On Mariella Mehr’s stoneage

by Roger Russi

[Read excerpts from Mariella Mehr’s stoneage in Trafika Europe 11: Swiss Delights, right here].

for thirty-one years i have done nothing more than survived. the price was high. silvana—at earlier times silvia or also silvio—is an alcoholic, dependent on medication, incapable of social integration, depressive, scared, angry, destructive.
silvana is scream.

In 1981, the Swiss Yenish writer Mariella Mehr, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Tuscany since May 1997, presented the reading public with her first novel. It is a tale of one human being fighting her way out of bondage and bearing witness to the unimaginable abuse that she had to endure during that struggle. Many of its shocking images and experiences mirror those of the author’s life. If one were to compare steinzeit (stoneage) to a natural phenomenon, it would have to be an earthquake or an electrical thunderstorm. As testimony, it belongs to the tradition of writers such as Eli Wiesel, Ruth Klüger, and Ceija Stojka, whose autobiographic accounts bear witness to systematic genocide.

Every word, every image, every sentence constitutes a struggle. In the world of stoneage, what may best describe the narrator Silvana’s journey, is a path from “schreien” [screaming] to “schreiben” [writing]. Although there is no etymological connection between the German verbs, they are separated by one minuscule letter which is what separates the infant Silvia from the adult Silvana.

As tiny as this difference may seem, it signifies to the narrator Silvana a continuous struggle that she has fought for thirty-one years. The baby Silvia’s world of screaming consists of foster homes, juvenile halls, detention wards, psychiatric institutions, closed reformatory schools, and prisons. Silvana, the writer, looks back on her childhood and sees a heap of shards, which she slowly, painstakingly arranges and fits together into a series of images. She is on a quest to make sense of her experiences. Toward this goal, she must descend into the hell of her memories, circle after circle, without a Virgil as her guide. And at the end, Silvana does not find a stairway to heaven, but rather a seemingly simple question: “WHY?” It is the child Silvia who awakens to this question. At this crucial moment, placed at the very end of the novel, the infant’s spirit shows defiance, hope in the face of despair, and a will to live no longer as a suffering, helpless victim. This tiny spark marks the instance when Silvia sets out on her journey from “schreien” to “schreiben.”

stoneage visually reinforces Silvana-Silvia’s struggle to piece her life together. The reader comes upon passages which consist of a line, a paragraph, a series of disconnected paragraphs, or, rarely, a page or two of continuous narrative. There may be as much white space as there is actual text underlining the fragmentary nature of Silvana’s childhood experiences and her efforts to remember them coherently. These white blanks suggest gaps in the narrator’s memory perhaps induced by shock and/or chemical ‘treatments’ that the narrator endured, or a break in Silvana’s train of thought. They also serve as a reminder of the white-washed walls that kept the narrator imprisoned for most of her childhood and teenage years. To her it is not a neutral color but rather one that elicits horror. And by implication they serve as visual silences maintained by the various institutions, society, with which they sought to bury, blot out, forget the protagonist.

Language itself is under attack. German orthography demands that all nouns be capitalized. The lack of it in stoneage may not be as disturbing to the English reader who is used to this much more so than a German reader. The former stumbles over or may be annoyed by the “i” as much as the latter suddenly must hunt for the usually apparent nouns. Block capitals (e.g., ICH [I], or WARUM [WHY]) and dreams entirely printed in cursive font add further disruptive texture to the narrative. Words are fused together, spaced apart and/or type-set wider than normal. The sentences fall apart, lose their verbs, and become a string of nouns depicting the agony of the narrator visually:

mother, you would be my mountain, my mountain of gruel. i, a tiny thing that chokes you down with mouth, hand and feet, joyfully, greedily, tenderly, ingratiatingly, pleadingly, demandingly. sun and moon would rock this mountain in the rhythm of the wind, in the white, soft body warmth and light would get caught. my hunger-dream would hold a conversation with your dream of softness and warmth; it would be sheltered in the dell of a large palm of a hand. the breath of the mountain would be my breath, his heartbeat my heartbeat, his warmth my warmth, his light my light. it would be my mountain mymountain,my mountain,my mountain.inmydream there would be no time, no end. each second of eternity would be my mountain, and i would just be, being, all being, a touching, a searching, and a grasping. living core, living cradle, living i.

Silvana contrasts Silvia’s wishful thinking, her frantic petition, with a short description of how thoroughly and deeply the mother hates her own baby. By contrast, in the following paragraph, Mehr uses clear, lucid prose highlighting the harsh reality of the mother’s as well as the child’s circumstances:

in reality i fell into a sea of disgust, cold, and homelessness. my mother’s hate and despair spit me out into a landscape full of horror. she let me be petrified, even before i was allowed to live. the despairing scream of my mother was my lullaby, and the white of the house in which my birth happened, became the color of terror.

Silvia’s vision of warmth and plenty is slashed to one of “disgust, cold, and homelessness.” The survivor Silvana’s summary of her mother’s feelings toward her infant is an accusation and condemnation laced with a coldly burning hatred. She comes to realize that the child’s hatred of her mother was misdirected. Slowly she learns that she is caught in a system that seeks to undermine, devalue, and ultimately destroy her identity in order to turn her into an ‘upright,’ good (i.e., sedentary) Swiss citizen. In a letter to H.U., her companion to whom she is married since 1991, Mehr expresses some of this hate:

March 1985, letter to H.U.

… I hate them, I hate them, I hate them … I almost suffocate on my hate. She [her guardian social worker], she did all of this, has all of this on her conscience, not I. I kill her a thousand times, torture her in my thoughts slowly to death.
How will I ever rid myself of this hatred?
During writing this hatred is present, in my sleep, in the dreams. Bloodbaths, everywhere always only more bloodbaths …
How could I forget even for an hour that I hate her. I was innocent, and in spite of this she almost destroyed me and my son.
–  they wanted a lying child
–  they wanted a thieving child
–  they wanted a bad child
–  they wanted me to be cowardly and subservient … H.U., they, they were the mad ones, not I. They did it, they have thousands such as me on their conscience. Only a few overcame it, most of them did not make it, were destroyed, dehumanized. I still remember the names of many of them, remember their appearance as children, young girls, women. It is for them that I write this play, for them and Christian …1

Although the author wrote the above letter while she was working on her play Kinder der Landstrasse: Ein Hilfswerk, ein Theater und die Folgen2 [Children of the Countryroad: A Charity, a Theater, and the Consequences], the tenor of her voice is echoed by the protagonist in her first novel as well as by many of the subsequent protagonists or figures in her work. Silvana controls language unlike her younger self, Silvia. Her story does not fall apart in spite of the barely controlled rage that seems to simmer between the lines. From where does this rage come? In order to understand better what is at stake here, a few words concerning Mariella Mehr’s life are necessary. Following the biographic summary will be a brief account of the history of the Yenish as Mehr’s horrific childhood and youth are directly linked to the persecution of this Swiss minority. Finally, as both the novel and this Afterword repeatedly make reference to the assimilation project Hilfswerk für die Kinder der Landstrasse [Charity for the Children of the Country Road], a recount of its history and purpose will conclude the overview of Mehr’s background.

MARIELLA MEHR’S BIOGRAPHY

On the back of the German publication, Mehr wrote the following introduction or teaser for stoneage:

To come to the point right away: According to my mother’s tongue, the Yenish language, I am a Yenish; in the language of race hygiene, of the anthropological science respectively: a non-sedentary, an asocial, or at least a hereditarily tainted carrier of a non-sedentary, asocial clan, therefore, a vagrant, a woman of a lesser kind of human beings, a threat to society as a whole, a moral dimwit, someone incapable of living in a community, an idler, notorious bum, hereditarily diseased, lesser being, work shy, sexually dissolute, a threat to common decency, a psychopath, belonging to that riffraff that a Hitler rightfully would have incarcerated und exterminated. They did not even let us, me and my sisters and brothers, have our name, the name of our people, the Yenish.

In Mehr’s work fiction and biography are inseparable twins even if the author usually calls her tales fiction. She was born in Zurich in 1947, the daughter of a Yenish (Roma) and a Jewish-Romani holocaust survivor. Social workers from the Pro Juventute3 project Charity for the Children of the Country Road removed the baby from her mother and brought it to a hospital for “intellectually handicapped”4 infants in Zurich. Between 1949 and 1952 Mehr was placed in a home for children of the Seraphische Liebeswerk [seraphic acts of love]5. While in that home she was sent for ‘treatment’ to a psychiatric clinic because of her “inherited intransigence.” The clinic used sensory deprivation tanks in order to pacify the “patient.” Her mother, after a brief, unhappy marriage, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and permanently committed to an insane asylum in 1952. At the same time, put in a psychiatric clinic in Lucerne, Mehr was made to suffer her first electro-shock ‘treatments’ due to supposedly “inborn schizophrenia and inability to speak.”

For the years 1952-55 she was placed with a foster family in central Switzerland. Mehr says she ran away after being molested by the foster father. In the course of the next years she was handed from one reform school or institution to another. Whenever her situation became unbearable, she either tried to escape or sought to reconnect with her family even though she did not know the identities of the family members or where they might be found. Invariably, she was caught again and placed in increasingly more severe psychiatric facilities or Heime für Schwererziehbare [homes for children that are difficult to raise/educate]. During this time, she was repeatedly subjected to various forms of ‘treatments,’ such as Demerol cures, insulin-, sensory deprivation- and electro-shock therapies. In a thesis called Die Familie Plur. Wiedereingliederung einer Vagantenfamilie [The Family Plur. Reintegration of a Family of Vagrants] by Elsy Schwegler at the Schweizerischen Sozial-caritativen Frauenschule Luzern [Swiss Social- Charitable School for Women] Schwegler describes Mehr under a changed name:

“Marianne, born 1947, a child born out of wedlock by Marliese Edeltraut, spent her first five years in homes for children where she drew attention to herself especially through nervousness and an inclination to fight. Although a family placement at the home of foster parents with a very good reputation at first seemed to promise success, gradually more and more difficulties in trying to educate her (especially through clever lying and stealing) surfaced, so that the girl had to be committed to an institution for psychological observation.”6

In 1961 Mehr’s social worker placed her in a home in French Switzerland where she worked as a maid. After being sexually abused by her employer, she says she once again ran away. When Mehr was arraigned, her social worker had her committed in another closed psychiatric clinic. The author does not remember the next few months possibly due to further electro- shock ‘treatments.’

In 1964, upon an evaluation by her Pro Juventute social worker, Mehr had to look for work. The seventeen-year-old was left to her own devices. Totally unprepared to fend for herself, she was only able to find work at a gay bar. Masquerading as a man, Mario, she worked as bartender and attended bartending school. She met S.M., a Holocaust survivor of Jewish and Romani descent. Hoping to free herself from the state guardianship, she got pregnant thinking that this would force her guardian to let her marry the father of her child. She petitioned her legal guardian, an official of the Children of the Country Road project, who reviewed her case and then tried to inform Mehr of the decision. Because she could not be found immediately, in spite of her papers being in order, her legal guardian put her on the international most wanted list. When she was apprehended, the social workers had Mehr arrested at her place of work and committed to a penitentiary for women at Hindelbank (Canton Berne) in 1965. She was placed in “protective custody” because she was allegedly “morally decrepit and work-shy.” Her son Christian was born at Hindelbank and put into foster care by the social worker in charge. In 1967, after 19 months of incarceration without ever having stood before a judge, Mehr was released from prison. The social workers of the Children of the Country Road project kept custody of her son. At a foster-home, Mehr’s son Christian suffered a terrible accident when left unattended and was forced to spend almost a year in intensive care. In order to gain her own guardianship as well as custody of her son, Mehr married a friend in 1968. After finally obtaining both the guardianship of herself as well as that of her son, she divorced after three months.

During this time, Mehr also began to call herself “Mariella.” In an interview in 1997, she told how she came to this name:

I had to come to terms with my own name. All of my life I was always called “Mehr,” whether I waited in line for electro-shocks in the clinics, or stood in line for grub in prison, or stood in line for a beating in the juvenile halls, I was always “Mehr” or “that Mehr.” And when I was twenty, shortly before my twentieth birthday, after 19 months of jail so that I could not marry the father of my son—for that was the reason for my incarceration—because he was both a Rom and a Jew— when I came out of prison, they gave me a rail ticket to Berne, from Hindelbank to Berne. I had no name. I was “Mehr.” And what did I do? Naturally, I went into the first pub where I knew that the ones who would hang out there would be those who had been with me in the joint. Logical, isn’t it? And that was the Bali [a local bar] in Berne. I sat there at the bar—I was so very tiny at that time, I grew another inch and a half in my twenties, at that time I was barely able to climb onto the barstool, and besides I had no experience in that kind of a thing, and I sat at the bar and ordered a beer, the first beer in my life. Next to me sat this guy and he looked at me and asked: “what’s your name?”
I stared at him and said: “I don’t know.” He looked at me as if I were nuts. He didn’t understand that I was serious. I truly didn’t know. And
he reacted as if he were sitting next to a dangerous insect and he cleared out of there in a flash. A second guy took a seat, actually— coincidences are something of the most superb and ironic that exists— on the same chair as the other one and asked me “what’s your name?” Well, now I had to come up with something fast and since that moment I am called “Mariella.” That is not the name I received at my Christening …
Marietta Priska is my birth name. My mother named me Priska, my father wanted a Marietta, and that turned into Marietta Priska, but I was never called that, thus it became Mariella …
At twenty, that was the most important thing for me, as far as I did that consciously—one could talk for hours about how consciously all that took place—to become a person, and that meant, to invent a name, for me to arrive at that name, in order to arrange that name about myself, if one might say, to penetrate the name, so that it becomes my name …
Only as a person who named me for myself could I escape at least that fate. It was a really, really important step, I believe, and only today— that is with the child (the protagonist of Daskind [TheChild], 1996)— have I begun to come to terms with this. At the time it was just the thing to do, I didn’t give it any further thought. There was this guy who wanted to know my name, and I didn’t know it, so I had to invent a name. That was a very pragmatic story. I was simply too embarrassed to say for a second time “I don’t know.”7

Over the next few years (1967-1974) she worked in various factories. Suffering from severe bouts of depression, Mehr attempted suicide on several occasions upon which she would be placed in psychiatric care again. Together with other Yenish, she founded a self-help organization for the Yenish called Radgenossenschaft der Landstrasse [Wheel Collective of the Country Road]. During the same period, Mehr began to work as a freelance journalist.

In the years 1979 and 1980 she wrote her first novel stoneage, which was based in part on journal entries that she had kept during therapy sessions between 1976 and 1979. A selection of poetry in diesem traum schlendert ein roter findling: gedichte [in this dream strolls a red foundling: poems] followed in 1983. During the same year, she met H.U. who became her companion and whom she married in 1991. In Das Licht der Frau: Bericht [The Light of the Woman: A Report] Mehr presents a collage of investigative pastiches and personal poems about the life of a female bullfighter in Spain (1984). Through documents, newspaper excerpts, letters, excerpts from the “Gypsy files,” Mehr portrayed in the documentary play Kinder der Landstrasse: Ein Hilfswerk, ein Theater und die Folgen [Children of the Country Road: A Charity, a Play And Its Consequences, 1987] her fight to gain guardianship for her son Christian. A year earlier, Marianne Pletscher, a social activist and film journalist working for SRG (Swiss Television) filmed the rehearsals of the play and turned it into a TV movie “Beyond the Country Road, Mariella Mehr, a Play in Acts,” which was aired by DRS (German Swiss TV Channel).

During the same year (1987), Mehr with a group of Yenish representatives crashed a press conference of the Pro Juventute at which its officials issued a public apology to the Yenish for the deeds done by the assimilation project Children of the Country Road. The Yenish themselves had not been invited.

In the following years Mehr continued to publish journalistic pieces, novels, and poems. Mehr was invited to the Ingeborg Bachmann Preisverleihung—a televised literary competition where the participating writers are judged by a panel of literary scholars and journalists. She read the concluding chapter of her newest novel Daskind [TheChild; 1995] and received an “honorable mention.”

In May 1997 Mehr was a panelist at a public forum in the Rote Fabrik [red factory] in Zurich. The subject concerned the inclusion of the Roma in the discussion of the Holocaust. The panelists and audience held a heated debate. On her way back to her home in the Canton of Graubünden [Grisons], the nearly blind Mehr was attacked and injured by unidentified assailants who shouted Nazi rhetoric at her. A police investigation yielded no results. As a consequence, Mehr decided to leave Switzerland and take up residence in the Tuscany.

The university of Basle recognized Mehr in 1998 for her social activism and her work in journalism and literature with an honorable Ph.D. A year earlier the Schweizerische Landesbibliothek (Swiss National Library) in Berne already recognized the author by establishing an archive in her name. It bought the materials for the archive from Mehr’s personal library.

Today, Mehr continues to work relentlessly on her creative and activist projects. She and a group of Roma writers, scholars, and intellectuals have founded the International Romani Writers’ Association (IRWA) on July 20-21, 2002, in Karjaa, Finland. Among its goals are a support system for Roma writers throughout the world, a voice dispelling the pervasive stereotypes of “Gypsies,” the establishment of a Romani Library, and increased visibility and recognition of the Roma throughout the world.

Sie meinen nicht uns, nein, Hass hat keine Meinung, kommt ohne sie aus.
Sie feiern den Tod, egal, wohin er gestreut wird und wen er betrifft.
Sie stehen sich selbst im Weg und lassen dafür büssen.
Wäre unnütz, um Schonung zu bitten, nur weil Wege jedem zu dienen hätten.
So bleibt mir ein Saumpfad, von anderen lange vor mir begangen.
They don’t mean us, no, hate has no opinion, can do without them.
They celebrate death, regardless, where it is sown and whom it affects.
In their own way they stand and let others Suffer the consequences.
‘T would be useless to plead for mercy, only because ways ought to serve everyone.
So remains but a mule track by others long before me traveled.
Am Ende erweist sich auch er also Trug, den ein Engel versehentlich hinterließ.8

THE YENISH

In the end it turns out to be just another illusion, that an angel accidentally left behind.

Mariella Mehr states the following about the Yenish:

The Yenish are a tribe, a people, belonging to the people of the Roma. The Yenish can be found in all of Europe—actually also in the U.S. Thus, they are not to be confused with the Tinkers. They are another ethnic group. There are all together 350000 Yenish. 35000 live in Switzerland. And they actually belong to the Roma even though they do not like to hear that said about them. There is a dissertation by Beate Eder in Salzburg who has proven that the Yenish are clearly Roma. They fought for various powers during the Thirty Years War and somehow came to settle down in Southern Germany, Switzerland, and Northern France after the war. Incidentally, this is a marvelous work. Eder did not want to prove at all that the Yenish are Roma, but rather she wanted to write about the literature of the Roma and in the process discovered a lot of Yenish literature. Toward this end she dealt within her dissertation ate all with the issue, whether or not the Yenish are Gypsies, that is, whether or not they are Roma […] [Eder] says much against the common opinion that the Yenish are simply destitute farmers who have begun to live as nomads, or that they were, for example, coal burners who had no longer any work—that’s another one of those theories. Basically, these are all theories of psychiatrists who wanted to prove that in the case of the Yenish they were not dealing with a tribe of the Roma. Only be means of this argument— and there is a very particular reason for this—only in this way could they persecute the Yenish, murder them, sterilize and castrate them by force, without infringing on the international human rights act.9

The Duden, a scholarly German dictionary, speculates that Yenish possibly relates to a root in Romani [Zigeunersprache] signifying “knowledge” or “knowing.” Parenthetically we are told it is Rotwelsch, a cant, the language of thieves and vagabonds. The first meaning then states that Yenish concerns the travelers [die Landfahrer betreffend]. It is also their language which the Duden repeats to equate with Rotwelsch. Long-standing prejudice mixed with romantic stereotypes and questionable, so-called scholarly guesswork seems to cloud any perception of the Roma at large, or, as in our case, the Yenish in particular.

The origins of the Yenish are a mystery. A volume of photographs entitled Nomaden in der Schweiz [Nomads in Switzerland]10 proposes that they might be descendants of the Celts, the Helvetians—to which every Swiss coin bears tribute as it displays Confoederatio Helvetica on its head. Most of the Yenish believe they are one of the peoples of the Roma. “Rom” actually denotes “man,” “Roma” is the plural. “Romani” is the language which not all of the Roma speak. In everyday parlance, the Roma are called “Gypsies,” a word burdened with a history of all conceivable and inconceivable prejudices and persecutions of the worst possible and pervasive kind. The Roma are groups of peoples, a nation Mariella Mehr would say, some of whom are nomadic but the majority is sedentary—this in contrast to the often sung Gypsy stereotypes.

A multitude of names by which the Roma refer to themselves may be a source of confusion. In Germany, they are often referred to as Sinti and Roma. Mariella Mehr explained it to me in the following way, namely that when one says Sinti and Roma, one says something similar to “women” and “human beings.” In spite of the fact that the Sinti themselves insist on being called so and have often fought against being called Roma, they are actually Roma, who have settled in the German speaking parts of Europe several centuries ago. Other Roma groups are the Kalderash or Coppersmiths (in Poland, Rumania, etc.), the Lovara or horse-traders (in Austria, Hungary, etc.), the Gitanos who no longer speak Romani but Kalé (by which name they are sometimes known) or the Manouches (in France), and the Yenish in Switzerland.

Apart from the multitude of names, another traditional assumption needs to be mentioned. As Mehr herself has stated on several occasions, the names Roma, Sinti, or Yenish, are very often considered synonymous with travelers, nomads, or itinerants. The majority of the Yenish in Switzerland are sedentary. Quite frequently they cannot be distinguished from any other Swiss ethnic group unless a Yenish makes it known to those around her/him. Only about a thousand of the 35000 Yenish living in Switzerland still are itinerant. Many of those travel only for a few months during each year, and only a few are on the road throughout the year. Yet, the Yenish too represent themselves as a traveling people. The name of their union, the Company of the Wheel, emphasizes itinerancy. So does the volume of photographs mentioned above. Yet, among the photographs are images of Yenish who clearly live sedentary lives. It is also an often-overlooked fact that the so- called legendary nomadic way of life of the Roma was largely due to economic necessity as well as part of the laws of the land wherever they arrived. Frequently, in the past centuries, the Roma were forced to move from place to place, or would have had to suffer the punishment of the respective local laws. The most salient explanation may be that apart from their exotic appearance the local trade guilds perceived the Romani craftsmanship as dangerous competition.

The identity of the Yenish is often contested, thus, insists a recent dissertation, the Yenish are not Roma but rather individuals who have been cast out by society who banded themselves together in groups, hordes, or gangs throughout the centuries and aimlessly roved the countryside. According to this interpretation, the Yenish are considered to be the homeless, vagabonds and other asocial or anti-social elements. In a collection of essays on the Sinti and Roma edited by Susan Tebbutt, Michail Krausnik calls the Yenish “white Gypsies” and distinguishes them from the typically dark Roma. This distinction is often but not always interpreted negatively. The historian Thomas Huonker quotes the Yenish Jean-Jacques Oehle’s definition of the Yenish:

The Yenish is basically a nomad, a traveler, and belongs to that ethnic group, which one usually calls Gypsies. However, there are specific distinctions that set him apart. He is of Swiss origin, by contrast to the Gitanos and the Manouch, who are of the Mediterranean type, indeed they belong to the West Asian type: Dark eye color, black hair, and dark skin color. The Yenish are, by contrast, of the Northern type: Blue eyes, light skin color, light or brown hair. They probably are of Celtic origin. (17)

Oehle was a member of a committee commissioned by the Swiss federal government to investigate the extent of abuse perpetrated against the Yenish. Mehr, herself a member of the committee, expanded on Oehle’s definition by explaining that the Yenish very likely belong to a Northern Indian ethnic subgroup that is indeed light skinned and fair. Another origin may again be, she continued, that they belong to the Kalderash, a Roma people living predominantly in Eastern European countries such as Poland (Huonker 17).

When and if these social theories are interpreted negatively as was the case for the social workers and psychiatrists of the Children of the Country Road project, or the ‘research’ of the race hygienic institute under the directorship of Robert Ritter, then they are ideologically akin to the racial theories which were formulated at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century: The same theories that led to extreme persecution, forced assimilation, dispersion, or annihilation in Europe. The horrific culmination of this persecution was the genocide during World War II during which over 500,000 Roma died. It is extremely likely that the actual number of murdered Romas is significantly higher.

No other Swiss minority has been as thoroughly interviewed, registered and catalogued as the Yenish. Official language often uses terms such as vagrants, travelers, gypsies, and thieves synonymously. As early as 1813, we can find protocols of interrogations of Yenish people filed in the archives of most Swiss cantons. Even officials occasionally indicated awareness of the increasingly severe laws concerning the Heimatlosen [homeless] that criminalizes their existence without any evidence (Huonker 56-57). The first forced removal of Yenish children from their families dates back to a police action taken between 1824-1826 in Lucerne. The federal law forcing the homeless to register as Swiss citizens (December 3, 1850) constituted a sad highpoint of this rising persecution. Huonker sees a close connection between the early formation of the modern police force and the persistent hunt for the nomadic Yenish. The Fremdenpolizei [Interpol] originally was used to search out all itinerant groups in Switzerland for the purpose of registry, detention at forced labor camps, penal or mental facilities, or the extradition beyond the Swiss borders. Since 1853, police procedures also included the forced taking of photographs of all captured itinerant people. A decree barring the ‘Gypsies’ from entering Switzerland was constituted in 1887, tightened in 1893 and ratified by the Federal Council on July 11, 1906. Even though Federal Council Eduard von Steiger no longer considered these “Massnahmen zur Bekämpfung der Zigeunerplage” (measures for the fight against the Gypsy-plague) necessary in 1950, a missive of the immigration police of 1960 still concluded with “all Gypsies are therefore to be turned back at the border”.11

Shortly after Alfred Dillmann produced the Zigeuner-Buch [Gypsy Register] in 1905, the Swiss police considered it as a model for a similar program in Switzerland (1906). In 1909, the Federal Council invited the neighboring four countries to a conference for “the fight against the Gypsy- plague.” While the other states declined, several social institutions continued its program. For example, Josef Jörger, one of the directors of the psychiatric clinic Waldhaus in Chur, studied Yenish families. He designated them with code names such as “die Familie Zero” [the family Zero] and created their family trees. These labels were a clear attempt to erase the identity of the Yenish families. In later projects such as the one mentioned below, thus, the social workers, psychiatric and medical doctors all collaborated in the attempted erasure of an entire people. Jörger’s own family tree research was supposed to prove the presence of genetic aberrations in itinerant families, such as vagrancy, criminality, indecency, feeblemindedness and insanity, and pauperism (Huonker 67). Keeping Jörger’s concealing code in mind, it may then come as no surprise that one’s name, as Mehr’s story of finding her own name indicates above, is of such crucial importance. The ‘scientists’ mentioned above can be seen as the progenitors of race hygienic programs founded in the nineteen twenties and thirties. One such program was the Pro Juventute project Kinder der Landstrasse.

HILFSWERK FÜR DIE KINDER DER LANDSTRASSE

Pro Juventute established the Hilfswerk für die Kinder der Landstrasse [Charity for the Children of the Country Road] in 1926 with the support of Federal Council Motta12 and staff-general Ulrich Wille13. As director, Pro Juventute named the Romanist Alfred Siegfried (1890-1972) whose research focused on “Vagantenkindern” [children of vagrants]. He was in charge of the project from 1924 to 1959. He defined his task as follows:

“Whoever wants to combat vagrancy … [traveling, ed.] successfully, has to try to explode the union of the traveling peoples, he has to rip apart the family ties. There is no other way,” wrote the director of the Charity for the Children of the Country Road, Alfred Siegfried. Chances of success are only then favorable, when the children can be totally isolated from the parents.14

The program had the backing of the Federal State, the army and the psychiatric institutes. It was aimed at the children of the Yenish with the express purpose to cut off the children from their own family culture and to prevent future generations by sterilizing or castrating this young generation.

As an aside, it seems misleading to look at the development of race hygienic research as separate from nation state to nation state. For example, Ernst Rüdin, the director of the psychiatric university clinic from 1926-1929 in Basle, was one of the three authors responsible for the “Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses” [law for the prevention of genetically sick offspring] issued on July 14, 1933 in Germany. A second example, Robert Ritter, who became the head of the Rassenhygienische und Bevölkerungsbiologische Forschungsstelle [Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit]15 in November 1936, served as an assistant professor at the psychiatric clinic Burghölzli in Zurich between 1930 and 1932 (Huonker 95). However, whereas the German race hygienic programs were stopped in 1945, the Children of the Country Road project was allowed to continue until 1973.

In the words of the Swiss historian Thomas Huonker, who had been asked by the Bundesamt für Kulturpflege (BAK: Federal Office for the Care of the Culture) to investigate the accusations brought to the attention of the public by the Naschet Yenish, a group of Yenish fighting for restitution and access to their personal project files, in 1987:

In conclusion, it can be said that Alfred Siegfried, director of the Charity for the Children of the Country Road tried to implement a theory of controlling hereditary traits of a cultural and genetic nature by means of a systematic deculturation of Yenish children. The theory itself was never thoroughly thought through to its ultimate logical conclusions. Similar endeavors in national socialist Germany can only be differentiated from Siegfried’s socializing measures against the Swiss Yenish in that it was a different political environment in Switzerland rather than a difference in his theoretical premises of genetic assimilation. He shares the theoretical premises of the national socialists’ attempts at racial hygiene—later rejected in favor of mass sterilizations and genocide—as well as the inhumane methods of his mass experiment or repeatedly scientifically evaluated measures.16

Thus, between 1926 and 1973, social workers would receive a notice from either a private citizen or the local police that a group of “itinerants” had arrived in the vicinity. As was mentioned above, the police carefully took note of all the family members and consequently informed the social workers of the presence of children and their respective ages. Siegfried’s people would then, accompanied by policemen, drive to the campsite of the Yenish. They would demand that the children be handed over. Often, resistance was met with force. The children were taken to a home for abandoned children or a home for orphans. For each child, a file would be established. If the child was young enough, she or he would be given a new name and the file would be kept under this code name. Parents willing to take on foster children would be invited to visit the homes and inspect the children. Quite often, boys would end up with farmers who welcomed them as extra (free) labor. Girls frequently ended up in households where they served as little more than maids. Children who escaped where easily caught again and sent to psychiatric clinics for evaluation. So-called intractable children ended up in juvenile hall, closed psychiatric units, or prison. Over seven hundred children suffered this fate.

A group of Yenish, all victims of the project Children of the Country Road, approached Hans Caprez, a journalist of the Schweizerische Beobachter [Swiss Observer]. Upon publishing their interviews the public uproar was loud enough so that within the year Pro Juventute was forced to shut down the assimilation project. Apologies and restitution were, however, very slow in the coming. It was only in 1986 that Alt Bundesrat Friedrich [Old Federal Council] offered a partial apology. Because the personal files of the Yenish are government documents, the authorities have to this day (2002)17 refused to allow the surviving Yenish access to these files. This is utterly disgraceful because the only hope many of the Yenish survivors have of ever discovering what their original names were and how they may rediscover their families, lies sealed in these files.

A LAST NOTE

Mariella Mehr shares the fate of many Holocaust survivors. Many a night she is kept awake by the horrors nightmares might bring. Writing is her means of survival, yet it takes its toll on her every day, as I was allowed to witness during a stay in summer 2001 at her residence. She finished her most recent work, the novel Angeklagt ([Accused], 2002)18, and sent it off to the proofreaders and editors. She was visibly exhausted, nevertheless she had already turned her mind to future projects. I can only add my wish that she may continue to write and scream for a long time to come. As she once said, she keeps writing/screaming

into a land which pats me on my back by bestowing literary prizes on
me, because supposedly i have made it, because supposedly i have
overcome the pain that this country caused me during many years of
the most gruesome kind of repression, what i have screamed in
language, what there is to be screamed … for this reason i continue to
scream into this iced-over society, so that it may permit life, and love …19


1 Mariella Mehr, Kinder der Landstrasse. Ein Hilfswerk, ein Theater und die Folgen [Children of the Country Road. A Charitable Organisation, a Play, and the Consequences], Bern: Zytglogge, 1987: “März 1985, Brief an H.U.

… Ich hasse sie, ich hasse sie, ich hasse sie … Ich ersticke beinahe daran. Sie, sie hat das alles getan, auf dem Gewissen, nicht ich. Ich bringe sie tausendmal um, quäle sie in Gedanken langsam zutode. Wie werde ich diesen Hass je wieder los?

Während des Schreibens ist dieser Hass gegenwärtig, im Schlaf, in den Träumen. Blutbäder, überall nur mehr Blutbäder … Ich war unschuldig, und trotzdem haben sie mich und meinen Sohn beinahe zerstört.

– sie wollten ein lügnerisches Kind

–  sie wollten ein stehlendes Kind

–  sie wollten ein böses Kind

–  sie wollten mich feige und kriecherisch … H.U., sie, sie waren die Verrückten, nicht ich. Sie waren es, sie haben Tausende wie mich auf dem Gewissen. Nur wenige schafften es, die meisten blieben auf der Strecke, zerstört, entmenschlicht. Von vielen weiss ich noch die Namen, erinnere mich ihres Aussehens als Kinder, junge Mädchen, Frauen. Für sie schreibe ich dieses Theaterstück, für sie und Christian …” (131-132).

2 Mariella Mehr, Kinder der Landstrasse: Ein Hilfswerk, ein Theater und die Folgen [Children of the Countryroad: A Charity, a Theater, and the Consequences], (Berne: Zytglogge Verlag, 1987).

3 Pro Juventute was founded in 1912 with the express purpose to combat TB in children and youths. Apart from private donations and Swiss federal subsidies, it funds itself by yearly sales of stamps usually done by children of ages six and older. Its various other projects include Robinson playgrounds, vacation villages for needy children, advisory sites for mothers, etc.

4 Cited from the author’s unpublished biography, which was briefly and without Mehr’s permission posted on the web by the university of Basle. The university has since then replaced the complete version with an abbreviated one, this with the approval of the author.

5 The Seraphische Liebeswerk was founded in Koblenz in Germany in 1889. A first branch was established in Swizerland in 1893. This today large international organization runs under the auspices of the Catholic Church. Its primary charge is to rescue and help children in need (summarized from Thomas Huonker, Fahrendes Volk—verfolgt und verfemt. Jenische Lebensläufe [traveling people—persecuted and slandered. Life stories of the Yenish]. Zurich: Limmat Verlag Genossenschaft, 1987: 84 ff.).

6 Cited by Mehr in Kinder der Landstrasse: “Marianne, geb. 1947, das aussereheliche Kind der Marliese Edeltraut, verbrachte seine ersten fünf Jahre in Kinderheimen, wo sie vor allem durch Nervosität und Streitsucht auffiel. Eine Familienplazierung bei gut beleumdeten Pflegeeltern schien zuerst Erfolg zu versprechen, doch in der Folge zeigten sich zunehmende Erziehungsschwierigkeiten (raffiniertes Lügen und Stehlen), so dass das Mädchen in eine Beobachtungsstation eingewiesen werden musste” (145).

7 Quoted from a personal interview with the Author in Lucignano, 1997: “…Ich mußte mich mit meinem eigenen Namen auseinandersetzen. Meine ganze Zeit durch hieß ich “die Mehr”, ob ich für Elektroschocks anstand in den Kliniken, ob ich im Gefängnis für den Frass anstand, ob ich in den Erziehungsanstalten für die Prügel anstand, ich war immer “die Mehr”. Und als ich zwanzig war, kurz vor meinem zwanzigsten Geburtstag, nach 19 Monaten Knast, damit ich den Vater meines Sohnes nicht heiraten konnte—dafür war ich ja im Knast—weil er Rom und Jude zugleich war—als ich auch dem Knast kam, gab man mir ein Bilett nach Bern, von Hindelbank nach Bern. Ich hatte keinen Namen, ich war “die Mehr”. Und was habe ich gemacht, natürlich, ich bin in die erste Kneipe gegangen, wo ich gewußt habe, da hocken die, die mit mir im Knast waren, logischerweise nicht? Und das war damals das Bali in Bern. Dort bin ich an der Bar gesessen—ich war ja so klein, 4 cm bin ich noch gewachsen nachdem ich 20 war, ich konnte kaum auf den Barhocker steigen, abgesehen davon hatte ich keine Übung und ich habe […] an der Bar gesessen und mir also ein Bier bestellt, das erste Bier in meinem Leben. Da sitzt ein Kerl neben mir und der schaut mich an und fragt mich “wie heißt Du?” Ich starre ihn an und sag “ich weiß es nicht”. Er schaut mich an, die spinnt. Er hat nicht begriffen, daß es ernst war. Ich wußte es wirklich nicht. Und der hat da gefunden, er sitzt neben einem gefährlichen Insekt und hat sich aus dem Staub gemacht. Setzt sich der zweite hin und zwar—der Zufall ist etwas Grossartiges und das Ironischste, was es gibt—auf den gleichen Stuhl wie der andere und fragt mich auch “wie heißt Du?”. Na ja, jetzt mußt du mal ganz schnell was erfinden, und seit diesem Moment heiße ich Mariella. Das ist nicht mein Taufname …

Marietta Priska ist mein Taufname. Meine Mutter nannte mich Priska, mein Vater wollte eine Marietta, und daraus ist die Marietta Priska geworden, aber ich hieß ja nicht so, also wurde die Mariella daraus … Für mich war es mit zwanzig das wichtigste, soweit ich das bewußt gemacht habe—da könnte man auch eine Stunde darüber diskutieren wieweit das bewußt geschehen ist—eine Person zu werden, und das hieß, einen Namen erfinden, mich in diesen Namen einzufinden, diesen Namen um mich zu betten, wenn Du so willst, in diesen Namen einzudringen, damit er mein Name wird …

Nur als für mich benannte Person konnte ich diesem Schicksal wenigstens ausweichen. Es war ein ganz, ganz wichtiger Schritt, glaube ich, und erst heute—also mit dem Kind—habe ich begonnen, mich damit überhaupt auseinanderzusetzen. Es war für mich damals eine Selbstverständlichkeit und ich habe darüber gar nicht nachgedacht. Es war da ein Typ, der wollte wissen, wie ich heiße, und ich wußte es nicht, also erfinde ich einen Namen. Das war eine pragmatische Geschichte. Ich schämte mich ein zweites Mal zu sagen, “ich weiß es nicht”.

8 Mariella Mehr, Das Sternbild des Wolfes. Gedichte [The Constellation of the Wolf. Poems], Klagenfurt/Celovec: Edition Niemandsverlag/Drava Verlag, 2003. The translation is mine.

9 From an interview with the author (1997): “Die Jenischen sind ein Stamm, ein Volksstamm, der zu dem Volk der Roma gehört. Es gibt in ganz Europa—und übrigens auch in Amerika— Jenische. Sie sind also nicht vergleichbar mit den Tinkers. Das ist nochmals eine andere Gruppe. Es gibt insgesamt 350’000; in der Schweiz leben davon 35’000 von ihnen und sie gehören eigentlich zu den Zigeunern, auch wenn sie das nicht so gerne hören. Es gibt eine Dissertation von Beate Eder* in Salzburg, die nachgewiesen hat, daß die Jenischen eindeutig Zigeuner sind, die im Dreißigjährigen Krieg für verschiedene Mächte gekämpft haben und dann irgendwie nach dem Krieg in Süddeutschland, in der Schweiz, Norditalien und Nordfrankreich ansäβig geworden sind. Dies ist übrigens eine wunderbare Arbeit; sie wollte gar nicht beweisen, daß die Jenischen Zigeuner sind, sondern sie wollte über die Literatur der Roma schreiben und hat dabei ganz viel Literatur von den Jenischen gefunden. Deshalb hat sie sich überhaupt innerhalb dieser Dissertation mit dem Thema, ob die Jenischen Zigeuner sind oder nicht, also ob sie Roma sind oder nicht, auseinandergesetzt […] Sie sagt sehr viel gegen die allgemeine Meinung aus, daß die Jenischen einfach verarmte Bauern sind, die zu nomadisieren begonnen haben, oder daß sie zum Beispiel Köhler waren, die keine Arbeit mehr hatten—das ist auch so eine Theorie. Das sind im Grunde genommen alles Theorien von Psychiatern, die beweisen wollten, daß es sich bei den Jenischen um keinen Roma-Stamm handelt. Weil nur so—und es gibt einen ganz bestimmten Grund dafür—nur so konnte man sie verfolgen, ermorden, zwangssterilisieren und kastrieren, ohne daß man am Völkerrecht rüttelte.” * Beate Eder, Geboren bin ich vor Jahrtausenden … Bilderwelten in der Literatur der Roma und der Sinti [I was born thousands of years ago … the world in images in the Literature of the Roma and Sinti], (Klagenfurt: Drava Verlag, 1993).

10 Urs Walder, ed., Nomaden in der Schweiz. Mit Texten von Mariella Mehr, Venanz Nobel und Willi Wottreng [Nomads in Switzerland. With Texts by Mariella Mehr, Venanz Nobel, and Willi Wottreng], (Zurich: Andreas Züst Verlag, 1999).

11 “Sämtliche Zigeuner sind deshalb an der Grenze zurückzuweisen” (Huonker 63).

12 Federal Council Giuseppe Motta (1871-1940) was Head of the Finance and Customs Department from 1912-1919 and Head of the Political Department [Ministry of the Exterior] from 1920 to 1940.

13 Ulrich Wille II (1877-1952). German friendly high officer in the Swiss Army and founding president of the assimilation project Children of the Country Road.

14 Cited in the Swiss newspaper Beobachter: “Wer die Vagantität … [das Fahren, die Red.] erfolgreich bekämpfen will, muß versuchen, den Verband des Fahrenden Volkes zu sprengen, er muß die Familiengemeinschaft auseinanderreissen. Einen anderen Weg gibt es nicht”, schrieb der Leiter des Hilfswerks Kinder der Landstrasse, Alfred Siegfried. “Die Erfolgsaussichten sind nur dann günstig, wenn die Kinder von den Eltern völlig isoliert werden können.” (Beobachter 7/97: 23).

15 Susan Tebbutt, ed., Sinti and Roma. Gypsies in German-Speaking Society and Literature, (New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1998). The translation is Tebbutt’s (6). As an aside, the reader may note the inclusion of “Gypsies” in the title, which is present not by the editor’s choice as she communicated privately. Rather, the inclusion of the traditional designation of the Roma, which comes heavily laden with the most deplorable stereotypes, owes its presence to the current marketing needs.

16 Cited from Mariella Mehr, Kinder der Landstrasse: “Zusammenfassend lässt sich sagen, dass Alfred Siegfried, Leiter des Hilfswerks für die Kinder der Landstrasse, eine ohne letzte Stringenz ausformulierte Theorie der Steuerung von Vererbungsfaktoren kultureller und genetischer Natur mit Hilfe der systematischen Dekulturation von jenischen Kleinkindern in die Praxis umzusetzen versuchte. Es ist mehr das andere politische Umfeld in der Schweiz, welches Siegfrieds Fürsorgemassnahmen an den Schweizerischen Jenischen von ähnlichen Bestrebungen im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland unterschied als der theoretische Ansatz der genetischen Assimilation, den er mit einigen, später allerdings zugunsten der Massensterilisation und Massentötung verworfenen, rassenhygienischen Versuchsanordnungen im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland ebenso teilt wie die unmenschliche Methodik seiner als Massenexperiment mehrfach wissenschaftlich ausgewerteten Massnahmen.” (33)

17 The Schweizerische Beobachter (Swiss Observer) in a follow-up article from February 2002 ran the following headline: “Fahrende: Unbeachtete Minderheit muss leiden. Der Beobachter schenkte den Fahrenden Achtung. Heute ist der Skandal «Kinder der Landstrasse» immer noch nicht aufgearbeitet. Die Gleichstellung fehlt.” [Travelers: Ignored Minority has to suffer. The Observer paid attention to the travelers. Even today the scandal Children of the Country Road has still not been dealt with.]

18 Angeklagt [Accused], (Zurich: Nagel & Kimche, 2002).

19 Mariella Mehr, Rückblitze [Backlightnings], (Bern: Zytglogge Verlag, 1990): “in ein land hinein, das mir literaturpreisverleihend auf die schultern klopft, weil ich es angeblich geschafft habe, weil ich den schmerz, den mir dieses land während vielen jahren durch repressionen grausigster art zugefügt hat, angeblich überwunden habe, was ich in sprache geschrien habe, was es herauszuschreien gibt … deshalb schreie ich weiter in diese vereiste ordnung, auf dass sie leben zulasse, und liebe …” (266)

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