Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Verdingkinder

Not sure how the writing for this one is going to come out, because I'm still in rather a bit of shock over it, but we have today an article from the Associated Press written on Thursday.

The article concerns a period in the history of Switzerland from the early 1800's up until the 1960's, during which time the country built itself partially on the backs of verdingkinder. The AP translates that as "contract children", but I would use "verdingkinder" to do your searching because "contract children" is only going to get you reprintings of the AP article itself.

Verdingkinder were, at least legally, foster children taken from parents deemed too poor to care for them. In practice, single mothers and parents who had become 'morally destitute' were targeted as well, which amounted to whoever wasn't meeting society's expectations. Once sold, children became little more than farm slaves. Authorities auctioned the children off to whichever set of parents submitted the lowest bid- who would agree to be paid the least for helping to raise the child- and then the child was expected to work in the fields so as to earn their keep. They would be at that farm for a few years, and then resold to some other family, repeatedly, until reaching adulthood. Any education the child might have been receiving came to a screeching halt the second they became a verdingkinder.

The child was completely at the mercy of whatever family got them. Some children got lucky and were given to families that treated them well, but often they were barely fed, barely clothed, and physically and sexually abused. Some children attempted escape, but they usually could not find a sympathetic ear. Where could they go? The entire country was in on it.

Not only that, but after reaching adulthood, the verdingkinder that hadn't committed suicide (and many did) had to live with a heavy stigma. Not only did they now lack an education, not only were their career options largely limited to whatever it is they did in the field, but once someone found out they were a verdingkinder, they were looked down upon, as if they had committed a crime and their time as a verdingkinder was their punishment. As a result, most verdingkinder just tried not to talk about it. In fact, when journalist and former verdingkinder Turi Honegger was writing a book about the practice in 1991, he was advised by his publisher to tone the book down, because the publisher didn't think anyone would believe this was a thing that had happened in Switzerland.

This episode in Swiss history is not very well-documented, though as the AP article notes, efforts are now underway to change that using those verdingkinder who are still alive, which is estimated to be as many as 30,000 people. There is also a campaign underway for an official apology- the government is reluctant to talk about it as well- as well as reparations in the form of back pay for all that unpaid labor.

As a first step, though, historian Marco Leuenberger, whose father was a verdingkinder and who has been heading up the effort to document what went on, would be happy with just getting the story out and seeing former verdingkinder step forward. (If you read German, Leuenberger has written a book, Versorgt und vergessen - Ehemalige Verdingkinder erzählen.)

Hope this helps, Marco.

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