From the 19th century until the 1950s, thousands of Swiss children were taken from their homes and placed with foster families or sold at auction. The mothers of the outplaced children were poor and often divorced; some were alleged to be prostitutes.
One of these women was my great-grandmother, Dorothea Hürlimann. In 1895, because she managed a tobacco store in the red-light district, her three young children were placed with foster families. The middle child, Dora, was a servant in Winterthur until she was eighteen. In 1914, she immigrated to the United States and gave birth to my mother. For over a century, Dorothea’s loss of her children was a family secret.
In 1987, my Swiss cousins and I decided to search for the truth, and over four decades, we examined Swiss archives and interviewed relatives on both sides of the Atlantic. We uncovered the story that had brought shame to Dorothea Hürliman and her children, but, more importantly, we now understand the courage of women who overcame oppressive conditions and a misogynistic culture in Switzerland. The lives of Dorothea and her children were almost erased from history, but our research shows that these stories are filled with courage. Dorothea and her offspring are forgotten no longer.
Servants and slaves
Until the mid-20th century, much of Switzerland’s economy was based on farming. Farmers asked village officials for poor children to be assigned to their farms, and, in some parts of the country, it was possible to purchase children at auction. During a period of more than a century, tens of thousands of children were seized and worked as farmhands, house servants, or slaves. Children were separated from their biological parents for years at a time, and some never returned home. If children were not being raised properly, the thinking went, they should be removed from their family of origin. Proper child rearing required that the parents be married, and the husband had have a respectable job. From the mid-19th century until the 1960s, officials required that such children be sent to foster families. (1)
Tens of thousands of unwanted Swiss children were sold in auctions or given away as cheap labour until the 1950s…. Many of the child workers, known as Verdingkinder (discarded children), ended up being beaten and sexually abused after passing under the auctioneer’s hammer in Swiss provincial towns. They were handed to farmers or factory owners, who were paid a fee by local authorities to feed and house them. Although the children were supposed to be paid a basic wage for their work, in practice many were treated as slaves. Historians estimate that as many as 12,000 children of poor families, some of them infants and many with unmarried or divorced mothers, were given away or sold during the 1930s alone. The trade finally ended only in the decade after the Second World War, when increased farm mechanisation (sic) meant less need for youthful labour (sic)… Marco Leuenberger, a historian who has researched the practice… said: “We estimate that between five and 10 per cent of all Swiss children may have been sold or sent away by their families to work in the countryside between 1850 and 1950… It’s astonishing that these slave auctions were allowed to happen in Switzerland… One explanation is that at the time it was a poor agricultural country and there was a desperate need for cheap labour.”
Historian Loretta Seglias concluded that “hundreds of thousands of such children were placed in foster care in the 19th and 20th centuries.” (2) In the 21st century, the loss of children and out-placements seems unimaginable, but Guthknecht and Wirnshofer describe how, to the cantonal authorities, the customs were reasonable and necessary:
As the years went by, the stories of these verdingkinder (contract children), as they are known, were largely forgotten — until recently. In a special report for Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, journalists Corinna Guthknecht and Josef Wirnshofer talk to some former contract children about their traumatic experiences. ‘The authorities deprived them of their parents when they were too poor to get them through,’ writes Wirnshofer. ‘At the time, poverty was not a problem of the state, but misconduct of the individual.It was also considered a danger to the common good. Poor mothers and fathers, it was thought, would affect the children negatively. Illegitimate children or children of separated parents were especially affected (Italics added.)’ (3)
A recent BBC article by Kavita Puri described how children went to the lowest bidder: “If a child became orphaned, a parent was unmarried, there was fear of neglect, or you had the misfortune to be poor, the communities would intervene. Authorities tried to find the cheapest way to look after these children, so they took them out of their families and placed them in foster families.” (4)
Today child labor is banned, and images of poor 19th century children are difficult to imagine. The Switzerland of 2023 does not seem like a country in which involuntary servitude could have taken place, and yet this is exactly what happened. In fact, “Public auctions for the child workers were still being held in some Swiss towns and villages as late as the 1930s.” (5)
During the decades that Verdingkinder existed, the reality was hidden from view, and victims had little support. In 2019, however, the truth was revealed when government officials offered apologies to survivors:
The Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) has processed some 6,000 claims for victims of forced labour and abuse… The aim is to deal with all the claims, totalling more than 9,000, by the end of the year. The Swiss government has agreed to pay up to CHF25,000 ($24,800) in compensation to people who, as children, were victims of forced labour policies or placed in institutions, often suffering abuse or neglect. The “Verdingkinder” (slave children) practice continued until 1981. Around 12,000-15,000 victims are still alive, the FOJ estimates. The government announced the CHF300 million compensation scheme in September 2016, and it was launched in December of that year. The authorities had earlier offered official apologies to the survivors of this dark period of Swiss history. (6)
In 1987, Urs Arcon, then a clothing designer and resident of Winterthur, sent a letter to me in North Carolina. Arcon, who shares the same great grandparents, wrote that, “there are family myths, and truth is covered by a veil of silence.” He said he knew there were secrets worth investigating. It was not until 2019, when Arcon and I were retired, that we found time to complete the research.
As for me, I had always wanted to find out my grandmother who was raised by a foster family and why she left Switzerland. Arcon urged me to move to Switzerland, but I first had to get a year-long visa. The Swiss Embassy turned me down, but I appealed by saying I planned to write an article describing Swiss American connections. The Embassy finally granted me a visa, and I signed a lease for an apartment in a small village. Arcon and I translated German and French documents and interviewed elderly relatives, farmers, prostitutes and former Verdingkinder. We met with today’s Hürlimann clan in Walchwil, and we visited the tobacco store that Dorothea managed.
Our research shows that Geneva’s officials saw Dorothea as an unfit mother, and she was forced to give up her children. Dorothea, however, re-built her shattered life, and two of the three children prospered in Switzerland and the United States.
Dorothea Hurlimann and Out-placed Children
Maria Dorothea Hürlimann, my great grandmother, was born on November 11, 1858, in Walchwil, Zug. Her parents were Michael Joseph Hürlimann (Aug. 25, 1826-Sept. 9, 1894) and Maria Elisabeth Ganz (April 13, 1826-Sept. 4, 1889). Her future husband, Rudolf Albert Sommer, was born on January 24, 1857, in Elsau, Zurich, and became a barrel maker. Young Rudolf decided to break free from village life and booked passage to the United States.
With a similar goal, Dorothea Hürlimann emigrated from Switzerland, and both passed through Ellis Island. They met in Philadelphia and were married on June 26, 1887. Their son, Rudolf Michael, was born on June 12, 1888, but Rudolf drank so heavily that he was unable to hold a job, and in early 1891, the couple gave up their dream and returned to Europe. As they crossed France, Dorothea went into labor, and Dora Suzanne Sommer, my grandmother, was born in Paris on May 2, 1891. A third child, Elise, was born on August 10, 1893.
Returning home did not cure Rudolf of his alcoholism. He abused Dorothea and abandoned his family. On November 8, 1895, a Geneva court granted Dorothea a divorce. Dorothea’s case must have been convincing, because the judge’s decision was blunt:
“From the first days of marriage Mr. Sommer was abusive; he does not work; he was fired by bosses at several jobs, he said injurious things to his wife like calling her a whore; he was arrested for doing this in October 1894; he left his wife and three children this past April 10 and didn’t give them any news.” (7)
So, on November 9, 1895, Dorothea was a divorced woman with three children, ages two, four and seven. She took job managing a tobacco store on 52 Rue de Monthoux in a red-light district called Le Paquis. Such businesses were thought to be fronts for prostitution, and sexual trysts supposedly took place in the back rooms.
A 2004 exhibition in Zurich depicted the tobacco stores, and “tells in graphic detail the story of an often-sordid aspect of the Belle Epoque, when it was considered normal for well-to-do men to visit brothels… After the official closure of brothels in 1898, many of the women found jobs in cigar shops. Each shop had an adjoining backroom where it was possible to buy more than cheroots and other tobacco products.” (8) After officials required Dorothea to out-place her children, she sent two of them to live with farmers in Elsau and sent Dora to Winterthur.
Paula, my sister, reflected on the women’s dilemmas in that era: “We will never know whether Dorothea Hürlimann was, in fact, paid for sex in the back room of her tobacco shop. And if she were, in no way does that diminish my respect for her as a courageous woman in a misogynist culture. The more important point is that she managed to survive by whatever means necessary in a repressive Calvinist society where options to earn a living for a single mother were few.” (9)
Three years after her children were moved to foster homes, Dorothea married Remy Maul, a Swiss-French man. They had one child, Robert, and left Le Paquis. Dorothea died on October 17, 1924.
Around age eighteen, Dora received an offer from Romola de Pulszky, the wife of Nijinsky, to be an attendant in New York. In 2014, Dora began work in a New York hotel. There she met Paul Emil Fischer (December 28, 1890-April 1950), a German who was working as a bellhop. Paul and Dora were married in Jersey City, N.J. on December 23, 1916. They had two children, Rudy Warner (b. Nov. 27, 1917) and my mother, Hazel (b. Sept. 25, 1921). Dora became a naturalized U.S. citizen on July 7, 1921.
Paul Fischer, a hotel staff trainer, was absent for months and was abusive to his wife and children. The family followed Paul to Detroit, Cincinnati, and Minneapolis, but, when he announced they had to move to Dallas, Dora obtained a divorce. Soon thereafter, she was so desperate that she remarried him only to divorce once again. In her fifties, Dora moved to North Carolina, where my parents and I were living.
I recall how “Nana” baked Swiss pastries and urged me to fatten up: “just have butter and a little bit of meat. They won’t do you any harm.” My siblings and I were impressed that she could name every mountain on a Christmas calendar, and that she sang a song about lovers who “meet on Alpine peaks because mountains never share their secrets.” My sister, Sarah, remembers how Nana, “would make delicious dishes in her apartment, bragging about how much butter was included. Since her sister, Elise, died of TB, she thought it good to be plump. Her voice and accent were so melodious that it was impossible not to doze off.” (10)
Nana told us about one incident that occurred after she was allowed to move back into her mother’s apartment:
My mother married Remy Maul. His last name rhymed with ‘pole.’ We loved him very much and I called him ‘Papa.’ Mother was strict, so I was glad to have a Papa. The two of them bought a piano with ‘Mozart’ carved into it. Papa hired a handsome Italian music teacher who gave me lessons in the back room of the restaurant. Papa would sit near the door to observe, but sometimes the door was shut. One day we were supposed to be practicing the scales. The teacher, as was often the case, joked with me about the small size of my fingers and how they were not able to reach the keys. ‘I will have to stretch them,’ he said, and he held my fingers and pulled on them. On this day, he reached over and kissed me. Just then Papa opened the door and said, ‘Get out! That’s not what we paid you for!’ The man was paid but did not come again. Mother asked me why I didn’t push him away. I said it was not my fault, since I was too young and didn’t want to do anything. As a result, they did not trust me alone.” (11)
There was no dining room table in Nana’s apartment on 78 Hamilton Road in Chapel Hill, so we would roll out her circular table, all the while singing: ‘Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun…’ We dined on buttery potatoes and lemon squares while marveling at Nana’s sweet disposition. Many years later, she despaired because grasshoppers lived in her oven, and slugs covered the concrete stoop. Much later, after we moved her to a nursing facility, it dawned on us that she was dying.” Paula, my sister, looked back at Nana: “When she arrived from Minneapolis with her purple suitcase, she brought us chocolates. During her last hours, I said, ‘I love you.’ Nana looked at me and said: ‘I love you.’ ‘I love you,’ I said.’ She died in my arms.” (12)
Dorothea Hürlimann and Dora Fischer lived with dignity and purpose. They left abusive husbands, had no financial security, and struggled as immigrants. Despite hardships, they dedicated their lives to raising their children and they succeeded. The findings suggest that there are many other Swiss American women whose stories are worth researching and sharing.
About the author: Tito Craige, Ed.D. is the great grandson of Dorothea Hürlimann, a Swiss-American immigrant from Zug. He teaches history in Chapel Hill, NC, and has written articles on human rights and refugees.
- Arcon, Urs. January 3, 1987. Correspondence with the author.
- Caselli, Irene. April 30, 2019. “Switzerland’s ‘Contract Children’ – Abused, Exploited, Forgotten.” https://worldcrunch.com/amp/switzerland3939contract-children39-abused-exploited-forgotten-2654532001
- Craige, Paula. Interview by the author on December 19, 2021.
- Craige, Sarah. Interview by the author. December 1, 2021.
- Craige, Tito: Urs Arcon and I visited Le Paquis in May 2019. Today Dorothea’s neighborhood is a lower-class area where prostitutes make their living. To many Swiss, “Le Paquis” is still synonymous with “red-light district.” Women from Africa and Latin America walk the streets, many with mini-skirts and low-cut tops. Josefina, a woman from Colombia, said, “Come on in!” I told her I was researching my ancestors and was not there for a massage. She laughed again and said, “I have never heard of such an excuse. Are you really looking for someone from a hundred years ago?
- Dawson, Richard. May 3, 2004. “Exhibition looks back at prostitution in Zurich.” https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/exhibition-looks-back-at-prostitution-in-zurich/3792732
- Künzi, Renat. February 29, 2004. “Historian reveals tragedy of Swiss child trade.” https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/historian-reveals-tragedy-of-swiss-child-trade/3791220
- Leuenberger, Marco. February 29, 2004. Quoted in Kunzi: “Historian reveals tragedy of Swiss child trade.” https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/historian-reveals-tragedy-of-swiss-child-trade/3791220
- Swissinfo.com. May 20, 2019: Compensation so far paid to 6,000 Swiss ‘slave children.’ https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/forced-placements_compensation-paid-to-6-000–slave-children-/44976198
- Verdingkinder and Adoption: Undated. https://adoption.com/wiki/Verdingkinder_and_Adoption
- Wilshire, Kim. “Thousands of Swiss Children Sold into Slavery.” The Telegraph – UK, March 14, 2004. https://rense.com/general50/children.htm
- Kim Wilshire, “Thousands of Swiss Children Sold into Slavery.” The Telegraph – UK, March 14, 2004, https://rense.com/general50/children.htm (Last accessed July 1, 2022). The exact population of children sent to foster homes or auctioned will never be known. There is little agreement about when the practice started and ended and who was considered a foster child. Some children were placed with relatives; others were sold and re-sold. Each canton has different record-keeping systems, and there is no federal record.
- Loretta Seglias quoted in
https://worldcrunch.com/amp/switzerland39s-39contract-children39-abused-exploited-forgotten-2654532001 (Last accessed July 8, 2022).
- Corinna Guthknecht and Josef Wirnshofer quoted in “Switzerland’s ‘Contract Children’ – Abused, Exploited, Forgothttps://worldcrunch.com/amp/switzerland39s-39contract-children39-abused-exploited-forgotten-2654532001 (Last accessed July 8, 2022).
- Kavita Puri, October 29, 2014. “Switzerland’s shame: The children used as cheap farm labour (sic)” in https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29765623 (Last accessed July 8, 2022).
- Renat Kunzi, February 29, 2004. “Historian reveals tragedy of Swiss child trade.” https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/historian-reveals-tragedy-of-swiss-child-trade/3791220 (Last accessed July 8, 2022).
- Swissinfo.com. May 20, 2019: Compensation so far paid to 6,000 Swiss ‘slave children.’ https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/forced-placements_compensation-paid-to-6-000–slave-children-/44976198 (Last accessed July 8, 2022)
- Geneva Civil Tribunal Archives, Geneva, April 10, 2019. Translation by Urs Arcon.
- Richard Dawson, May 3, 2004. “Exhibition looks back at prostitution in Zurich.” https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/exhibition-looks-back-at-prostitution-in-zurich/3792732 (Last accessed July 8, 2022).
- Paula Craige, interview with the author, December 19, 2021.
- Sarah Craige. Interview by the author. December 1, 2021.
- Interview notes.
- Interview notes.
Special thanks to siblings Paula, Sarah, and Burton Craige for their encouragement. Much appreciation to Swiss relatives in Aarberg, Zurich, Walchwil and Ticino: Ruedi and Maria Sommer. Christian Bürgi, Eliane and Rolf Bürgi, Matthias, Christina, Jael, and Selina Bürgi, Kathi and Simone Arcon, Urs Arcon, David Arcon, and Franz Hürlimann.