The Swiss gypsies : the jenisch
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The story of the Swiss gypsy people, known as the Jenisch (or Yenish), and how they have been treated over the last century by the Swiss authorities, is shocking, and exposes a calculated policy of Nazi-style eugenics carried out in Switzerland behind closed doors well into the 1970s. For almost fifty years, the Swiss government advocated and funded the wholesale kidnapping of Jenisch children, separating more than six hundred babies and toddlers from their families in what was nothing less than a determined attempt to completely wipe out Jenisch culture. Ghosts have still not been put to rest almost thirty years on, and the scandal remains a source of national shame and anger.

The Jenisch are one of the three main groups of central European gypsies, along with the Sinti and the Roma. During and after the great waves of gypsy migration in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, they travelled all over the continent, many arriving in Switzerland and specifically in Graubünden, where they lived a generally quiet, if socially ostracized, life. Amidst the tide of nationalism that swept through Europe after World War I, the science of eugenics gained widespread credibility, with its notion of state-sponsored “cleansing” of the racial gene pool by the forced removal from society of those with mental illnesses, physical disabilities and other characteristics seen as socially aberrant. Along with Jews and homosexuals, people with a lifestyle centred on travelling were singled out for special treatment. In 1926, the Swiss government approved a project set up by the children’s charity Pro Juventute intended to eliminate vagrancy. Entitled Kinder der Landstrasse (“Children of the Road”), it effectively sanctioned child abduction: police seized Jenisch newborns and infants from their mothers without warning and carted them off to orphanages run by Pro Juventute. Some children were handed on to foster parents, effectively to vanish into society; others ended up shunted from pillar to post until their adulthood. Controlling committees brought in psychologists to deliver lengthy personality assessments and, as a result, large numbers of children were consigned to mental institutions, one of the most notorious of which was the Waldhaus clinic in Chur. Parents were not only not informed of their children’s whereabouts, but were actively barred from making inquiries.

Kinder der Landstrasse was founded and directed by Alfred Siegfried. One of the aims of the project, according to Siegfried’s own admission, was effectively to eliminate the Jenisch people altogether: “We must say that we have already achieved much if these people do not start a family, do not reproduce without restraint and bring new generations of degenerate and abnormal children into the world.” As late as 1964 Siegfried was writing: “Nomadism, like certain dangerous diseases, is primarily transmitted by women… Anyone wishing to combat nomadism efficiently must aim to destroy the travellers’ communal existence. Hard as it may seem, we must put an end to their family community. There is no other way.” Under Siegfried’s guidance, boys were forced into apprenticeships or onto farms as cheap labour, and girls were often either sent to convents, or simply kept under lock and key: Uschi Waser, chair of Naschet Jenische, foundation recently set up to campaign for Jenisch rights, was placed in 23 different institutions in 18 years. Jenisch were not just forbidden from marrying other Jenisch, they were imprisoned for attempting it. Mariella Mehr, a Jenisch writer who has campaigned to expose the Kinder der Landstrasse project, described her treatment at the hands of the scientists: “When I was three years old [1953], they realised I didn’t want to talk. They decided to force me. They used a kind of bath-tub… The patients were made to lie in the tub and covered with a plank so they couldn’t get out. Only their heads were above water. They were kept there in freezing-cold water for up to twenty hours.”

In 1972, the Swiss weekly Der Schweizerischer Beobachter exposed the Kinder der Landstrasse project, to universal public outrage. Pro Juventute closed the operation down a year later, and yet, according to official reports, there were about a hundred victims of Kinder der Landstrasse still incarcerated in clinics and institutions in 1988, after the Swiss state had formally acknowledged its moral, political and financial responsibility for the abductions and apologized to the Jenisch. Although Pro Juventute’s own summations of individual cases remain under a 100-year embargo, the findings of an official report into the whole affair were published in June 1998. Ruth Dreyfuss, President of the Swiss Confederation, was led to comment that “the conclusions of the historians leave no room for doubt. Kinder der Landstrasse is a tragic example of discrimination and persecution of a minority that does not share the way of life of the majority.” The effects of the revelations on Swiss society have been devastating: along with the Nazi gold scandal, accusations of collaboration with the Nazis before and during World War II, and continuing evidence from historians undermining the treasured notion of Swiss neutrality, Kinder der Landstrasse – and specifically its cruelty and systematic inhumanity – has delivered a body blow to the generally accepted image of a wholesome, morally upright Switzerland, an image that has been held both by the Swiss themselves and by outsiders for a century or more.

The Jenisch, meanwhile, have begun to gain a new appreciation of their own culture. About five thousand of Switzerland’s 35,000 Jenisch still head out on the road each summer, working as antique dealers or crafts people, handing on their skills and the Jenisch language to new generations. They have been assigned caravan grounds all over the country, and their children can even study while on the road with correspondence courses offered by many Swiss schools for the purpose. The majority of Jenisch however – often light-skinned and fluent in Swiss-German – live a settled life in mostly low-income housing on the edge of many Swiss cities, completely cut off from their culture. Meanwhile, Pro Juventute (www.projuventute.ch), though it dissociates itself from the Kinder der Landstrasse project these days, is still working to “protect children in danger of abandonment and vagrancy”.

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