The cultural genocide committed against the Yenish people in Switzerland is a crime that remains unpunished

The cultural genocide committed against the Yenish people in Switzerland is a crime that remains unpunished
A montage of archive photographs, from left to right: Yenish children in a caravan in the 1930s; Alfred Siegfried, director of Pro Juventute, with abducted Yenish children; Alfred Siegfried was head of Pro Juventute until 1957; Yenish children being taken into a home by an employee of Pro Juventute.
(Hans Staub/Fotostiftung Schweiz)


By Benoît Collet

27 January 2023 –

It was only 50 years ago that Switzerland ended its practice of forcibly separating Yenish children from their families simply because they were “Travellers”. This nomadic community, which speaks its own language, a mixture of local German dialect and Yiddish, and has lived in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Alsace for over 400 years, was persecuted from 1926 to 1972 by a private children’s charity, Pro Juventute, with the complicity of the Swiss Confederation.

According to historians, the ostensibly charitable organisation forcibly separated 600 Yenish children from their parents with the help of the Swiss police and placed them in homes and foster families as far away from their families as possible.

“My mother was barely five years old when the police came looking for her in her father’s caravan. These protectors of the established order and their henchmen said the gypsies’ [sic] lifestyle was antisocial and harmful to society,” recounts Mariella Mehr in her 1981 autobiography Steinzeit (Stone Age). Like hundreds of other Yenish families, the famous Swiss writer saw her life turned upside down by Pro Juventute. She was moved from one foster home to the next before ending up in prison at the age of 20.

With generous funding from the Swiss state, Pro Juventute acted with total impunity until 1972, when the scandal was finally exposed by Swiss journalist Hans Caprez in the magazine Der Schweizerische Beobachter.

While the foundation still exists to this day, none of its directors have ever been prosecuted. According to Willi Wottreng, director of the Radgenossenschaft der Landstrasse, a victims’ association founded in 1974, Pro Juventute attempted to destroy Yenish culture through violence and family separation under the guise of social action. Yenish children were subject to physical abuse, humiliation and forced farm labour in the religious households and peasant families where they were placed.

“Girls and boys were raped, malnourished, ostracised and forbidden from speaking their language. Those were the worst forms of repression. In addition to the direct victims, children and grandchildren are often affected in various ways by the consequences of their parents’ abductions,” says Wottreng, who fights to bring these crimes to light.

Internment and forced sterilisation

Pro Juventute continued its racist practices until the 1970s against a background of deafening silence. These practices were based on the eugenic theories of ‘mental hygiene’ that were in vogue in Swiss psychiatry in the 1920s and which resembled those found in Nazi ideology. The foundation considered Yenish children to be ‘abnormal’ from birth and believed that they must be settled by force. “If you hope to win the battle against vagrancy, you must endeavour to break up the bands of travelling people. You must, however hard it may seem, break apart family ties,” wrote Pro Juventute founder Alfred Siegfried in 1943.

A notorious paedophile, Siegfried is believed to have abused several Yenish childen. He died in 1973 without ever being brought to justice or even making so much as a public apology. As Thomas Huonker, a Swiss historian who has worked extensively on the issue, tells Equal Times: “All this was part of an institutionalised anti-Gypsyism, according to which the existence of Gypsies was fundamentally incompatible with the order and security of Switzerland”. In 1973, after Pro Juventute ceased its criminal activities, the country finally opened its borders to foreign Travellers, who had previously been banned from entering.

Guided by its ideology of eugenics and a notion of child protection tantamount to incarceration, Pro Juventute went as far as to place children into psychiatric hospitals where they were the victims of barbaric medical procedures.

Those considered to be ‘the most unruly’ were subjected to forced electroshocks. “I wasn’t sick, I wasn’t crazy, and yet you put me through all of this. I stood up for myself and that was enough to turn you into raging beasts,” Mehr, who was placed in the Waldheim mental institution at the age of 15, goes onto write in Steinzeit.

“Psychiatry played an essential role. Many of the children who were taken were subjected to expert psychiatric assessments. Pro Juventute regularly used the threats of assessment and internment to put pressure on uncooperative children,” explains Walter Leimbruger, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Basel.

The abuse of the Yenish people included unthinkable acts of abuse. According to Wottreng, young girls under the care of Pro Juventute were the victims of forced sterilisations: “The authorities would tell them they could only get married if they got sterilised”. In the absence of records, it is impossible to say how many women were victims of these forced sterilisations.

While data may be lacking, Thomas Huonker affirms that “many Swiss psychiatric institutions carried out sterilisations which are clearly of a forced nature”. In the medical files of Yenish patients found at the Burgholzli clinic, where the first sterilisation experiments first took place in 1880 and continued until the second half of the 20th century, some entries read: “Sick since birth”.

The question of a trial remains open

The damage inflicted by the abductions of Yenish children lives on a half a century later. Now grown, many Yenish were never able to reunite with their families. Pro Juventute’s archives long remained undisclosed, preventing the victims from learning their parents’ identity. In 1987, after years of struggle, the Radgenossenschaft der Landstrasse finally succeeded in having Pro Juventute’s archives transferred to the Swiss government. That same year, the foundation paid lip service to the Yenish after years of downplaying the facts for fear of having to pay financial compensation to its victims. In 2017, 30 years later, Switzerland finally created a compensation fund of 300 million Swiss francs.

Survivors had until 1 March 2018 to submit a file to claim compensation of 20,000 Swiss francs (€7,400 according to the exchange rate at the time). Several members of the Yenish community, including writers Mariella Mehr and Peter Paul Moser, both now deceased, have expressed regret that there has never been a trial of the leaders of Pro Juventute.

The group’s last director, the nun Clara Reust, an open racist as evidenced by her correspondence, was never investigated.

“There is no statute of limitations on cultural genocide. The question of a trial remains open,” says Wottreng in a reference to the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, which lists children forcibly transferred from one group to another group under its criteria for defining genocide. Switzerland didn’t ratify the convention until 1999.

According to official figures from the Swiss Confederation, around 30,000 Yenish currently live in Switzerland, the vast majority of whom have settled. The Future for the Swiss Travelling Community foundation estimates that 5,000 people still live a nomadic lifestyle. Those who have remained on the road are fighting for official parking areas for their caravans, the other major struggle of the Radgenossenschaft der Landstrasse.

In a May 2022 report, the foundation describes a serious lack of pitch and parking provisions, which makes it difficult for the Yenish to “lead a traditional yet protected way of life”. Wottreng remains optimistic: “Despite what Pro Juventute wanted, the crimes suffered by the Yenish people have made them more aware of their identity and more protective of it”.

This article has been translated from French.