Gypsy hunt in Switzerland: long pursuit of racial purity

05 December 2000

Laurence Jourdan1

"I was taken from my mother at birth. I was put in a home for mentally retarded children, where I first underwent the psychiatric torture inflicted on the children of the Yenish community2. I was entrusted to the care of Dr Siegfried. The first time I asked him who my parents were, he said, 'Your mother's a whore and your father's an antisocial good-for-nothing.' I lived with that for ten years, until I understood what he meant: my parents were Gypsies." Mariella Mehr is a Yenish writer who now lives in Italy. For over 25 years she has been writing about the fate of the Yenish Gypsies in Switzerland. From 1926 to 1972 Yenish children were ruthlessly hunted down by the Oeuvre d'entraide aux enfants de la grand-route (Association for Assistance to Traveller Children). Like hundreds of others, Mehr was removed from her parents by force. In her family, three generations were victims of forced sedentarisation: her mother, herself and her son.

Seventy-two years after its foundation, a historical investigation dispelled any ambiguity about the nature of the Oeuvre. In June 1999, Ruth Dreyfuss, a member of the Federal Council, now President of the Swiss Confederation, stated publicly: "The conclusions of the historians leave no room for doubt. The Oeuvre d'entraide pour les enfants de la grand-route is a tragic example of discrimination and persecution of a minority that does not share the way of life of the majority."

In the course of almost half a century, more than 600 Yenish children were forcibly taken from their parents by the Oeuvre. They were removed from their community and put in foster homes or orphanages. Many were thrown into prison or shut up in mental asylums. They were to be refashioned according to the ideals of a sedentary society. They suffered humiliation, ill treatment and racism. The Yenish were especially hunted down in German- and Italian-speaking Switzerland.

The Oeuvre d'entraide pour les enfants de la grand-route was set up in 1926 by Pro Juventute, a highly respected Swiss charitable foundation whose stated aim is to "protect children in danger of abandonment and vagrancy". The Oeuvre's founder and director, Alfred Siegfried (1890-1972), terrorised Traveller children. The Yenish likened him to Hitler. He hunted down Gypsies with the unfailing assistance of the police and the authorities. Bent on "eradicating the evil of nomadism at its source, i.e. the children, by systematic educative measures," he had a pathological hatred of Travellers, whom he referred to as "mentally retarded psychopaths".

In the 1920s the Swiss state set out to combat all forms of marginality. Travellers, described as "social deviants", "good-for-nothings" and "degenerates", were considered by contemporary criminal anthropologists as "congenital vagrants3". Their way-of-life was unacceptable to a bourgeois society convinced that vagrancy leads to crime. They had to be "normalised".

The Yenish, whose nomadism was closely connected with the way they earned their living, travelled in family groups. For them, the transmission of artisan skills to their children was more important than attending school. The authorities decided to attack their culture and way-of-life. "Anyone wishing to combat nomadism efficiently must aim to destroy the Travellers' communal existence," Alfred Siegfried wrote. "Hard as it may seem, we must put an end to their family community. There is no other way." The historians concluded that the Oeuvre d'entraide pour les enfants de la grand-route, which was supposed to be part of a "policy of social assistance and welfare", was nothing else than a campaign of forced sedentarisation intended to "free society from the evil of nomadic families and groups it deemed to be inferior."

In 1930, the Federal Department of Justice and Police planned the abduction of children over a period of ten years. The Department of the Interior released funds for the operation. According to the historians' report, "between 7% and 25% of the Oeuvre's budget was covered by subsidies from the national authorities." This funding continued until 1967. The campaign also received money from private patrons and various associations.

After having the parents legally divested of their rights, Alfred Siegfried took more than 300 children into care. In his view, the success of his educational endeavours depended on the children's total break with their family surroundings. "Almost every time that as a result of our benevolence or an unfortunate encounter (sic), children who had not yet adjusted or were of unstable character came into contact with their parents," he wrote, "all our efforts came to nothing4."

The Oeuvre d'entraide des enfants de la grand-route developed its activities in the period between the wars. In a climate of feverish nationalism, Europe set about upholding moral values and preserving Western culture. Economists were worried by demographic trends, and the elite saw the high birthrate of working-class and "marginal" populations as a threat to the capitalist order. A strong nation could not afford to be burdened by feeble-minded social deviants and foreigners who might hold back its economic development. It was a problem of "social hygiene", and anti-natalist eugenics provided the answer.

By 1908, Francis Galton, the British inventor of Eugenics, was already advocating the establishment of eugenics societies throughout the world5. The purpose of the new "science" was to improve the human species by modifying the gene pool. Its proponents advocated the control of reproduction through the sterilisation or castration of those who might "biologically weaken" the race.

In Switzerland, the scientists in charge of the eradication of nomadism were strongly inspired by national-socialist ideology. They helped to establish a policy that ultimately led to the extermination of at least half a million Gypsies during the second World War. Professor Walter Leimgruber, one of the authors of the historians' report, confirms the close collaboration between scientists from Switzerland and Germany: "Swiss and German psychiatrists worked together," he writes, "and Swiss psychiatrists played a large part in drafting the legislation of the Third Reich." The first European law on the sterilisation of the mentally ill was passed in 1928 in Switzerland, in the Canton of Vaud.

This close collaboration is illustrated by the career of Ernst Rüdin (1874-1952), a psychiatrist from German-speaking Switzerland who was director of the Basel University Psychiatric Clinic. In 1933, Rüding became chairman of Germany's Racial Hygiene Society, which he had helped to found. He advocated the internment of alcoholics and the mentally ill, and eventually joined the Nazi Party. He was one of the three authors of the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Progeny, which was passed in Germany in July 1933 and made sterilisation compulsory for people suffering from congenital mental deficiency, manic-depressive insanity, schizophrenia, epilepsy, hereditary deafness or blindness, chronic alcoholism, etc. This law, under which some 400,000 victims were mutilated, led to the decision of September 1, 1939, on the forced euthanasia of mentally ill patients.

*  *  *

Robert Huber, who was abducted at the age of eight months, met his mother for the first time when he was 20. "The woman before me was a complete stranger. And this woman, my mother, told me I had ten brothers and sisters... The family no longer existed. None of us knew where the others were ... The Yenish had to do military service. The children were abducted while the men were in the army. When they returned, they found their wives in tears. And if they demanded their children back, they were threatened with prison or internment in a mental hospital." The Yenish were Swiss citizens with all the duties but none of the rights.

Policies of paternalistic intervention into Yenish families were apparently widely supported by the clergy. As the primary purpose was to socialise the children by inculcating the work ethic, they received only a minimal education. For the boys, the only prospect was apprenticeship. The girls were restricted to domestic work. Whether they were entrusted to nuns, sent to work on farms (where they were used as cheap labour) or locked up in penitentiaries, they were daily subjected to ill-treatment, racism and even sexual abuse. Uschi Waser is chair of a foundation called Naschet Jenische (Yenish, Stand Up!). In the space of 18 years she was placed in 23 different institutions. Her case file runs to 3,500 pages. Overwhelmed by its contents, she explains that "Siegfried claimed all Gypsies are liars and thieves."

These prejudices were shared by many Swiss scientists and drove their research. They took shameless advantage of the Oeuvre's activities to bolster their theories of the "hereditary inferiority" of nomads. Although it was not standard practice, forced sterilisation also occurred.

"Nomadism, like certain dangerous diseases, is primarily transmitted by women," Alfred Siegfried wrote in a 1964 report on the Oeuvre's activities. Mariella Mehr describes the methods employed: "When I was three years old, they realised I didn't want to talk. They decided to force me. They used a kind of bathtub... 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 20 hours." Joseph Jörger, a psychiatrist who was for many years director of the Waldhaus clinic in Coire where many Yenish were interned, was one of the first Swiss ideologists of racial hygiene.

The Swiss weekly Der Schweizerischer Beobachter brought the scandal to light in 1972. A year later, Pro Juventute was forced to close down the Oeuvre. Faced with this black page in its history, in 1987 the Swiss confederation recognised its moral, political and financial responsibility for the campaign. But it was only in 1996 that the Federal Council commissioned a historical study of the period to "determine the aims, structures, funding and activities of the Oeuvre d'entraide pour les enfants de la grand-route" and to "elucidate the roles of the confederation and the Pro Juventute foundation". The findings, made public in June 1998, were devastating. According to the historians' report, about a hundred of these victims of science in the service of politics were still in institutions in 1988.

Since 1987, all files con-cerning the Oeuvre's activities have been transferred from the cantonal authorities to the federal archives in Berne. They are subject to a 100-year ban on publication. Only the Yenish have access to them. Shocked by their contents, which they feared could one day be used against them, the Yenish at first asked for the archives to be destroyed. Then, after the myth of Swiss neutrality had been exposed, they realised the importance of preserving their history. They are also conscious of the damage done to their travelling-based culture by the policy of forced sedentarisation. The Swiss Yenish, whose numbers are estimated at 35,000, now live for the most part in concrete housing blocks. Only about 5000 still travel the roads.


  1. Laurence Jourdan is a journalist. Her report on the persecution of Yenish children  (Opération  enfants  de  la  grand-route)  was  recently  shown on  the  Franco-German  TV channel Arte. A version of this article first appeared in the journal Le Monde diplomatique. It was translated into English by Barry Smerin. The English edition of Le Monde diplomatique is available in print as an enhanced subscription to The Guardian Weekly, email: or fax: +44 161 876 5362. Interested parties can also subscribe to the on-line edition for 24 US dollars a year. See the Le Monde diplomatique website at
  2. Three main communities of Gypsies in Central Europe are the Yenish (German speakers said to be of German origin), Sinti and Roma. For further reading, see Études tsiganes, vol 8, no 2, Paris, 1996.
  3. Sylvia Thode-Studer, Les Tsiganes suisses, la marche vers la reconnaissance, Realités sociales, Lausanne, 1987. 
  4. Alfred Siegfried,  Kinder der Landstrasse, Pro Juventute, Zurich, 1964.
  5. See Jacques Testard, Le Désir du gene, Flammarion, Paris, 1994, p.38.


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