The Scandal of the Swiss Slave-Children
Back to Table of Contents >

Once upon a time, in a land of open fields and rolling hills with cows who gave their milk to make cheese and chocolate, there lived a little boy named Pauli. Pauli had no parents, so he stayed with Mr and Mrs Wäfler.

Mr and Mrs Wäfler didn’t give Pauli much to eat, so for breakfast he had to scoop up grain and muck from the feedbowl in the chicken coop. Mr and Mrs Wäfler thought it would be a good thing if Pauli earned his keep by working. Pauli had to carry a lot of wood, first into the woodstack, and then into the kitchen.  In winter time, he was very cold, and the tops of his fingers went green then black with frostbite. One day, he could no longer carry the wood. Pauli was scared of Mr Wäfler, so he hid in the woodstack all that day.

In the evening, after Mr and Mrs Wäfler had eaten their dinner, Mr Wäfler came to find him. He brought him into the house, and there he beat him and beat him and beat him. Blood came out of little Pauli and fell on the kitchen floor, and all over the place, including next to his bed. That night, Pauli was very sore and very sad, so he died.

*  *  *

Bern, Switzerland. December 1944. When five-year-old Paul Gebhard Zürcher, also known as Pauli, was laid out on the table in the coroner’s office, he weighed just twenty-six pounds. Pinched, pressed, hollow between the ribs, the cadaver presented a geography of misuse. It was covered in weals, red tracks which criss-crossed older injuries, mature bruises, deep blue-black inky stains. The fingertips were swollen and black. Some had disappeared altogether, eroded by frostbite. One eye was black and blue, and swollen tight. There was a large abscess in the neck, consistent with advanced tuberculosis. The medical student assigned to Pauli’s case concluded that the cause of death was internal bleeding. There being no parents or traceable relatives to claim the body, it was taken, dressed in a rough sack, for burial in an unmarked pauper’s grave in a cemetry on the outskirts of Bern.

The findings of the coroner’s office were handed over to the police, whose investigation of the case of Paul Gebhard Zürcher revealed that the boy, an orphan, had been lodged in a children’s home near Bern with his two-year-old brother. Being considered old enough to work, he had been classified by the local authorities as a Verdingkind, or ‘earning child’. Under the terms of a medieval practice not abandoned in Switzerland until the early 1950s, communes (the administrative units into which all cantons are divided) unburdened themselves of poor children in their charge by depositing them with individuals or families who received, in return, a small payment and the labour of the child. Early in 1944, Pauli had been picked from the orphanage by a farmer named Wäfler, who scratched out an existence on a smallholding in Labholz, near the village of Kandersteg.

Forty miles south-east of the city of Bern (the capital of the canton, and of the Swiss Confederation), Kandersteg today is archetypal chocolate box Switzerland. But you can’t eat a landscape. Fifty years ago, this picturesque idyll was Paul Zürcher’s hell. Put to work in the fields by Wäfler and his young wife, Pauli’s life was worth less than the wood he was made to haul. The Wäflers gave him hardly any food, which is why the child had taken to eating chicken feed. Malnutrition, the cruel winter of that year, and that last, savage beating did for him.

When he discovered the dead body next morning, Mr. Wäfler telephoned the local doctor, who told him to bring the corpse into Kandersteg. Seeing the appalling state of the little body, the doctor arranged for it to be taken to the coroner’s office in Bern. A few days later, the coroner, accompanied by a policeman, visited the farm in Labholz. In his statement, Wäfler said that he had often beaten the boy. This was ‘no more than what was needed under the circumstances as he was difficult and unruly’. Furthermore, the boy was obviously ‘not all there’, otherwise he wouldn’t have eaten chicken fodder. Mrs. Wäfler had noticed the abscess in Pauli’s neck, and had treated it ‘by tying a handkerchief around it’. The farmer said he had been unable to call a doctor because his grandmother had died and he didn’t have time.

More than fifty years later, Switzerland still does not have time for Paul Gebhard Zürcher, or for the thousands of other Verdingkinder who, like him, were sold into labour all over the country. They are the missing children, social discards who have been forgotten by time, ignored by history.

*  *  *

In 1837, a protestant pastor from Freiburg, Jeremias Gotthelf, published a three-volume work under the title Bauernspiegel (A Reflection on Poverty). This was the first (and, to date, the last) comprehensive survey of the plight of Switzerland’s Verdingkinder. In the course of his research, Gotthelf had attended the Verdinggemeinde, at which poor children were auctioned off by the commune. Comparing these sales to the slave markets of New Orleans, Gotthelf described how the commune authorities would open the proceedings by naming a child and offering a fee for its maintenance (payable at the end of the auction). The commune then waited for the bidding, in descending value, to take place. It was the lowest bidder – he who demanded the smallest contribution from the commune – who got the child. In this way, the cost to the commune was reduced, and even the poorest of ‘foster’ families got, in addition to the annual payment, an extra pair of hands. In mid-nineteenth-century Switzerland, most Verdingkinder could expect to work the land. Later in the century, labour was diversified, and many children were placed in factories.

‘The child was obliged to hear its name called out,’ wrote Gotthelf, ‘and listen as its price was lowered in dramatic leaps. And with every reduction in its price, the child’s treatment was going to become that much worse, and the child knew it. It was knocked down to families who had nothing to eat, no bread to break, perhaps not even a bed. The child would be hungrier than the others, because they would have to eat first.’

These were the ‘Zuunterst am Tisch’, those who found themselves ‘at the end of the table’. Some did not even make it that far, but were kept outside with the animals in stalls or barns. Records show children being auctioned off for an annual maintenance fee of less than ten francs. On a good day at the cattle fair, a farmer could expect to earn four times this amount.

With the conclusion of each bid, a teller entered the lot in a ledger. As the proceedings dragged on, the teller would tire. Such ledgers, neatly preserved in local archives across Switzerland, show the teller’s hand tightening with fatigue, fine calligraphy giving way to a cramped scrawl. None the less, the impression given is one of efficiency, of a system which sought to hide the shame of its procedures behind the language of protocol and precision. Consistent with this was the use of euphemism – an institution popularly recognised as a Sklavenmarkt, or ‘slave market’, was officially only ever referred to in the language of welfare.

‘Tuesday, 6th November, commencing at nine in the morning, the handing over of maintenance fees to private individuals or families taking care of the destitute is announced,’ reads one typical advertisement, placed in newspapers by the Bernese commune of Thun in 1883. ‘It is compulsory for the destitute to be on time, and dressed according to the regulations, and for those persons who want to apply for one of the destitute to give written proof that they are entitled to do so.’ When Paul Zürcher was picked out of the orphanage sixty years later, Mr Wäfler produced just such written eligibility to claim a Verdingkind. These advertisements served the ‘purchasers’, rather than the poor, who were for the most part illiterate. Word of mouth would have to do for them. Their attendance being obligatory, they faced expulsion from the commune if they failed to turn up. And expulsion meant they would fall foul of Switzerland’s ancient principle of the Heimatgemeinde, or ‘place of origin’, a system which bound the indigenous members of a community into a tight Brüderbund, whilst discriminating heavily against outsiders.

The procedure described by Gotthelf differed little from canton to canton, commune to commune. The archives in Heimberg, once a small settlement on the banks of the River Aare, and now a rich suburb of Bern, show a thriving trade in Verdingkinder. Here, the poor were called to appear at the schoolhouse, where they would be auctioned in the period between Christmas and New Year. In theory, Verdingkinder had the right to be educated. In reality, their places in the back row of the schoolroom were rarely occupied.  For most of them, their only experience of school was to be led away from it on the day of their sale. The majority were put to work in agriculture, an especially unhealthy activity in Heimberg, whose lands were regularly flooded by the Aare. Some found themselves living in cramped quarters over the potteries, where the clay soil of Heimberg was rendered into exquisitely painted plates and jugs for sale to the rich burghers of Bern.

Heimberg’s records, painstakingly scrutinised over a period of five years by local schoolteacher Verena Blum, constitute a ghostly catalogue of lives measured out to the fraction of a franc. One document, dated June 1853, records the fate of the family of Christian Wermuth. ‘Mr Wermuth’, it reads, ‘has no job, and his wife has died of hunger. After he was caught begging for alms, he was sent to a reform house. He has twelve children, who are now Verdingkinder.’ The Wermuth children were to make regular appearances at the Heimberg auction over the following years – Verdingkinder could be kept for one to three years, after which they were returned to the pool and re-auctioned. Thus, in 1860, Katharina, Magdalena, and Anna Barbara were disposed of for 35 francs each. The following year, Magdalena was worth a mere 20 francs.

Inexplicably, in the same year, Barbara, Katharina, and another sister, Rosina, were worth 80, 85 and 75 francs respectively. In 1863, the fee for Rosina and Katharina had tumbled to 9 francs apiece. In 1865, another sister, Anna Maria, appears, worth 52.50 francs. One of the twelve children, Luise, was forcibly emigrated to the United States, unaccompanied, aged thirteen. By 1868, all the Wermuth children have disappeared from the records.

In the canton of Bern alone, there were 7,816 children classified as Verdingkinder in 1870. No one bothered to count them at the time. This tally was made in 1989. Astonishingly, given the introduction of federal regulations to restrict the practice in successive years, by 1910 that figure had risen to 10,000.  Thereafter, says Verena Blum, the real number of Verdingkinder is impossible to calculate. Local authorities began to disguise the trade, and devise all manner of strategies to get around state regulations. These laws required communes to abandon the Verdinggemeinde, or auction system, and to appoint inspectors to monitor and supervise the care of children in foster families. The auctions were dropped, only to be replaced by a first come, first served system – children were selected from orphanages, which served as little more than temporary holding pens. As for inspections, these were casually conducted – if at all – by the local pastor.

Whatever their number, the former Verdingkinder of twentieth-century Switzerland are a living, if dwindling, population of silent witnesses. ‘It’s still terribly stigmatised, a part of Swiss history that nobody wants to properly investigate and reflect on,’ says Verena Blum. ‘It’s just like the story of the Jews. Now we know what Switzerland did to the Jews during the war. Of course, we could have known about it thirty years ago, but we didn’t want to know. Many people here are stuck in the mentality that thinks “It can’t be, it mustn’t be, therefore it isn’t”. With the Verdingkinder, the approach is the same: pragmatic, non-reflective. And so the truth just gets swept under the carpet.’

*  *  *

Switzerland is not an ethnic, linguistic or religious entity. As a country, it had to will itself into existence by the resolve of its citizens, who in 1848 approved the formation of a federal state. Switzerland can be viewed as the perfect working model for the enlightenment state, whose key political idea Rousseau formulated as the total voluntary subjection of every individual to the collective general will. Commitment to consensus in Switzerland is such that it is able to contain a country of four languages, many more dialects, 26 cantons, and 2904 communes, all with fierce loyalties and bitter political conflicts.

But the general will is not always easily identified, and when it is, obedience cannot always be guaranteed. Switzerland’s much vaunted system of ‘direct democracy’ and the ‘people’s initiative’ can slow down, as well as accelerate, political reform – women’s suffrage was rejected in a 1959 national referendum (all the voters, obviously, were men). It was finally passed in 1971. Even so, it was not until the 1980s that women were granted the right to vote in cantonal elections. In the small eastern canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, where votes are still counted from a show of hands at the Landsgemeinde, or open-air meeting, women were not enfranchised until 1990.

Clearly, a decentralised state has to work hard to develop a coherent sense of national purpose and identity. All national myths are prophylactics, protection against the undesirability of reality. In Switzerland, the stereotypes are implausibly benign – the neutral state, the epitome of stability, above the squabbles of other nations; a ‘lifeboat’ into which refugees – from the Huguenots of the 17th Century to the anti-fascists of the 20th – can clamber; the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention, both cherished symbols of a rich humanitarian tradition.

And the more complicated truth? Swiss neutrality is defended by the largest and most costly army (per capita) in Europe. The Red Cross is an inscrutable institution, accountable to no outside body, governed by twenty-five elderly Swiss lawyers and businessmen whose predecessors on the International Committee whitewashed conditions in the Nazi concentration camps. Evidence of Switzerland’s key role in laundering securities, currencies, works of art, and other assets looted by the Nazis has led one historian to describe this tiny Alpine country as a prime accomplice in ‘the greatest robbery in history’. Today, as compensation deals are belatedly negotiated on behalf of Europe’s plundered Jewry, a quarter of the Swiss electorate has given its endorsement to right-wing demagogues who oppose those ‘foreign Jewish organisations who want money from us’.

In 1930, the number of  Swiss and foreign Jews living in the country was 0.4 to 0.5% of the total population. In the wake of Nazi persecution, this figure rose steadily, though not dramatically. In 1938, Bern secretly and successfully pressed the Nazi government to mark German Jewish passports with a distinguishing stamp (a red ‘J’), so that Swiss border officials could more easily pick them out at the frontier and deny them admission to Switzerland. In August 1938, Bern further decreed that all Jewish refugees without a visa should be turned back. In 1942 came the famous announcement ‘das Boot ist voll’ – the lifeboat is full. Thereafter, all foreigners – most of them Jews – were turned back at the borders. Those who managed to cross illegally were caught and sent back across the frontier. Only when the war had clearly turned against the Nazis did the Swiss government find the courage to change its policies. In October 1943 Switzerland reopened its borders. But it wasn’t until July 1944 that federal police lifted an injunction against racial – as opposed to political – refugees. New research indicates that the Swiss turned away 39,000 fleeing European Jews during the Second World War.

Against this, we should not forget, however, that approximately 25,000 Jews were accepted during these years. Some of them found themselves in ski resorts, hastily redesignated as sites for forced-labour camps.  Switzerland has always denied that any of the Jewish refugees who were permitted to enter the country during the war, along with other non-Swiss Jews – some of whom had lived in Switzerland for years – were subjected to forced labour. It is now known that a network of more than a hundred work camps was established by an official decree on March 12, 1940. Those who were interned do not equate the Swiss labour camps with the Nazi concentration and death camps, but they do say Jews were held, against their will, in harsh conditions.

*  *  *

I went to Bern to find a Verdingkind, preferably one whose tragic, lurid tale of maltreatment would advance the argument that Switzerland systematically and institutionally approved the abuse of generations of children. I was looking, I now realise, less for a human being than for a symbol of persecution. But when I found Adolf Ruch, what I discovered was the complication of human interest, and the complexities of the Swiss experience. Here was an old man, being cared for – in its institutional way – by the very state which had maltreated him as a child. And when Adolf Ruch was conscripted into the Swiss army in 1940, he was proud to defend the country that had annexed his childhood.

He was born in 1910, the illegitimate son of an Italian layabout. His mother, who had carried two other children by this man, married a Bernese carpenter when Adolf was still an infant. Together, the couple produced a further six children. Adolf’s stepfather also had three children by a previous marriage. The family lived in two rooms in the Wyler district of Bern. When Adolf was seven, a neighbour took him to Junkenstrasse, a street in the capital peopled by prostitutes, thieves and hawkers. Adolf was told that the man selling tangerines and nuts was his real father. The young boy watched him, from afar, on two or three occasions. They never met.

Adolf’s early life in Wyler was one of extreme poverty, but he roamed freely with a large gang of over a hundred children, a rag-taggle bunch, most of them strangers to a pair of shoes. They did have a leather football, but it was worn and torn at the seams. Boys who wanted to play were expected to bring rags to stuff it with. He who contributed the most stuffing got to take the ball home with him that night. Once, Adolf stole his mother’s socks as stuffing. That evening he returned home triumphantly bearing the football. There, he found his mother in a frantic search for her only pair of woollen socks. She was beside herself. He couldn’t bring himself to tell her what he had done, and just sat there, guilt-ridden, silent, while she rummaged. ‘I never did tell her’, he says. He didn’t steal much, or tell lies. ‘No more than any other kid.’

He didn’t go to school. The first money he ever earned was for leading oxen into the auction ring at a cattle market. Today, he jingles the imaginary coins in his pockets as he tells of his joy in bringing them home to his mother. She loved all her children, but Adolf was her favourite. She took him everywhere with her.  The city of Bern sits on a vast real outcrop of steep rock, around which curls the Aare. Bridges connect the city to the surrounding area. On three occasions, Adolf watched on the same bridge as his mother prepared to kill herself by jumping into the gorge below. ‘She always took me with her. She would stand on the ledge of the bridge, and I would cry and scream and beg her not to do it. And she would give up on the attempt to kill herself. It was very sad, and we both cried a lot.’

And that was Adolf’s life. Until one day a man called Morgentaler appeared and announced himself as the government official responsible for the Ruch family children. He was, he said, their legal guardian. Adolf remembers him as ‘a terrible man, very cold, very mechanical’. He feared Morgentaler, and he was right to. Morgentaler told Adolf that he was to be removed from his family, and put with a foster family as a Verdingkind. ‘Then he asked me if I would like to go with him for a coffee and some cake.’ The suggestion, not spoken, but which always hovers around the subject of Morgentaler, is that he had a certain weakness for little boys. Adolf, streetwise, declined the invitation. After Morgentaler had left, Adolf’s mother broke down in tears. ‘I didn’t want to go’, says Adolf, ‘but my stepfather told me I had no choice, that I had to do what they said.’ He was fourteen years old.

A short time after, a woman brought him to the headquarters of the Bern police in Zeughausgasse.  There were forty to fifty other boys and girls, and they were all told to wait. After several hours, he was taken by another woman to a children’s home in Brüttisellen. There, he just waited. ‘It wasn’t a bad place, but there was nothing to do. Some of the boys were so bored they amused themselves by bullying other kids.’ ‘Whatever you do’, they said to Adolf, ‘don’t go into the woods.’ ‘Why not?’ he asked. Their answer was unclear, but Adolf understood that they were referring to something of a sexual nature. The suggestion of pederasty hangs over his whole story, but is never mentioned explicitly.

After a few days in the home, Adolf was collected by a farmer who took him to his smallholding in Reinsbergalp. The farmer was married, but had no children. They were so poor they didn’t even have a towel to wash their faces at the end of the day. Adolf was treated with kindness, but he was homesick, and missed his gang of friends, with whom he was to have no further contact. The farmer put him to work. Did the farmer ever pay you? Adolf is tickled by the question. ‘Yes. I once got three francs to spend at the fair’, he replies sardonically. One day, Adolf found the farmer’s gun in the stable. He didn’t know exactly what it was, or how it worked. Curious, he picked it up, and it fired, taking off half of his hand. Now, over seventy years later, he waves his bony claw, not in anger, merely to illustrate his story.

After three years, when Adolf was seventeen, the farmer said he had to take him back to the children’s home at Brüttisellen. After waiting idly there for three days, he was picked out by another man and taken to work at a shoe factory near Zurich. ‘If you were a Verdingkind, you had to go all over Switzerland, wherever they chose to send you. You never knew where they might send you next. That was how it was in those days.’ Adolf worked in the factory for three years. Officially, he was meant to be attending school at the same time, but the hours required at the factory left him no time to attend class. He returned to the home every evening. Then, one day, he said to the manager of the factory, ‘That’s it. I’m going. I don’t want to work here anymore.’ They didn’t try to stop him leaving. For three nights, he slept rough in the woods behind the children’s home, terrified, not knowing what to do next. Eventually, he found a job as a door-to-door salesman.

After the war, he went back to selling, got married, and had children. All his siblings, he would later discover, had been Verdingkinder. Now, they’re all dead, except for one of his older half-sisters. But they’re not on good terms. She started a quarrel, says Adolf, about his illegitimacy. ‘But we both have the same mother’, he told her. ‘It’s not enough’, she replied.

Adolf, now ninety, lives in an old people’s home five miles from his birthplace in the city of Bern. He has his own room, clean, sparsely furnished, the large window giving on to a well-tended garden. He sits in a large black leather armchair which reclines and extends into all manner of positions at the touch of a button on the armrest. ‘What a wonderful chair.’ ‘Do you like it?’ beams Adolf. ‘It cost a fortune.  Eighteen hundred francs!’ After eighteen operations in as many months on his hips and legs, he can only totter about with the aid of a smart zimmer frame fitted with brakes. To use it, he has to be levered out of his chair. Later, I can smell his armpits on my hands.

His pride and joy is a roughly carved tall cupboard.  He locks it with a key, which he keeps in a special wallet in his trouser-pocket. Inside hangs a row of immaculately pressed suits. He takes one out, and tells me it’s the finest fabric, made in England. ‘You’re from England, aren’t you?’ Adolf has never left Switzerland. He keeps the cupboard locked, he says, because people here steal. Somebody has been taking swigs from his herbal tonic. He locks the cupboard carefully, then lurches back into his chair.  On the wall is a photograph of two young children, smiling broadly, their milk teeth missing. ‘Those are my great-grandchildren,’ says Adolf proudly. ‘They’re grown up now.’ ‘What do they do?’ ‘The boy’s a chimney sweep.’ ‘And the girl?’ ‘Oh, she works in a chocolate factory.’

*  *  *

In 1945, in the wake of Paul Zürcher’s death, a national campaign to abolish the Verdingkinder system was launched by a journalist called A. C. Loosli. A former Verdingkind himself, Loosli appealed to the Swiss people to recognise and guarantee the fundamental rights of children. A helpful model, he suggested, was the Animal Rights League. It was still to be almost a decade before Switzerland could properly claim that there were no more Verdingkinder.


'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera