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Switzerland Regrets a Cruel History

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Time is running out for thousands of Swiss citizens who were forcibly taken from their parents and sent to farms for years of servitude under a wayward government welfare policy that lasted for generations. A petition campaign that would put the compensation issue to a national referendum and authorize payments to 10,000 or so aging verdingkinder — “contract children” — has collected the necessary 100,000 signatures.

Whether the government will ultimately approve is an open question. But the travails of the survivors — including stories of routine beatings, deprivation, sexual abuse and forced sterilization — have startled a Swiss public that, for the most part, was unaware of a practice abandoned decades ago.

Swiss historians estimate that, since the middle of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of poor youngsters were taken from impoverished urban parents whom the state had officially declared to be dysfunctional and shipped off to willing farmers needing cheap labor.

The program died out 40 years ago with the rise of mechanized farming and, in 1971, the extension of the right to vote to Swiss women. The dark chapter was slipping from history until a series of books, documentaries and a museum put a spotlight on the program.

Last year, the government apologized after decades of silence about the scope and inhumanity of the policy. “We could not continue to look away because that is exactly what we already did for far too long,” the justice minister, Simonetta Sommaruga, declared in proclaiming “a day of confession … and a call against suppression and forgetting.”

The proposed restitution would compensate an estimated 10,000 adults. Proponents note other nations have engaged in social engineering — the “stolen generations” of Australian Aborigines are cited along with the “orphan trains” of poor urban American children shipped out for rural adoption. While there were undoubtedly positive outcomes for some, the fundamental injustice of breaking up families without recourse is a blot on Swiss history.

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