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New prize cites Swiss woman's role in Hungary

Swiss Abroad prize winner, Raymonde Berthoud, with the Swiss president, Kaspar Villiger

(Keystone)

Switzerland's Radical Party has awarded its first Swiss abroad prize to an 82-year-old woman who has spent over 50 years helping Hungarians.

The SFr10,000 ($6,000) award honours people or institutions that have made particular contributions abroad. Raymonde Berthoud's name was selected from a list of 30 because of her life's work.

The jury highlighted her sense of solidarity and the help she offered to people in need. "She worked through very difficult times in Hungary, in a sense portraying Switzerland's old humanitarian tradition," said Erich Müller, president of the Radical party's international section.

Wartime aid

Berthoud, originally from canton Neuchâtel, first travelled to Budapest during the Second World War. "I went to Hungary to study the piano, even if my family wasn't too enthusiastic about my decision," she said on Thursday in Zurich.

The war changed her plans though, and Berthoud soon found herself helping members of the Jewish community after the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944.

A leading member of the German-speaking protestant community in Budapest, the young woman hid Jews from the Gestapo, the feared Nazi secret police. "I was able to hide four or five people around our parish, including a doctor I met again many years later," she told swissinfo.

Berthoud's original decision to help others came soon after arriving in Hungary. "The man I loved there died, so I chose to use my time coming to the aid of those in need," she said.

After a two-year break in Switzerland after the war, she went back to Budapest where she worked for the Swiss Red Cross delegation until 1950, and again from 1956 to 1958.

Hungarian revolution

Berthoud, who also earned her living by giving French lessons, experienced most of Hungary's major upheavals of the 20th century. Despite the arrival of a communist regime in Budapest, she chose to stay on, even after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

"Most Hungarians weren't able to travel under the Communists, whereas I was," she told swissinfo. "I became a sort of secret post woman, carrying people's mail in and out of the country when they didn't want the authorities to read their letters."

Berthoud has also spent considerable time bringing Hungary's Swiss community together. In 1991, she was a founding member of the Swiss association there.

Her work in Hungary has already been recognised by the country's authorities. Both the city of Budapest and the Republic have awarded her various distinctions.

"We are convinced that there needs to be some recognition of the work that people do for Switzerland's image abroad," Müller told swissinfo. "We also think that we have to make people aware of the important number of Swiss living outside of the country."

Müller believes it is vital for the Swiss to show that they are open to the world. "Many Swiss abroad... make a huge contribution to our country's image," he said.

"We cannot just talk about solidarity and humanitarian work, but we also have to act."

by Scott Capper

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