ON THE TRAIL OF THE “SWABIAN CHILDREN”

Right up until the 1950s, poor farmers in the Alps, including those from the Paznaun valley, send their children to southern Germany to work. On the way there, the children, known as the “Swabian children”, crossed the Silvretta mountain range. Today you can hike along the paths they took.

It must have been a sad scene when hundreds of children, none older than 14, gathered together in the market square in Ravensburg. They waited there until the framers from the surrounding region came to collect them. They would work on their farms for the next few months, the girls as what were known as children’s nurses, the boys as livestock herders. The children were not paid with money, but with meals. Their parents, mostly mountain farmers, were so poor that they could no longer provide for their own children. Workers were desperately needed, however, on the farms in Upper Swabia.

The first references to these “Swabian children” were made as early as the 17th century. A worker from Schloss Bludenz, Johann Conrad Kostner, wrote for the first time of the children from the Tyrol who were sent to Ravensburg to work. Historians estimate that in the 19th century some six thousand children from Alpine villages were sent to work in what is now Germany. The “children’s market” was banned in the year 1915, but child labour only came to an end in the 1950s with the introduction of compulsory schooling.

For the children of the Paznaun valley, the hike of several days, from Galtür over the snow-covered mountain passes of the Silvretta, was particularly dangerous. Many parents accompanied their children as far as the “Rearkappali”, a small chapel in Zeinisjoch near Galtür. The name “rera”, which means something like “sobbing”, refers to the tears which flowed as the parents bade farewell to their children. For the trek through the mountain landscape was a voyage into the unknown, and some of the children even died on the arduous journey. They mostly spent the night in barns or in monasteries, sometimes also, despite the icy cold, under the open skies. The fate of the mountain farmer children was documented in Jo Baier’s film drama “Swabian children”, which researched the children’s history anew.  Data banks were created with the children’s biographies, which are displayed on boards along the hiking paths from Galtür to Upper Swabia.