Thank you, Switzerland
by Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik
on the occasion of
the "Thank you, Switzerland" commemorative event
Berne, 4 November 2005
Federal Councillor, dear Micheline,
President of the National Council,
and, in particular,
Dear Swiss friends,
Dear "Swiss children",
There are moments in life that one looks forward to wholeheartedly - moments when complicated things become quite simple and when each of us is moved and touched by what we share, by what we have shared for a long time.
At such precious moments bridges are built, all by themselves, spanning borders, spanning generations, and spanning the difficulties we have all experienced. And we feel what it means to be close, to have helped each other personally in times of great hardship and need.
I am delighted to be allowed to share such an extraordinary moment with you today - a moment of gratitude but also an occasion to look back on times when there was much less hope than today.
The "Thank you, Switzerland" event came out of the commemorative year 2005, in which we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the re-establishment of the Second Republic, the 50th anniversary of the Austrian State Treaty, the 50th anniversary of UN membership, and the 10th anniversary of EU membership. The basic idea is: we were given help - we have not forgotten, and we will carry on this idea of helping. It is also an expression of the special and incomparable quality of the relations between Austria and Switzerland.
On behalf of my country it is a particular honour for me to be able to say "THANK YOU, SWITZERLAND" from the bottom of my heart and to express the appreciation and high esteem that my country and my fellow countrymen feel for Switzerland. It is an expression of the respect and sympathy for the Swiss, who helped us in the difficult times after the war and during the first years of occupation. We should like to thank all those who through their personal commitment so impressively proved what it means to belong to the humanitarian "superpower" Switzerland and to be part of its glowing humanitarian tradition, what it means to be a neighbour in times of need.
We all know that we are not infallible and that none of us can look back on a history of infallibility. During the Nazi regime and during the war, Austrians incurred a heavy burden of guilt. This should not and will not be forgotten.
But you, dear former host families, gave us a glimmer of hope after the horrors of war and destruction, fear, desperation and unending hardship. You gave us a very personal sign of confidence to help us overcome the misery of those difficult days.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said that "saving a child means saving the world". My thanks also go to the aid organisations, above all the Swiss Red Cross. When it comes to making the commitment of so many individuals effective, its calm and painstaking powers of organisation are as indispensable today as they were then. Our relations today are still characterised by the close cooperation between our countries in the service of humanity.
I should like to say a few words about the immediate post-war situation in Austria as a way of illustrating the importance of Swiss aid: the battle for Vienna came to an end on 9 April 1945. On 27 April 1945, only eleven days prior to the surrender of the German Wehrmacht, the provisional Austrian government proclaimed the establishment of the Second Republic. But it was not until the Provincial Conference in September that all of the federal provinces committed themselves again to the newly formed Republic. The elections on 25 November 1945 led to a coalition government, which was able to maintain the unity of the country in spite of its occupation.
It was a difficult time. Instead of describing the destruction myself, I should like to quote a former "Swiss child". In the post-war period Helmut Schilling wrote the following poem:
Six hundred little flags are waving,
Good-bye and thanks! See you again!
A last call and a last look.
The night embraces woods and valleys;
They are returning to the old torment
Of the dark world.
In the moon a silvery stream still flows,
In the train a little heart still wakes,
And dreams of tender times.
Outside the window the rocks are silent
And forests, forests everywhere!
Already Switzerland is far behind!
And then the morning: no town
Without its terrible monument.
Shattered towers and houses I
nnumerable destroyed trains.
Cannon, cars, glass, and steel
And poison and graves and horror.
The bomb craters form lakes
The rails stand like gallows
Everything is rust and soot -
The children under the window sill
Are staring horrified at the land
With silent, silent greeting.
"A friend in need is a friend indeed", as the saying goes. And Switzerland was quick to help in that time of need: from June 1945 until the end of that year it took in 3,800 malnourished children for holidays.
The help of the Swiss Red Cross was important particularly in the east of Austria because the Soviet occupation authorities only allowed help from Switzerland in their zone. The free meal programmes for children were vital, with up to 30,000 meals being distributed daily despite uncertain transport conditions.
Suzanne de Quervain is with us today as a contemporary witness of this meal programme and I should like to extend a special cordial welcome to her. Between 1946 and 1948, she carried out these free meal programmes for children in the Wiener Neustadt area. I should like to thank you sincerely as a representative of the many other Swiss Red Cross helpers in Lower Austria and Vienna for this achievement and your dedication. The exhibition in the foyer offers an impressive picture of those days.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Swiss help was of such a vital importance that when the Federal Council wanted to reduce this aid in 1947, the Austrian government appealed urgently for its continuation. As a result, a further sum of three million Swiss francs was raised for Austria in June 1948. The Augarten porcelain figure that can also be seen in the foyer is a small token of appreciation. I should also like to thank Ms. Calmy-Rey for Switzerland’s continued aid.
Ladies and Gentlemen, in all wars children are particularly affected. The Swiss sponsorships and in particular the holiday programme for children have had a lasting effect. I am therefore especially delighted that more than 200 former Swiss Children have come from Austria to Berne by train today to express their thanks on behalf of the 35,000 children who were taken in by Swiss host families between 1945 and 1955. Thank you for your support, for your loving attention, for giving them the feeling of security which helped to heal many a wound. In several cases, this has given rise to permanent friendships, which make an important contribution to the good-neighbourly relations between our two states.
It may also be recalled that the programme for Austrian children in Switzerland had a precedent dating back to the time after the First World War. As a representative of that generation, I should like to welcome Stefanie Glaser, who was a guest child back in 1920. Her presence underlines the continuity of the friendly relations between Austria and Switzerland.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
we have not forgotten your help.
Fortunately, all of us - Swiss and Austrians - are today prospering. We are amongst the wealthiest industrial nations in the world.
We Austrians were helped - now we are helping others. In keeping with the humanitarian tradition of our two countries, it was of special importance to me that this day should be used to reaffirm our shared confidence: we are needed in this world in which peace and opportunity are not yet a matter of course. We are needed - our generation, too - for the work on the "project of peace in Europe". Our development cooperation experts are offering tangible neighbourly aid for the two Kosovo communities Gjilan and Ferizaj. With the support of Casinos Austria AG and Raiffeisen Holding, the "Swiss children" who have undertaken the trip from Austria to Berne donated a total of 31,600 euros.
Thank you, dear Swiss - thank you, dear Austrians.
In conclusion, I should like to thank my colleague and friend, Rudolf Novak. As cultural attaché at the Austrian Embassy in Berne, he welcomed my idea with enthusiasm right from the start and continued to work on its implementation even after my premature departure from Berne.
Dear Rudolf, today’s experience is also the result of your caring and sensitive commitment.
You all - we all - today share the ancient knowledge expressed by Marie Ebner-Eschenbach: "People whom we support are a support to us in our life".