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Secrets of Swiss success in US revealed

Louis Chevrolet is a famous American with Swiss roots


Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin has opened an exhibition on Ellis Island in New York which focuses on the successful side of Swiss immigration to the United States.

Entitled in "Small Number – Big Impact", the event has been conceived as part of the Swiss Roots programme, which aims to reach out to Americans with Swiss ancestry.

"With this exhibition, we'd like to show the average American a different picture of Switzerland, not just the clichés of chocolate and cheese," Markus Hodel, the exhibition's curator, told swissinfo.

"For example, that the Chevy, that iconic all-American car, can be traced back to a Swiss."

The organisers are also hoping people will be attracted to the event by examples of present day stars with Swiss roots, such as American football hero Ben Roethlisberger or singer Jewel.

In a speech to mark the opening on Saturday, which also doubled as an early celebration of Swiss National Day on August 1, Couchepin underlined the values that Switzerland and the US shared – freedom, federalism and a respect for law.


When asked by swissinfo what the Swiss population could learn from the exhibition, the minister replied: "migration is basically a positive thing from which both sides can benefit".

This had perhaps sometimes been forgotten in recent years, he added.

The display, which is taking place on Ellis Island, at one time the main port for immigrants entering the US, is part of a campaign by the Swiss authorities to cement ties with the US.

The US was not just the sister republic of Switzerland, but also the republic of Swiss sons and daughters, said Couchepin during his visit to New York.

He had also praise for the Swiss Roots campaign. "This initiative allows us to emphasise person to person diplomacy," he said.

Next year's project will run under the title "Swiss Friends" and will focus on cooperation and exchange in the areas of research and training.

Long history

The exhibition tells how around 300,000 Swiss have made the journey over the Atlantic since the 18th century.

An estimated 1,2 million Americans are now thought to have Swiss ancestry. Notable examples include Robert Lutz, vice president of car giant General Motors, Hollywood star Renée Zellweger as well as Roethlisberger.

The event is divided into five sections - culture, music, politics, science and economy – and includes portraits of 25 people, from both past and present

Each sector is headlined by one famous person: film maker Marc Forster, Adolph Rickenbacher, known as the father of the electric guitar, Albert Gallatin, finance minister under Thomas Jefferson, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who pioneered research into the death process, and car maker Louis Chevrolet.

Jewel, and her father, Atz Kilcher, provided the music for the opening celebrations.

Small Number – Big Impact also tells the stories of lesser-known Swiss immigrants and visitors can use a website to trace their Swiss ancestry. There are also recorded extracts of Swiss people talking about their journeys into the land of the unknown.

swissinfo, Rita Emch in New York

Key facts

The exhibition, which runs until October 31, 2006, was produced by the Swiss Migration Museum Association.
The exhibition received half its funding from Presence Switzerland and the Swiss National Museum.
Next year it will be transferred to the National Museum in Zurich (March-September).

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Swiss Roots

One of the key aims of the Swiss Roots campaign is to motivate Americans of Swiss origin to discover the homeland of their ancestors.

For this purpose, a website went online at the end of March.

It is estimated to have more than 20,000 visitors a month and already details hundreds of Swiss-American stories.

It has been reported that requests for Swiss citizenship from Americans with Swiss ancestry at Swiss consulates has risen since March.

Swiss Roots is coordinated by Presence Switzerland and the Swiss Consulate General in New York. Partners include Swiss arts council Pro Helvetia and Switzerland Tourism.

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