The History of the Evacuations

Providing children temporary relief in Switzerland

Switzerland was in a very unique position during the Second World War. Since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Switzerland was a permanently neutral nation. However, its convenient geographic location in the heart of Europe attracted thousands of political refugees; out of concern for its own self-preservation, Switzerland gradually enacted a series of restrictive immigration policies until the late 1930s. 

At the same time, Switzerland’s famous Red Cross movement – which had started during the Crimean War – became a global brand that symbolised the neutrality of relief workers when treating wounded and sick soldiers in war. This successful and internationalised recognition of humanitarian efforts expanded to include not only soldiers in war, but all civilians in any crisis. The International Committee of the Red Cross, and multiple branches in participating nations, were invaluable in the First World War, just as it would become in the Second World War. 

In 1940, an alliance of seventeen Swiss charities decided to evacuate children from war-torn Europe to Switzerland. Although the “Swiss Coalition for Relief to Child War Victims” (Schweizerische Arbeitsgemeinschaft für kriegsgeschädigte Kinder, or Le cartel Suisse de secours aux enfants victimes de la guerre) had operated successfully during the Spanish Civil War (evacuating over 34,000 child refugees of the Spanish Civil War to multiple host nations), this “new” Swiss Coalition was bigger, prepared and practiced. Importantly, the remaining funds from its Spanish operations were liquidated and added to the new coalition’s purse.

Among its many successful initiatives, the Swiss Coalition organised thousands of Swiss families to voluntarily host children from southern France (then unoccupied by Nazi forces) for three months in their own homes. This ingenious method bypassed Switzerland’s strict immigration controls, as the children would not be a perpetual national burden, as well as appearing more attractive to Swiss hosts, as the children would not be a permanent family commitment.

These evacuations were extremely popular among the public, and by November 1940, when the first evacuations from unoccupied France began, the number of families volunteering to host children actually outnumbered the children selected for evacuation. Thousands of families offered spots for French children; over 2,000 were offered in Geneva alone. By December 1941, the Swiss Coalition hosted more than 7,000 children in Switzerland, the majority of them French.

Medical assessment was the chief criterion for selection. Due to the typhoid epidemics in late 1940 and summer 1943 in northern France and rampant diphtheria during the winter of 1942-43, it was necessary to protect the children, and the Swiss hosts, from such diseases. (CH-BAR J2.15 1969/7 BD 114, Kindertransporte aus Frankreich, March 1942)

The success continued and operations enlarged. Surprisingly, Nazi authorities agreed to temporary evacuations from their occupied zone, as it was hardly an inconvenience for them; the Swiss operated and funded the evacuations and – crucially – Switzerland was neutral. In February 1941, child evacuations from German-occupied northern France began, and the Swiss Coalition was the first foreign agency allowed into blocked areas, such as Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne.

When children arrived, they gave their information to Red Cross workers who then compared it to the transport manifest and reported it to immigration authorities. After medical screening and delousing at Swiss train stations, they received their first warm meal in Switzerland. (Photographer Hans Staub. Basel train station, circa 1942. CH-BAR J2.15 1969/7 BD116, Belgische Kinder kommen (nach Basel), circa 1942).

But by 1942, the Swiss Coalition’s operations had become so large, so popular and so successful, that the Swiss government became worried. How would its neighbours view these evacuations, given Switzerland’s neutrality? Worried about appeasing both its Axis neighbours and the Allied governments, Swiss authorities decided to intervene in the evacuations.

In January 1942, the Swiss government invited the Swiss Red Cross to take over the evacuations while simultaneously appointing a government liaison named Edouard de Haller to keep a watchful eye over the operations. However, the Swiss Red Cross carried a strong reputation, better infrastructure and even more resources. Evacuations now included Belgian and Serbian children who suffered under Nazi rule, and, for a brief moment, it seemed like everything was working.

The International Appeal of 1942

In the Spring of 1942, Swiss Federal Councillor Reinhard announced to the parliament that Switzerland would provide assistance to European children affected by war. Although this speech had a limited audience, Switzerland’s political leader, Federal Councillor Marcel Pilet-Golaz, was fearful that belligerents would condemn Switzerland’s interference in Nazi-occupied countries.

In order to appear as neutral as possible, Pilet-Golaz gave a new landmark speech that moderated the previous announcement. But the outcome had far-reaching consequences. Extracts of this speech were sent all over the world; it was used in Swiss Red Cross pamphlets and leaflets, national and international radio broadcasts, and international press. However, the task to edit, modify and translate Pilet-Golaz’s announcement to these various audiences in multiple languages rested upon three actors: the professional translation services of the Swiss government, the informal translators in the Swiss Red Cross, and the multilingualism of the government’s chief liaison, Edouard de Haller.

This international appeal was a key moment both in terms of the Swiss child evacuations, but also the use of language and translation in war. While attempting to walk the delicate line of strict neutrality, the Swiss authorities manipulated its own translation of a speech. But for the Swiss Red Cross, this was a perfect opportunity to garner international support (and donations!) for a major humanitarian operation for vulnerable children. But how was the content modified for particular audiences/languages? How did this speech manipulate and convey Switzerland’s humanitarian actions so that they appeared neutral? What translations did the newspapers and radio broadcasts use, and why? What was/is the legacy of this appeal within Swiss translation and language practises today?

Our project seeks to answer these questions, and many many others. By clarifying how non-governmental (Swiss Red Cross) and governmental (Swiss authorities) mobilised and modified translation and multilingual practices, this will reveal how differing and even opposing political agendas shaped translation policies within an international humanitarian project. We hope that this will help contribute to understanding how translation policies can be used strategically within today’s multilingual conflict zones.

Serbian children were often evacuated to Swiss homes in Italian-speaking Ticino, in southern Switzerland.

Terminating the Evacuations

Despite the impressive humanitarian enterprise, and the huge international support for the evacuations, the child evacuations to Switzerland ended in 1942.

The Germans terminated the evacuations from Belgium in May 1942 and from France in October 1942. Their justification was based upon the belief that children in Switzerland would become politically incited with anti-German sentiments.

In the summer of 1942, the Nazi persecution of Jews increased to new levels. This forced many Jews to flee to Swiss borders in urgent need of asylum. However, the Swiss authorities were terrified of being overrun by refugees and, in August 1942, they closed the Swiss borders to all incoming refugees, including child evacuees. Although some children’s trains were able to get through some cantons’ borders, the majority of the child evacuations from France and Belgian were finished. To this day, this border closure has been a source of significant post-war scrutiny by scholars and activists, and is still hotly contested.

Soon after the Allied invasion of continental Europe, the Swiss opened their borders in the summer of 1944. The child evacuations resumed but now included children from various other European nations: Serbia (654 children), Holland (9789 children), Italy (5693 children), Austria (32791 children), Hungary (6075 children), England (1716 children), Germany (29053 children), Luxembourg (481 children), Czechoslavakia (796 children), and Poland (836 children).

By 1945, the Swiss had hosted 60,000 French and Belgian children and by 1949, the Swiss hosted an additional 100,000 European children.

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