barely controlled by the authorities.

As the years went by, the stories of these verdingkinder (contract children), as they are known, were largely forgotten — until recently. In a special report for Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, journalists Corinna Guthknecht and Josef Wirnshofer talk to some former contract children about their traumatic experiences.

"The authorities deprived them of their parents when they were too poor to get them through," writes Wirnshofer. "At the time, poverty was not a problem of the state, but misconduct of the individual. It was also considered a danger to the common good. Poor mothers and fathers, it was thought, would affect the children negatively. Illegitimate children or children of separated parents were especially affected."

Rita Soltermann was five years old when her stepfather gave her away to the authorities, who then placed her in a foster home. "I was never held or shown any affection," she tells Süddeutsche Zeitung. "You were there only to work."

One afternoon, when she was seven, a man that she called uncle asked her to follow him into the woods. There, he abused her. She kept quiet. When the man came back and forced her to go to the woods again, she ran away. She had the courage to tell her foster parents, but they did nothing to protect her.

We had no home, we couldn't go anywhere.

"When you are abused as a child, the memory stays with you your entire life," Soltermann, now 80, told the journalists.

Government workers visited the home only once a year to check that every foster child had a bed. "We were two in each bed but we weren't allowed to say it," recalls Soltermann. "We had no home, we couldn't go anywhere."

In 1959, when she was 19, she got pregnant, but the child's father did not want to be involved. In the hospital, Soltermann was approached by government workers and told to hand over her child. But she stood firm.

"It was enough that I had been "contracted,"" she says. "I'm happy I kept my child. I would have never been able to forget it."

Wirnshofer explains in the article that there are still no reliable statistics on how many verdingkinder existed in Switzerland. But Loretta Seglias, a historian who has been researching the issue since 2003, thinks that hundreds of thousands of such children were placed in foster care in the 19th and 20th centuries.

"It was only in 1978 that regulations on foster children came into force in Switzerland: for the first time it was put into writing that consent was necessary for minors to be given to foster families," the Süddeutsche Zeitung article explains. "Moreover, foster parents were supervised. The largely uncontrolled handling of foster children, which had been the norm up until then, could finally be prevented.

children_swiss_slavery

The Swiss government hid the truth of the verdingkinder for many years — Photo: Corinna Guthknecht/Sueddeutsche Zeitung

"The history of verdingkinder in Switzerland has long been concealed. It took until 2013 for the Swiss government to apologize to those affected. The then justice minister, Simonetta Sommaruga, said at a commemoration ceremony: "For the suffering that has been done to you, I offer you an apology on behalf of the state government, sincerely and with all your heart.""

"Meanwhile, the Swiss government has set up a solidarity fund for the victims of the scheme: 25,000 francs each (approx $25,000) in compensation. More than 9,000 people have registered with the Federal Office of Justice. But the number of surviving verdingkinder is likely much higher — many of them no longer want to contact authorities."

In 2014, the Swiss government appointed an Independent Expert Commission to investigate the use of administrative detention and other compulsory measures as instruments of social welfare in Switzerland before 1981. The commission will publish the final results of its research by the end of 2019.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

La Sagrada Familia Delayed Again — Blame COVID-19 This Time

Hopes were dashed by local officials to see the completion of the iconic Barcelona church in 2026, in time for the 100th anniversary of the death of its renowned architect Antoni Guadí.

Work on La Sagrada Familia has been delayed because of the pandemic

By most accounts, it's currently the longest-running construction project in the world. And now, the completion of work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882, is going to take even longer.

Barcelona-based daily El Periodico daily reports that work on the church, which began as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. But a press conference Tuesday, Sep. 21 confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin).

El Periódico - 09/22/2021

El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world.

One tower after the other… Slowly but surely, La Sagrada Familia has been growing bigger and higher before Barcelonians and visitors' eager eyes for nearly 140 years. However, all will have to be a bit more patient before they see the famous architectural project finally completed. During Tuesday's press conference, general director of the Construction Board of the Sagrada Familia, Xavier Martínez, and the architect director, Jordi Faulí, had some good and bad news to share.

As feared, La Sagrada Familia's completion date has been delayed. Because of the pandemic, the halt put on the works in early March when Spain went into a national lockdown. So the hopes are dashed of the 2026 inauguration in what would have been the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death.

Although he excluded new predictions of completion until post-COVID normalcy is restored - no earlier than 2024 -, Martínez says: "Finishing in 2030, rather than being a realistic forecast, would be an illusion, starting the construction process will not be easy," reports La Vanguardia.

But what's a few more years when you already have waited 139, after all? However delayed, the construction will reach another milestone very soon with the completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years and the second tallest spire of the complex. It will be crowned by a 12-pointed star which will be illuminated on December 8, Immaculate Conception Day.

Next would be the completion of the Evangelist Lucas tower and eventually, the tower of Jesus Christ, the most prominent of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated 13.5 meters wide "great cross." It will be made of glass and porcelain stoneware to reflect daylight and will be illuminated at night and project rays of light.

La Sagrada Familia through the years

La Sagrada Familia, 1889 - wikipedia

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ