Money cannot heal all the wounds of the past

Rita Soltermann was a contract child on a farm in the Emmental. From then on she remained “trapped in the bottom drawer”. She appreciates the federal government’s moves to offer reparation for the suffering inflicted during that period. But the scars remain.

Rita Soltermann, former contract child, in her sea of flowers today: “To have felt no love is the most painful thing.” Photos: Danielle Liniger

In the sitting room of the soon to be 80-year-old Rita Soltermann of Niederönz (BE) there are flowers everywhere – and 350 porcelain piglets. It is a sight that draws a smile. But the little pigs are a souvenir of a childhood that was anything but rosy. At the age of six, Rita Soltermann was contracted to a childless mountain farming family in the Emmental. Rita was the 14th contract child in a row to slave away there on the steep hillsides of the small farm – as an unpaid worker.

At six o’clock in the morning it was time to get up and feed first the chickens and then the pigs. The farmyard smell clung to her when later, unwashed, she hurried off to school. Rita Soltermann puts it bluntly, “We stank.” After school, it was time to change clothes and get back to work. There was no time for homework on a workday. As a result, her limited schooling did not prepare her well for the future. She was not able to learn a trade, was always dealt a bad hand. “When you start out that way, you will just be ‘a helper’ for the rest of your life. You remain trapped in the bottom drawer”, she says.

The piggyback rider

Feeding the pigs was also the highlight in Rita Soltermann’s everyday life as a child. She liked the pigs. They became her companions and even gave her moments of happiness. “Sometimes I rode out of the sty on the back of a mother sow.” At school “Söirittere” – Piggyback Rider Rita – became her nickname.

Rita Soltermann is one of many thousands of victims of compulsory social measures. Her fate is typical of those children robbed of their childhood by the authorities supposedly for their own “welfare”. Children from lower-income families were contracted; others were moved to institutions or given up for adoption. Jenisch children were taken away from their families to guarantee them a “decent” future. Other victims even came under the knife and were sterilised at the behest of the state. For years now Switzerland has been debating about reparation for this dark chapter in Swiss history that lasted until 1981.

The federal government has made an important contribution towards dealing with the past. In an intensive dialogue with those affected, the issue of reappraisal was tackled. The victims were promised a solidarity contribution of 25,000 Swiss francs. More than 9,000 of the mostly elderly victims have filed for a solidarity payment (see also “Review” 4/2018). Rita Soltermann is one of them.

Does the federal government’s gesture of solidarity change the view of one’s own fate? It is not so simple, Rita Soltermann says. Recognition of the injustice suffered is indeed very important. But ultimately there cannot be any actual reparation. “The experience as a child not to have felt love and never to have been hugged cannot be undone.” The memory of the distress she felt as a young mother having to fight to prevent her own child being taken away cannot be erased either. The federal government’s solidarity contribution is important, “but at the same time it is just a small gesture that does not make the scars go away.”

The dilemma that reparation cannot put everything right has also been addressed by victims’ organisations. Robert Blaser of the organisation Fremdplatziert said that the state had done much, but also underestimated many things, such as the defensive reaction to everything official. “For many, the authorities – government, canton, municipality and church – are in the role of perpetrator. And many could not understand why the ‘perpetrator’ wanted to give them money.” The solidarity contribution also represented “a recognition of injustice” rather than an improvement in living conditions. Blaser goes as far as to say that for victims in a precarious life situation the contribution is “disastrous”, describing it as “five months’ wages for a wrecked life”. For him that is not reparation. Luzius Mader, charged by the federal government with the dossier, does not completely contradict that – he calls it a gesture of solidarity and not reparation (see Interview, page 19).

Appeal to the farmers

Werner Zwahlen of the Netzwerk verdingt says solidarity payments cannot change any person’s life history. His network had hoped for a pension solution instead of a one-time payment. Small, monthly subsidies would “have made a greater difference to the past”, he says. Zwahlen and his fellow campaigners also say that it is not enough for the federal government alone to feel committed to a historical reappraisal. Municipalities, cantons and farming organisations are hesitant in tackling their task of reappraisal. Kurt Gäggeler of the Netzwerk verdingt makes the criticism that as far as the farmers are concerned, the point is to “rehabilitate the farms, or free them from the curse of the past”. There is probably no basis for discussion on that yet – Hans Jörg Rüeggsegger, president of the major farmers’ association in Bern, recently responded to Gäggeler’s claim, saying that he did not know of any farms that felt stigmatised because of the past.

Daniel Huber of the Radgenossenschaft der Landstrasse (the Jenisch umbrella organisation), which campaigns for the welfare of the Jenisch and Sinti, agrees that state reparation alone is not sufficient. Money as a gesture of solidarity is “all right and proper”. But particularly the Jenisch and Sinti who are still travelling are shown little understanding in their daily life. Huber said, “The living space for travellers is becoming ever scarcer, farmers are under more and more pressure not to permit them to set up camp.” The contrast between the benevolent attitude of the federal government and everyday reality is just too great.

Granny in a sea of flowers

Back in Niederönz, Rita Soltermann describes other facets of a life without a childhood. She did not meet her youngest sister until she was 68 years old. That shows how much one as a contract child belongs to “a family without a common history”, she says. And she talks about how easily the violence and incivility suffered are passed on, “It was only in hindsight that I realised I was a very strict mother who also dished out the lashes at times,” she says. She regrets that today, but says people carry the cruelty they have suffered within them. Nevertheless, she also speaks of great happiness – she feels secure today at her husband’s side, aware of being surrounded by a loving family.

Obviously, some things are turning out well. The “Söiritterin” from back then now lovingly devotes herself to her flowers and has become “Margritli-Grosi” – Flower Granny. That is what her grandchildren call their grandmother when Rita Soltermann smiles at them from amidst her elaborate floral arrangements.

Read more:

“The contribution is a gesture of solidarity”

Comments (22)
  • Christian E. R. Noll
    Christian E. R. Noll at 21.09.2018
    Diese Frau ist, laut beitrag, bald 80 Jahre alt. Zur Vereinfachung der Mathematik sagen wir, sie sei also 76 Jahre alt. Im Alter von sechs (6) Jahren wurde sie verdingt. (76-6=70) Wir sprechen hier also von 70 Jahren. Das sind umgerechnet (70 x 12) also 840 Monate. Nimmt man nun die "Wiedergutmachung" von Fr. 25'000, so ergibt das knappe Fr. 30 pro Monat, oder Fr. 1.00 pro Tag...

    Mal ganz ehrlich: Wenn es nicht so traurig wäre, müsste man drüber lachen! Insbesondere wenn man sieht, dass an anderen Orten Geld, so scheint es, keine Mangelware ist.

    Und von den Bauernverbänden, welche sich hier als die Unschuldslämmer präsentieren, möchte ich hier lieber gar nicht erst anfangen, sonst kommt mir nämlich gleich die Galle hoch!
    Show Translation
  • Markus Lüttin
    Markus Lüttin at 21.09.2018
    Ich war einige Jahre auch als Ding Bub im Emmental und Rossemaisson und in Merishausen. Statt zu Hause bei den Bauern, das koste die Eltern nichts, denke das war der Hauptgrund.
    Das waren harte Zeiten; mit 8 Jahren anfangs 2tes Schuljahr in Haslenrüegsau bei der Fam. Nyffenegger. Morgens um 4 Uhr Grasen oder Heu bereiten und Stall, Frühstück Rösti im Gemeinschaftsteller,
    grosser Schulweg Richtung Sumiswald, Mittag Feldarbeit, Kartoffelentkeimen für die Schweine, Abends Stall) abends in 1 Bett zu Zweit.
    Lohn war minim, Arbeitskleider. An Weihnachten 2 Tage Frei mit 2 Fr.
    nach Hause wo ich versuchte meiner Mutter ein Blumentopf (sowas) zu zahlen, es half mir eine Kundin im Blumenladen.
    Die eigenen Kinder der Bauernfamilie mussten nie arbeiten und spielten jeden Tag. Das war hart! Diese Zeit kann ich nicht vergessen oder verarbeiten.
    Viel Details lass ich lieber ruhen ansonsten mich der Blutdruck ins Schwindlige treibt. Ich habe nicht mal die Kraft, mich als geschädigt anzumelden.
    Show Translation
  • Andrea Rapolthy
    Andrea Rapolthy at 22.09.2018
    Eine sehr traurige Wahrheit ..... man weiss erst jetzt was für Leid ertragen werden musste und man kann es sich gar nicht vorstellen wie herzlos Menschen mit Menschen umgehen. Ich wünsche mir, dass eine Wiedergutmachung stattfindet und zwar mit einer wirklichen Entschuldigung und lebenslanger Unterstützung dieser ausgenutzten Generation.
    Show Translation
  • Walter Muller
    Walter Muller at 22.09.2018
    It is indeed a shameful and disgusting chapter of Swiss history. Thousands of Jenisch children were taken away from their parents, never to see them again. The compensation of 25.000 francs is a sick joke. See the film 'Children of the Open Road'.
    Show Translation
  • Andrew Röthlisberger
    Andrew Röthlisberger at 22.09.2018
    Thank you for this article on the contract children. My father was on of those in the Emmental. He was often beaten without mercy for small things such as not eating dead maggots in the soup. Often he could not walk for days after the beatings.
    Show Translation
  • wilfried walliser
    wilfried walliser at 23.09.2018
    Die bescheidene Gutmachung von CHF 25'000 ist erbärmlich und in
    keinem Verhältnis mit den Beträgen, die man an Flüchtlinge zahlt, die ohne einen Finger zu krümmen fürstlich abgegolten werden. Wo ist da die Verhältnismässigkeit? Weiter möchte ich die äussert langsame Abwicklung der Prüfung der Anträge und, als Konsequenz, die späte Auszahlung der "Solidariatszahlungen" beanstanden. Viele der "Opfer", da sehr betagt, sterben weg bevor
    sie auch nur einen Rappen bekommen.
    Hat man sich bis jetzt immer nur als Bürger zweiter Klasse gefühlt, kommt der ganze Schmerz von neuem hoch. Für mich persönlich ist die ganze Solidarität mit dieser Schweiz schon lange verloren gegangen und wird wieder auf's Neue bestätigt.
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  • Marie Saladin-Davies
    Marie Saladin-Davies at 24.09.2018
    I am glad at last to read how some children were treated in Switzerland. It is a disgrace we did this to 1980. I have a family history like this. My mother married in the 1930 and had 3 children 2 boys and a girl. She became a widow early in the 1940's. Because she was a widow the state or federal took all her 3 children away. She was not allowed to see them. I only saw my oldest half brother from the distance once. My half sister I was 15 before I saw her for the first time. My other brother once he was 20 being now full of age came to us and told our mother how he was used by this farmer and he was given this Cider which was alcoholic as a child and become later an alcoholic. I just hope my oldest half brother (who resented my mother what has happened to him) can now see why my mother did not bring him up, if he is still alive. I am glad I left Switzerland in 1970.
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  • Gabriela Fasnacht
    Gabriela Fasnacht at 24.09.2018
    Shame on the Swiss. My father was one of those children. He died two years ago. It made him the man he was. He trusted no one, bitter and was withholding.
    Show Translation
  • Jeanne Golay
    Jeanne Golay at 24.09.2018
    I cannot understand the comments by C. E. R. Noll as I do not know German well enough. I do not think comments should be included in the Swiss Review except in English, which is the main 'lingua franca' for Swiss people abroad, at least in my part of the world.
    Show Translation
    • Christian E. R. Noll
      Christian E. R. Noll at 24.09.2018
      @Jeanne Golay
      First of all, I was born and risen in german part of Switzerland (Winterthur near Zurich). Then, there is absolutely NO SPECIFICATION regarding language here in this fórum. Third: Swiss Revue is written in French, German and like you stated, English. And by the way: Swiss oficial language, spoken in the Government, is French, only in case you didn't know.


      Christian E. R. Noll
      Show Translation
  • Doris Ammann -Mollet
    Doris Ammann -Mollet at 24.09.2018
    Showcases for KESB how NOT to treat children and families.
    Show Translation
  • Christoph
    Christoph at 25.09.2018
    In diesem Zusammenhang ist auch der Film "Der Verdingbub" von Markus Imboden zu empfehlen.
    Show Translation
  • Werner Hohler
    Werner Hohler at 26.09.2018
    Like Jeanne Golay, I do not understand German anymore,while I was born in Berne and my parents were Swiss German and spoke to us in German while growing up in Geneva. Having lived in Canada for over 47 years with little or no opportunities to speak German, I forgot the language (not that I was ever fond of it, growing up as a kid, I have always considered French my mother tongue). As a result it would be a welcome addition to translate the comments into the language of the rest of the revue, or at least to offer a translation tool, as many places do (such as Facebook, for instance).
    As for the article, I found it fascinating, as I had never heard of this dark chapter while living and growing up in Geneva from the fifties, until I left for Canada in 1971.
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    • Bernard BARRAS
      Bernard BARRAS at 27.09.2018
      Thank's for your suggestion Jeanne. I agree with you and will be very happy to get the german translation into french and/or English.
      Merci Jeanne pour votre commentaire, J'apprécie les articles de la revue et particulièrement celui-ci mais je reste frustré de ne pouvoir avoir la traduction directe des commentaires des autres compatriotes. Quant à Rita je suis d'accord avec elle, Le traumatisme est bien réelle et ne peut-être effacé par de l'argent même si c'est une juste compensation. Je trouve l'idée d'un montant mensuel plus compensatrice si je puis me permettre. Merci d'avoir partagé cet épisode obscur de notre histoire.
      Show Translation
    • Jules Erni, Dänemark
      Jules Erni, Dänemark at 27.09.2018
      A translation tool, as sugetionet, would be very nice.
      Ein Übersetzungsmodul, wie vorgeschlagen, ist wünschenwert.
      Show Translation
    • Marc Lettau (Redaktion «Schweizer Revue»)
      Marc Lettau (Redaktion «Schweizer Revue») at 27.09.2018
      Dear Readers,
      Unfortunately, "Swiss Review" currently cannot offer a translation tool. However, we will check the possibilities for a suitable improvement. As an interim solution we recommend the free translation service of "deepl": Even longer texts can be translated on in satisfactory quality.

      Liebe Leserinnen und Leser,
      Leider kann die «Schweizer Revue» derzeit keine Übersetzungsfunktion anbieten. Wir werden aber die Möglichkeiten für eine entsprechende Verbesserung prüfen. Als Zwischenlösung empfehlen wir den kostenlosen Übersetzungsdienst von «deepl»: Auch längere Texte können auf in zufriedenstellender Qualität übersetzt werden.
      Show Translation
  • Christian E. R. Noll
    Christian E. R. Noll at 27.09.2018|en|

    I have tested the translation from german to english via Google-Translator. It's really very simple:
    1. Mark the text by selecting it
    2. Press "Ctrl" + "C"
    3. Open Google-Translator
    4. Press "Ctrl" + "V" on the left Textbox
    5. Choose output language
    6. Read the text in selected output language (or for the lazy ones): Click on the loudspeaker-icon for hearing it.
    Show Translation
  • walter lienhard (USA)
    walter lienhard (USA) at 07.10.2018
    From the article: "Hans Jörg Rüeggsegger, president of the major farmers’ association in Bern, recently responded to Gäggeler’s claim, saying that he did not know of any farms that felt stigmatised because of the past."
    Perhaps if the names of the farms that benefited from what effectively was slave labor were made known, the farmers and the "major farmers' association" would not be so light-hearted about this sickening history.
    Show Translation
  • Ruth-Esther Senn
    Ruth-Esther Senn at 18.10.2018
    Es ist eine Schande, dass die Bauern keine Schuldgefühle „ihren Verdingkindern“ gegenüber haben und ihnen keine Rente bezahlen!
    Show Translation
  • Franz Huber
    Franz Huber at 30.10.2018
    I wouldn't for a moment suggest that "Verdingkinder" didn't do it tough. Very tough. We have a similar situation here in Australia with the "Stolen Generation", where Aborigines of mixed blood were collected and put into institutions (mostly church based). However...

    There would have been thousands of children like me, a typical "Puurebueb" of the late 1940's and 1950's. In summer, get out of bed at 4:30 am, in Winter at 5:30 am, the boys to help milking the cows, put out the manure, take the milk down to the dairy or down to the street where the Milk Truck collected it, wading through the snow drifts. The girls, just like Rita Soltermann, would help mother to feed the pigs, suck the calves, tend to the chicken, shake out the hay and clean the house. And yes, sometimes, particularly in winter, we didn't necessarily wash thoroughly before going to school (not enough time to heat up water on the wood stove). And in summer, on a rare day that was both hot AND dry, father would often stipulate that we couldn't go to school at all, sometimes for multiple days, because the hay had to be brought in before the rain came again.

    So, where do I apply for "compensation"?
    Show Translation
  • Marc Lettau (Redaktion "Schweizer Revue")
    Marc Lettau (Redaktion "Schweizer Revue") at 14.11.2018
    Dear readers
    For testing purposes, we now offer a translation function for comments. Please be aware that these are automated translations: The translations may therefore contain errors that affect the meaning of the text.

    Liebe Leserinnen und Leser
    Testweise bieten wir bei Kommentaren neu eine Übersetzungsfunktion an. Wir bitten Sie dabei zur Kenntnis zu nehmen, dass es sich dabei um automatisierte Übersetzungen handelt: Die Übersetzungen können deshalb sinnstörende Fehler enthalten.
    Show Translation
  • sonia lalanne
    sonia lalanne at 10.02.2019
    merci pour vos commentaires ,je vois que mon frère avait subit la même chose ,nous étions pauvre ...Il a eu quelques petits problèmes d' ou son placement chez un paysan en suisse allemande
    très dur pour ces deux soeurs et la maman ,c'était ainsi .
    Show Translation

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