Bern has become the first canton to apologise to some of the thousands of children who were placed by the authorities as unpaid labourers on farms until the 1960s.
With minimal protection from the authorities, many children were routinely mistreated and over-worked, according to a study by researchers from Basel University.
The research was commissioned by the cantonal government of Bern in 2006 and published as a book earlier this week with the title “The authorities decide… for the wellbeing of the child?”.
The practice of placing children from orphanages or poor families was particularly widespread in Bern’s agricultural districts of Emmental and Simmental, which were taken as the focus of this research.
A team of historians, lawyers and sociologists examined the development of the law on poverty and children in care and looked at how it was applied. As well as studying contemporary files and legal texts, the researchers drew on interviews carried out in recent years with up to 300 of the “children” involved.
“When a family fell on hard times, they would apply to their place of origin (Heimatort in German) for support and the authorities there would then decide whether to provide financial assistance or split them up,” research author Loretta Seglias told swissinfo.ch.
Because of generations of migration away from rural Bern, a large number of people living elsewhere had roots going back to these areas and were obliged to apply there in case of need.
“There were two different routes to placement: through the 19th century poor law or through the guardianship route under the child protection law of 1912,” Seglias explained.
“Children could be taken out of the family and placed under guardianship if they were endangered or neglected, but the definitions were quite loose which gave the authorities quite of a lot of latitude,” she added.
As the demand for agricultural labour was high, children were also sourced from orphanages and children’s homes. Some families even took the initiative themselves to send their children away, to avoid being forced to do so.
The system was virtually unregulated until after the Second World War when an attempt was made through fostering regulations to increase checks and host families were required to have a permit to take in children.
But those sent away mostly described the experience as traumatic. From today’s perspective it is difficult to understand what little consideration was taken of the children’s welfare. More often than not they were treated as servants, not members of the family.
As the researchers found through their interviews, the children involved felt isolated and discriminated against. Their memories are of powerlessness and fear.
Roland Begert from Bern, born in 1937, was one such child. He was placed with a farming family at 12 after spending his early childhood in a children’s home.
His saddest memories are not so much the physical hardship on the farm where he lived but the emotional suffering, particularly being excluded from family festivities, such as Easter and Christmas, and not having any playmates.
Begert, who has written a novel based on his life story, believes the apology is of value to some victims but not to him. “It comes from people who did not live through those times or were not even born then so it brings me nothing.”
“But I am convinced that some of the people who suffered have been waiting for this,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Christoph Neuhaus, head of the justice department in Bern’s cantonal government, said he hoped the apology he made on behalf of the canton would be meaningful to the victims.
Around 100 people attended an event at Bern’s historical city hall building on Tuesday where the new research was launched and the public apology issued.
“It was very moving, many people came up to me afterwards and said the apology meant something to them,” Neuhaus said.
Marie Reichen, who attended the event, said afterwards she was glad to receive a personal apology from Neuhaus, according to Der Bund newspaper.
The 78 year old was taken from her father in a French-speaking region at the age of nine, after her mother’s death. She spent the next six years working in Emmental and Simmental.
Begert points out that although his experience was negative, he is able to see the social context and has forgiven his host family.
“This has to be viewed in the context of the times. I have come to understand from looking into the matter and working through what happened to me. There were some critical voices at the time but mostly the system was just taken for granted.
“There were also many good foster parents who did their best to provide a caring home for the child.”
Growing economic prosperity in the post-war years, modernisation in agriculture and fundamental changes in the understanding of childhood all contributed to the gradual abandonment of this practice in Switzerland.
Begert believes objective historical examination of the theme is more important than official apologies or compensation.
“It should be in the public memory and in history books so that young people today know that this happened and are sensitive to this issue.”
Work to live
The practice of taking children from poor families or children’s homes and placing them on farms to work for their keep was common all over Switzerland up to the 1960s.
Public auctions for the child workers were held in Swiss towns and villages up the early 20th century.
While no official statistics exist, researchers estimate that some 100,000 children were placed between 1920 and 1960.
A motion on a compensation fund for victims in Bern still has to work its way through the Bern cantonal parliament but “we will need to consult on a federal level for that because the practice went beyond cantonal borders,” the head of Bern’s justice department said.end of infobox