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The forgotten story of Swiss au pairs in Britain

In the inter-war and post-war years, Britain was a popular destination for Swiss women. Working as au pairs, they learned about life in Britain and many fell in love with the country and its people, as a new book describes. (SRF/swissinfo.ch)

In the book, author Simone Müller describes how young women at the time fought bravely against the confines of Swiss society and for more vocational possibilities.

When the Second World War broke out, a mass repatriation scheme took place and many hundreds of the women were brought back to Switzerland. 

Two of the people mentioned in the book are Myrtha Parsons-Biedermann, who’s 90 and lives in Shepperton near London, and Mina Rui-Oppliger, aged 98, who lives in Laufen, Basel Country. Myrtha arrived in Britain in 1947 as an au pair. She says, “There was nothing going on at home. That’s why I was so interested in everything that was different. Something had to happen.”

Like Mina, Myrtha travelled by train through France and then crossed the English Channel by boat, which was a big adventure. It was their first time abroad: they’d never been on holiday before. 

Mina was an au pair in London in 1939. She really wanted to train as a seamstress, but her parents couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, she worked as a domestic helper for a Jewish family in London, and was held in high regard as “the reliable Swiss girl”. Her boss appreciated the “real Swiss food” she cooked. 

Mina wanted to stay in England forever, but after five months, the Second World War broke out and she was forced to return home. A repatriation ship was chartered for 900 Swiss. Müller delved into the Swiss Federal Archive for information on this long-forgotten large-scale repatriation scheme. 

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