A mustachioed Yenish man rings doorbells, offering to sharpen knives and scissors, buy up old furniture. Negotiations with hagglers are friendly; he lands an old kitchen cabinet and wardrobe, which is duly strapped to the back of his car. We visit his child in school, follow his family caravan on the road, and hear him and his wife explaining the Yenish traveller culture and economy: “I couldn’t live in a block of flats with a landlord and a co-tenant… I’m a free man.”
This first half of Die letzten freien Menschen is a kind of social anthropology film, following two or three Yenish families in their daily life, interviewing them, and accompanying them on their yearly pilgrimage to Sainte-Marie-de-la-Mer in the South of France.
Then things take a very dark turn.
An elderly woman, Maria Mayer, recounts her childhood from 1923-1943 as a victim of the Swiss ethnic cleansing programme Kinder der Landstrasse (“Children of the Country Road”). After the death of her mother, Maria is removed from her father and siblings as a little girl. She is destined to be molested by a teacher, bullied ceaselessly by a foster brother, sent to a children’s home and finally, at the outbreak of the Second World War, locked up in a prison. The director gives Maria a full twenty minutes to tell her awful story, interspersed with location shots from the scenes of her torment, and letters about her written by Dr Alfred Siegfried, the monstrous figurehead of this eugenics movement.
Finally, the end of the Kinder der Landstrasse programme is related by a Yenish mother who fought to get her children back in 1971, and the journalist who covered the story and kept on fighting.
Swiss tourist guides don’t mention the Yenish.
Worth a watch?
Much of Die letzten freien Menschen is meant as historical evidence and victim testimony, so don’t expect dynamic direction, symbolism or edited-in character arcs à la Mais im Bundeshuus. But that’s okay. The structure is episodic and logical, and I liked that the daily life in the here-and-now is up front as well as the sins of the past.
Having said that, there’s plenty missing from that first section: it’s frustrating that we don’t see the Yenish travellers interacting with each other naturally, nor the daily lives role of the women.
But the bartering of the knife sharpeners is touching, and the story of Maria Mayer, when it eventually comes is one the most powerful stories I’ve seen recounted by a real-life trauma survivor. For that section alone the film is well worth the time of anyone with an interest in travellers, or those who want a blatant example of how fucked up Swiss society can get.
Maria Mayer in the 1920s (in the checked dress); and in 1991, holding a photograph of Bellechasse prison, where she was forced to live for four years during WW2.
Swissness Difficulty Level
Matterhorn (Advanced). Do not attempt with the proper tools and training: good experience of Swiss German and an interest in this dark chapter in Swiss history.
Mostly Swiss German. I can’t find a version with G or other subtitles – if you can, let me know!
Die letzten freien Menschen is free on YouTube. It seems some DVDs are also available to buy if you want better quality, or try a university library.
Swissness Lab Report: Scapegoating the Yenish
The Yenish are travelling people related to the Roma and Sinti –what we English speakers used to called gypsies. Today 30,000 of them live in Switzerland, although many of them are now sedentary.
This minority occupies a particularly dark spot in the Swiss cultural consciousness – more so than, say, the Roma people in the UK. Between the 1920s and the 1970s, the foundation Pro Juventute systematically removed Yenish children like Maria Mayer from their families and rehoused them in children’s homes, juvenile prisons, psychiatric hospitals, or foster families.
Like the Verdingsystem, these acts were committed in the name of benevolent social work. “Vagrancy” was a key word; alchoholism was frequently invoked. In reality, the Swiss government was sanctioning a form of ethnic cleansing in order to eliminate the Yenish travelling culture from Switzerland. They gave their victims the (cloyingly sweet) name Kinder der Landstrasse – “Children of the Country Road”. My Bernese housemate has a Yenish uncle who was fostered in this way.
The existence of the Kinder der Landstrasse programme is a sticky wicket for the foreigner in search of the Helvetic truths. Maybe a little Q&A can help clear things up things.
Why were the Yenish so harshly scapegoated?
According to the Swiss historian Sara Galle, the Yenish were painted as a danger to both children and to society in general – “they stole, the were dirty, and led profligate lives”. But the intensity of the state’s discrimination is best seen in the context of its welfare benefits provisions. The Yenish, according to Galle, “were made scapegoats for the failed social policies”.
Like, a bad welfare state? But the Swiss got rich after the war, didn’t they?
I was wondering about this, as my rummaging about the history of women’s rights also revealed long delays in the development of social security here in a period (after WW2) when everything was going pretty peachy for the Swiss. A government-supported historical overview of social provisions in Switzerland confirms this:
Despite the singular period of expansion, social security in Switzerland remained patchy for a long time. Compared to other industrialized countries, the social expenditure ratio remained rather low until 1990. Well until the 1970s, social insurance schemes remained minimal, for example in the domain of unemployment. There was still no mandatory health insurance; the introduction of maternity insurance and family allowances was delayed for decades, although they had been approved in principle in 1945.https://www.historyofsocialsecurity.ch/synthesis/1948-1990 (my emphasis)
Why was social security so “patchy”?
The answer, Galle states, surely lies again in the Swiss Gemeinde (Commune) mentality again. The glacial rate of change in Swiss consensus democracy, combined with its then bottom-up approach to the welfare state, meant that: “for a long time, the Communes, i.e. the lowest level of power, were solely responsible for taking care of the poor – and were often overwhelmed”.
Okay, so Weak Social State + Vulnerable “Others” = Institutionalized Scapegoating. But what about everyday human empathy? Citizens weren’t blind – and Pro Juventute didn’t attempt to hide its actions. Were the Swiss evil to stand by and do nothing?
As the film shows, the Yenish travelling culture makes it easy for conservative folk to accept bullshit arguments.
For a start, their children go to school less because they take longer summers; they are likely to change schools; and they are more likely to have poor academic achievement – a Yenish father states that his sons only need “reading, writing, and counting” to fulfil their future jobs, which in his case will be “sharpening razors, peelers and knives, and trading in furniture”.
A Yenish child is inspected by Dr Siegfried, 1953; another Yenish child filmed in the documentary, 1991.
As for the parents, well, the travelling life is strongly linked to rural areas; and it is exactly there that the Gemeinde mentality is strongest. The Yenish male breadwinners would presumably not be present in regional political meetings or weekly bar meetings; the womenfolk would have few ties to local mums and women’s associations. This would lead to little understanding or empathy between the parties.
In some areas, then, a fundamental clash of values combines with a lack of platform of exchange to foster empathy. This would have made it very easy for Swiss citizens to believe the lies spread by proponents of the Kinder der Landstrasse scheme about them being dirty, alcoholic, profligate and not paying taxes. All of these stereotypes are debunked by the documentary.
The worst and most ominous lie, though, is repeated throughout Maria Mayer’s story. In the letters written by Dr Siegfried to her various caregivers and institutions, emphasis is constantly placed on the fact that the poor girl has a “schlechtes Erbteil” – literally, bad inherited traits. This is the Hitlerian language of eugenics. The Doctor warns Maria’s future guardians that she is difficult child and apologizes in behalf of her genetic background as a Yenish child.
According to Sara Galle, a vicious spiral took over. The children acted out because of their mistreatment; their misbehaviour was quickly branded as a symptom of bad genes or, later, just being raised badly; this confirmed to everybody that the Yenish lifestyle should be eliminated, and yet more children were taken away. The treatment becomes the cause, for fifty years.
How did the government make it up to the victims?
So… (deep breath):
- In 1972, the scandal breaks out. One year later, the Kinder der Landstrasse programme is stopped.
- But only in the mid-Eighties comes more action. 1986, all the Pro Juventute files on children, like the letters of Dr Siegfried on Maria Mayer, are made available; at the same time, the President of Switzerland makes an official apology. Shortly afterwards, reparation money is released: 11 million Swiss Francs, up to 20,000 each for 2200 individuals.
- In the wake of this official acknowledgement and apology, foundations and institutions are founded to support the Yenish and preserve their cutlure.
- In 1992, one year after this documentary, the film Kinder der Landstrasse comes out, the most expensive Swiss film up to that point.
- In 1998, the Swiss government signed a European convention on the protection of national minorities, including “travellers”; around 20 years later, this was officially changed to “Yenish” and “Sinti.”
Collecting blades to sharpen in the “service bus”.
So all is well nowadays?
In 2019, the Swiss media reported that the number of officially designated “short stay areas” for travellers was much too low. And sites in Switzerland are managed and controlled by the police, which leads to discrimination – in France, for example, they are managed by the local government.
So, when push comes to shove, who was responsible, and were they punished?
According to the Beobachter journalist Hans Caprez, who broke the story in 1972 and is interviewed extensively in The Last Free People, four parties were responsible:
- The employees of Pro Juventute, especially the ideologues behind them, like Dr Siegfried.
- The Canton and relevant local authorities for collaborating and processing the children through their systems.
- The Federal Government, because it subsidized Pro Juventute and was responsible for holding them to account; furthermore, a Federal Councillor was for some time was president of the foundation.
- Those Swiss people who were aware of the problem but who ignored it or collaborated in it due to “latent racism”.
SMD is yet to see how any of these parties were punished in any way, apart from having to divert funds towards reparations and cultural foundations. (If you know better, let me know in the comments.)
Perhaps the most shocking is that the foundation Pro Juventute still exists as a charitable foundation supporting children; they didn’t even bother renaming it. In fact, until watching these films, SMD was far more familiar with the term “Pro Juventute” than the term “Yenish”, because they advertise a lot on public transport.
To this foreigner trying to identify with the Yenish, it sort of makes you feel like a Jewish person forced to see Swastikas on bus station billboards every day.
But as I’m finding out, the Swiss way of approaching its problematic elements is very difficult to figure out.
This interview with Swiss historian Sara Galle (German) was used extensively in the Swissness Lab this week.
The leading foundation for Yenish rights has published an overview of the Kinder der Landstrasse programme (German).
And here is a breakdown of some current (2019) problems for the Yenish (English).