Two months ago, I discovered that my grandmother, Ida, had been a verdingkind, or “contract child,” in Switzerland in the 1890s.
A transcript from the archives in Teuffenthal, a small village south of Bern, the capital, confirmed that Ida, an orphan, had been contracted as an unpaid domestic servant to a woman in a neighboring village. The Swiss authorities used the nine-year-old’s meager inheritance to pay the woman 120 Swiss francs a year; Ida’s seven-year-old brother, Fritz, was made to pay 70 Swiss francs to fund his hardscrabble life as a farmhand. They both “had the appearance of being very hungry,” the document chillingly noted. They were kept under contract for about eight years.
Though disturbing, my grandmother’s story is hardly unique. In Switzerland, hundreds of thousands of children were victims of a state-sanctioned system of forced labor dating from the 19th century.
Under this so-called welfare policy, orphans, sons and daughters of poor, single mothers, or illegitimate children — those in situations deemed precarious, or whom the state feared would be a financial burden — were brought to the local town hall and auctioned to farmers seeking free labor; the winning bidder was whoever demanded the least annual compensation from the commune.
The verdingkinder system largely faded out in the 1970s; many Swiss have only recently learned of the program’s existence. But this and other policies of administrative internment did not officially become illegal in the country until 1981. At least 10,000 former verdingkinder are still alive.
This spring, a committee of government advisers, sociologists, historians and jurists proposed a reparations initiative that would establish a fund of 500 million Swiss francs (about $520 million), to be disbursed to living victims of the verdingkinder system via an independent commission.
Two weeks ago, supporters of the initiative collected the last of the 100,000 signatures necessary to force a national vote; Parliament must now decide whether to back the proposal.
That it will do so is hardly a forgone conclusion, as members of many powerful interests, including the Free Democratic Party and the Farmer’s Union, have opposed contributing to such a fund. But Parliament must. Agreeing to compensate the victims would mean that their suffering has been finally and properly acknowledged by its ultimate perpetrator: the state itself.
While it is impossible to determine the exact number of verdingkinder, some historians estimate that as many as 5 percent of all Swiss children were forced into farm labor from the 19th to mid-20th century. According to one account from 1826, “Who asked the least got the child despite its screaming and protests. … The cheaper they had contracted the children, the better for the community.” While public auctions were phased out in some cantons beginning in the mid-19th century, a similar lowest-bid system is thought to have persisted until the 1930s in some rural districts, behind closed doors.
Life for the verdingkinder was grueling. In return for commune funds, foster parents had only to ensure that their unpaid charges attended the village school, even if they were too hungry or exhausted to pay attention. Many former verdingkinder have described waking at six, working in the fields, going to school and being sent out to work again until late at night. Weekends were often spent in the fields as well.
But hard unpaid labor wasn’t the only problem. By placing vulnerable children at the mercy of poor farmers, the Swiss authorities created a situation ripe for abuse. The verdingkinder faced beatings, starvation and sexual abuse. Shunned by their schoolmates, they became socially isolated; suicide rates were high.
Well into the 20th century, other administrative internment policies operated concurrently with the verdingkinder system (the living victims of which are also eligible for compensation under the proposed initiative). Thousands of children were unwillingly placed in foster homes where they were abused or forced into unpaid labor. Adolescents and young adults deemed morally degenerate, including juvenile delinquents and unmarried mothers, were sent to detention centers or even prisons; young mothers were made to put their children up for adoption. The authorities were also responsible for forced abortions and the forced sterilization or chemical castration of hundreds of patients in Swiss clinics.
The seeping out of accounts by verdingkinder and other internees over the past decade has triggered a wave of soul-searching in this otherwise phlegmatic nation. But thus far, Switzerland’s formal position on reparation has been incoherent.
An attempt to compensate the victims of forced sterilization was rejected by Parliament in 2004, though it finally succeeded in bringing these government policies to national attention. Parliament mustered a grudging official apology in 2013, but when it adopted legislation this March on the need for “rehabilitation” for administrative internees, compensation was not on the agenda.
Little by little, though, resistance is becoming more difficult. This year, an official committee again stressed the importance of compensation. In April, in what was essentially a stopgap measure, it established an emergency relief fund of 7 million to 8 million Swiss francs (at least $7.3 million) for victims in serious financial difficulty, available through June 2015. Just two months after opening to the public, the fund had received over 350 requests for assistance.
For many, the proposed reparation initiative is too little, too late. Even if it sails through unopposed, the aging verdingkinder and former internees— many of whom emerged from their stolen childhoods barely literate, unable to find jobs or establish relationships, chronically depressed or suicidal — would not begin to see compensation until at least 2017.
For this reason, the initiative also calls for a “scientific study of this dark episode in Swiss history.” But an independent Truth and Reconciliation commission would be more appropriate. The Swiss need to openly acknowledge that, until the late 20th century, their government effectively condoned a system of slavery within its borders. The text of the proposed compensation initiative never uses that word. But until the Swiss are finally able to see this system for what it was, the verdingkinder and others affected by administrative internment will not get the justice they deserve.
Tony Wild is the author of several history books, and, most recently, the novel The Moonstone Legacy.