For Young Swiss Rebels, A Dark Chapter In History

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Ursula Biondi and son (both in brown prison clothes) in an undated photo. i

Ursula Biondi holds her infant son (both dressed in prison clothes) in this undated photo. Biondi was among thousands of Swiss teenagers and young adults who were sent to prison or labor camps without trial. After decades of silence, they are now speaking out. Courtesy Ursula Biondi hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Ursula Biondi
Ursula Biondi and son (both in brown prison clothes) in an undated photo.

Ursula Biondi holds her infant son (both dressed in prison clothes) in this undated photo. Biondi was among thousands of Swiss teenagers and young adults who were sent to prison or labor camps without trial. After decades of silence, they are now speaking out.

Courtesy Ursula Biondi

Switzerland is known for its idyllic alpine landscape, its neutrality and its secret private banks.

But there are also darker secrets.

For many years — until the 1980s — thousands of rebellious or disruptive youths were locked up without trial. The authorities called it "administrative detention." But in reality, the kids were put in prison or labor camps.

In the late 1960s, Zurich-born Ursula Biondi was 16 years old when she ran away to Italy with her 20-something boyfriend, after fighting with her parents. Biondi was pregnant when Italian authorities returned her, against her will, to Switzerland.

In the meantime, Biondi's mother had turned to local Swiss canton, or state, authorities for help. Seeing the girl as morally lax, local officials locked Biondi up upon her return in Hindelbank prison for women.

"I didn't know it, that this was a jail, because I was never in front of a court, in front of a judge," she recalls.

Biondi, then several months pregnant, says she sometimes worked 10 hours a day in the prison laundry alongside convicted murderers, thieves and drug offenders. At night, she was locked in a cell. Biondi says that in some ways, the criminals had it better.

"They knew when they would be released. We didn't know. They had more rights than we had. I never felt ashamed personally. I just had a terrible anger in me. And always the same question: 'What have they done to us?' " she says.

Biondi's father, a construction worker, had to scrape to come up with the 7,000 francs for the so-called tuition fee for what authorities called an "educational program" for his "promiscuous" daughter. Prison officials told Biondi her baby would be put up for adoption. Her mother soon demanded her daughter's release, and after a year, Biondi was reunited with her infant son and released from jail.

Her tale is one of thousands suffered by Swiss youth subjected to administrative detention. It was a practice started in the 1880s and lasted until the early 1980s. Now, after decades of silence, many victims today are demanding accountability — and compensation for damaged lives.

'So Broken That You Are Never More A Rebel'

Christopher Poeschmann is among them. He keeps a homemade book of carefully preserved documents and letters. The papers are his proof.

"The people don't believe you. So you close your mouth," he says.

The 50-year-old Swiss crane operator was abandoned as an infant and had a troubled childhood. In the mid-1970s, as a teenager, he went on the road, working carnivals and doing odd jobs. He ended up in Germany without papers. Deported back to Switzerland, local authorities deemed him a "dangerous, work-shy gypsy."

"They're thinking, 'This little tramp, and we want not this. You cannot be always traveling in the world and how you like. You must be learning working,' " Poeschmann says.

The camp was more like a prison chain gang. Poeschmann worked alongside criminals cutting trees on steep hillsides. It was incredibly dangerous work. He remembers frozen hands, horrible food and stuffing old newspaper into his ragged boots to try to keep his feet dry and warm. He says the labor camp bosses tried to break his will — and his mind.

"That you are so broken that you are never more a rebel," he says.

Eventually, Poeschmann made a run for it. He ended up in Marseille, France, and joined the French Foreign Legion. It was his ticket out. He was 17.

In later life, he never told his wife and kids about the work camp. Now, he says he's done keeping his mouth shut. He says, tearing up: "The authorities had a responsibility for helping young people, and instead they did this."

Neglected And Exploited By The State

It's been nearly impossible for researchers to determine how many victims were involved because many official files, to this day, remain closed, while many older victims have died. This barely known chapter of Swiss history was exposed recently by journalist Dominique Strebel with the Swiss magazine The Observer. Strebel, author of the new book Locked Away, says Swiss officials found a way to sideline rebellious teens while getting free labor out of them.

"They didn't want to deal with the problems of these kids, and they had problems because their parents were divorced, for example, or they were poor and nobody really cared about these kids. And in the end, they put them in prisons because they said, 'You don't do well, you always run away.' We shut them away and let the parents pay for it," he says.

This fall, the Swiss justice minister apologized. Victims welcomed the symbolic gesture as long overdue but said "sorry" was totally inadequate. Some now want compensation and for wider Swiss society to acknowledge its part in going along with the systemic abuse of young people.

Even today, many ordinary Swiss seem reluctant to acknowledge what happened. Victim Biondi says many people in Switzerland simply assume she must have done something wrong to be put in Hindelbank prison.

She says of her country: Beware of places that appear too clean — there's always muck just below the surface.

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