‘The war in Ukraine brings back many memories’

Oskar Zwicky was born on September 23, 1930, in the Swiss colony of Shabo, near Odessa, Ukraine.

Oskar Zwicky was born in the former Swiss colony of Shabo in what is now Ukraine. When the Second World War broke out, he and his family were forced to move around several countries for six years before they were allowed to enter Switzerland. Here he reflects on his eventful life.

This content was published on June 26, 2022 - 09:00

Lake Walen sparkles in the sun, and giant peaks rise into the blue sky. Ursi Bigger and her father, Oskar Zwicky, have been waiting for us in the car. He welcomes us with a huge smile.

It’s a ten-minute drive up the hill to Bigger’s house in Oberterzen in canton Glarus, northeastern Switzerland. Cane in hand, 91-year-old Zwicky leads the way up to the first floor where coffee and cake await us. As soon as we sit down, he starts to tell his story.

Oskar Zwicky:

My great-grandfather Johann Heinrich Zwicky emigrated to Shabo in 1822 with his former employer, Luis Vincent Tardent from Vevey. When he arrived, he was allotted 60 hectares of land and four hectares of vineyards. There was plenty of space at the Swiss colony. The houses were at least 100 metres apart.

My great-grandfather was 28 and single. At the time unmarried men weren’t allowed to cultivate their land – he was a landowner but couldn’t do anything with it. However, he was a good botanist and started working as a private gardener for Governor Kroupensky in Odessa.

He later moved to Crimea where he settled in Zürichtal, the other Swiss colony in the region. There he helped farmers in the vineyards and orchards and met his German wife. They had four children, one of whom was my grandfather.

The family eventually returned to Shabo, and because my great-grandfather was now married, they were allowed to cultivate their land. My father and I were both born in Shabo, in a region which used to be called Bessarabia. The colony was home to about 900 Swiss – and hundreds of thousands of Germans.

Life in the Swiss colony

We spoke Swiss German in Shabo, but you would hear Swiss German, High German and other languages such as a French. At school we spoke either Russian or Romanian, depending on who was occupying the region. I clearly remember that during my first three years at school we spoke Romanian in the morning and German in the afternoon.

On public holidays the Swiss flag was allowed to be hung on the church. (Picture taken in 1922) DR

On public holidays we were allowed to hoist the Swiss flag at the church – but only at the church. At home we had to hang the flag of whichever country was occupying Bessarabia at the time. There was always a Swiss priest at the colony who spoke either German or French.

We were self-sufficient apart from sugar, salt and fish, which we bought occasionally. We had plenty of vegetables. Even the cattle and the pigs could eat vegetables. I have fond memories of my life in the colony.

‘Switzerland is full’

Then came the Second World War. At the beginning, it was peaceful. But later we learnt that the Germans wanted to remove everyone from Shabo.

We had no choice but to join the German settlers and leave the colony. We set off at midday one day in June 1940. The war in Ukraine brings back many memories. It hurts me that everything is being destroyed again.

My father, my mother, my half-brother, my three siblings and I set off in a horse-drawn cart for Galati [in Romania]. At ten years old I was the second-oldest after my half-brother. We were taken by boat on the Danube to Zemun [in what is now Serbia] where we spent one week in a refugee camp. Our journey then took us to the Czech Republic where we lived for one year. My sister was born there.

From the Black Sea to Switzerland: The Zwickys spent six years on the road during the Second World War until they were finally allowed to enter Switzerland.

We found shelter in an empty factory. We were fed and we could go to school. My father had to go to work with the other men. Even though everything was organised for us, you couldn’t live there for free.

“Get in touch when the war is over,” the Swiss authorities told us. “Switzerland is full. We’re not letting anyone in.” So we had to wait until the war was over. If our ancestors had regularly renewed their Swiss passports, we could have easily grabbed our suitcases and passports and returned to our home country.

No more than ten of the 900 Swiss in Shabo had a Swiss passport. Everyone else had to wait and obey the Germans, who moved us here and there for six years. For the most part the Swiss from Shabo were able to stay together. We agreed that if we were separated, we’d all meet in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt when the war was over. And that’s what happened.

Oskar Zwicky (far left) with his family in the former Czechoslovakia. Ursi Bigger

Always enough to eat

During the long journey back to Switzerland – for me it was a journey and not an escape – my mother’s main priority was that we always had enough to eat. When life got difficult, which happened a few times, at least we didn’t go hungry. So the only big piece of luggage the Germans allowed us to carry was full of food, not clothes. Luckily, our emergencies were never too serious. Not like what we’re now seeing in Ukraine.

From the Czech Republic the Germans moved us to Slovenia, where we stayed for three years. One of my brothers was born there, and my half-brother died of appendicitis there. In 1945 the Germans took us to Klagenfurt where we finally applied for our Swiss passports.

The war was over, and so were the six long years during which our family was constantly on edge. Where will we go next? Will we be welcome? Going back to Shabo was out of the question. It was occupied by the Russians, and had we gone back, we would have been at risk of being deported to Siberia.

In Klagenfurt we met a Swiss leather producer who informed the Swiss authorities of the arrival of many Swiss in the city. He managed to get us the obligatory parcel for Swiss living abroad which contained biscuits and chocolate.

On June 12, 1946, we finally received our papers – exactly one year after we started the application process. During that time another brother was born. We left as quickly as we could and travelled to Switzerland in the cattle wagon of a train.

In this video Oskar Zwicky describes his return to Switzerland:

‘Impossible to live here’

We arrived in the Swiss town of St Margrethen [on the Austrian border] at 9am and spent a month in quarantine, after which we were bundled off to a hotel in Le Mont-Pélerin [overlooking Lake Geneva]. My father and my uncle registered in Obstalden in canton Glarus, the municipality of our ancestors. Although neither of them was particularly happy after they visited the village.

“It’s impossible to live on this hill. Nothing will grow here,” they said – they were both lowland farmers. They wanted to move to Basel, but my mother and aunt intervened. They all went back to Obstalden and the wives liked it. “Everything can grow here – fruit trees and vegetables…What’s your problem?’ they said.

That’s how we ended up in Obstalden. We arrived on my 16th birthday on September 23 at 3pm. The local authorities served us hot cervelat sausages and macaroni. The villagers thought we were Russians, and we were still considered as such 20 years later. But we integrated quickly. It didn’t take long for my father to be able to feed us without relying on social welfare. He found a job in a paper factory. After arriving in Switzerland, my mother had another three children.

Extremely difficult times

During the years spent travelling to Switzerland I attended a few school lessons sporadically, but education had obviously been neglected. Most teachers served at the front, so we were taught by old men.

Back in Switzerland I wanted to go to school so badly, but at 16 I was too old. I later trained to become a mechanic and after another few years I got a master’s certificate in my trade. I was never very academic, but I did it.

I got married in 1952. We had four children, owned a house and a business selling bedding items. We had a wonderful time. But two of my sons died aged 25 and 26. They received the wrong treatment after suffering from influenza which led to kidney failure. Our doctor denied having ever treated our boys. My wife took care of them for seven years. Dialysis, transplantation – nothing helped. Those were very, very difficult times.

Two years ago my wife died aged 88. I’m 91, and having been married for 68 years, I’m now living alone in this golden cage. But I’m grateful that I’ve lived to be so old. I regularly meet my brothers and sisters – eight out of 11 are still alive. I have six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The retirement home is beautiful, almost too beautiful. You just don’t know what to do with yourself all day.

Translated from German by Billi Bierling

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