Three people, three stories

These reports by the victims of Switzerland’s compulsory social measures are extremely personal and tell a tale of unspeakable suffering that continues to affect the victims and their families to this day.

Bernadette Gächter, who was forcibly sterilised as a young woman. Photo: Remo Neuhaus © Guido Flury Foundation

Clément Wieilly, former contract child Photo: Remo Neuhaus © Guido Flury Foundation

Bernadette Gächter’s story

“I am one of those women who were forced to have abortions and be sterilised on the basis of eugenic principles. This was in the canton of St. Gallen in 1972. When I accidentally fell pregnant at the age of 18, I was told I was mentally disturbed even though I had graduated from secondary school. Doctors, my guardian and my foster parents told me I had brain damage and that my child would also be born with brain damage. They had me sterilised the same way you sterilise a cat to prevent it having four litters a year. I could no longer start a family, no longer have children. As a young woman, it hurt me deeply whenever I saw mothers with their babies or children. Today, whenever I see women with their grandchildren, it still pains me greatly. I have no feeling in my belly to this day. I’ve been fighting for my rights for 30 years. It takes enormous strength, incredible energy and a very strong will to live a meaningful life in spite of something like that. Following a decision by the Council of Europe on 26 June 2013, I am now entitled to compensation.”

Alfred Ryter’s story

“My mother suffered from a serious and long-drawn-out illness, with trips to spas over many years. So, when I was barely eight, I was sent to work on the farm of a childless couple, presumably for financial reasons. My two older brothers also became contract children. From then on, I slept on an old sofa in a threshing room, covered in old woollen blankets and surrounded by feed and all kinds of machines. When I realised where I was and how I was being treated, I became rebellious. I begged, wept and banged my feet against the door of the threshing room. I smashed things around me. To no avail. They were more powerful and they broke me. From then on, I was repeatedly starved, beaten and disregarded. However, it couldn’t touch me anymore. I felt best when I was at work, which was long and hard. But at least I wasn’t locked up. Hunger and pain were now my constant companions. Whenever I got too hungry, I ate pig slops or chicken feed. In the morning, when I returned from the cowshed and brought the farmer’s wife the milk, I was given a piece of bread and jam as my morning meal, as well as a cup of milk, although that was diluted with cold water. At first, the farmer’s wife told me she had poured cold water into the milk to prevent me from scalding myself while drinking.

If I misbehaved, which the farming folk believed was often the case, I was given only a piece of bread without jam and cold water for my morning meal. That would have to last me all day. I lost weight until I was just skin and bones. Did no-one notice? Why not?

“One of the most severe punishments I received was when I stole an orange from some summer visitors. When the farmer’s wife found out, she beat me with farm implements till I bled and locked me in the threshing room. A short time later, I was taken outside, forced to strip naked and told to sit in cold well water, whereupon the farmer’s wife scrubbed me with a rice root brush. Thieves didn’t only need beating, she said. They also had to have their evil scrubbed away.

“Fifty years later, my past caught up with me. I had suffered from depression previously, although I didn’t really know why. Now I do. I had to cope with a number of devastating events: the suicides of my brothers and the constant reminders of my hellish youth. Thanks to more than 20 years’ support from my psychiatrist and strong medication, I am now somewhat more stable. My time as a contract child shaped my entire life. Even my wife and two children suffered as a result.”

Clément Wieilly’s story

“I was born in Fribourg public hospital in 1954. My brother was born in 1952. Our parents abandoned us after our birth. First we were housed in the surgical and paediatric wards of Fribourg cantonal hospital, then at the St. Francis home for babies in Courtepin and in Pringy. Just like in all our subsequent placements, we were under the guardianship of the local authorities. From 1958 to 1968, we were placed in the orphanage of the civic community of the city of Fribourg. The director was very strict, knew no mercy, beat us and refused us meals. We were constantly punished, and extremely brutally. I had a pillow pressed over my face until I passed out. I was the victim of sexual abuse and voyeurism. At school, the other kids made fun of us because we were orphans. The teachers abused us. In 1962, a new director was appointed and he was a bit more compassionate. From 1968 to 1970, my brother and I were split up and I was placed with a farming family. The work was hard, with many restrictions attached and I wasn’t paid. I worked from 5.30 in the morning until 8 at night and attended school occasionally. Every now and then, the family were nice or friendly towards me. During this time, my brother was housed with a family of chimney sweeps, for whom he worked unpaid. At the age of 16, I was sent to a home again, this time a home for apprentices in Fribourg, where I was trained to become a plumber. The older children abused us mentally, physically and sexually. The educators pretended not to notice. My brother was also sent to that home, where he trained to become a shoe salesman. But we weren’t there at the same time. He was abused in the same way I was. We grew up and then started work with no personal environment, no knowledge and no guidance. We were never prepared for life as young adults, with all that this entails. We were clueless and open to manipulation. We lacked basic knowledge about how to manage our finances or avoid danger. People therefore took advantage of our naivety and tricked us into taking out micro-loans. I’m still paying off my debts. Today, I am still living off a small disability pension and I managed to found the association Agir pour la Dignité.” [The association supports victims of compulsory social measures and works to raise awareness about the issue among the general public. – Ed.]

Comments (2)
  • Sylvia Chachay, Neukaledonien
    Sylvia Chachay, Neukaledonien at 21.05.2017
    Ces trois témoignages font penser au Moyen Age - et pourtant ils sont contemporains de ma propre jeunesse. Je me demande si de nos jours, en Suisse, il y a des enfants qui subissent les mêmes horreurs sans que personne ne leur vient en aide....
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  • Jeannette Friedman
    Jeannette Friedman at 21.05.2017
    Jeannette Friedman, United States
    I am so sorry to read about "Three people, three stories". How terrible to go through such an experience.
    My experience is totally different, yet it seems to be during same time period, early 1950s.
    I spent two years in an "Orphanage" in La Chaux-de Fonds". It changed names since then.
    It was for orphans or kids from trouble homes from infancy to 18 years old. We were well taken care off, went to local schools, slept in dormitories, went skiing in front of the buildings, had gifts at X-mas times, donated by the people of the city, had a X-mas tree, reading times with the director who tried to interest us about Swiss authors and Swiss culture. We were looked down somewhat by others at school because it was known where we lived, but I don't think it was excessive.
    I just want to present another side of Switzerland's orphanages,.
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