Yesterday I was privileged to meet an eighty-nine year-old Swiss American. Ruth clearly remembers World War II, when she was a teenager. Eyes bright with recollection, she smiles while relating Switzerland’s “don’t mess with me” attitude. Though completely surrounded by Axis powers, Switzerland bucked the oppressors.
Being a member of the Girl Scouts back then, with girls tramping through the woods, learning primitive cooking, first-aid, and getting actively involved in the war effort, led Ruth to some prime adventures. In the process, she developed her community’s self-sufficient attitude.
Having the Alps as sentinels helped, but the Nazis drew up invasion plans. However, they never occupied Ruth’s country. Resisting them was quite a feat, especially considering all the countries they did occupy.
The Swiss immediately shored up their defenses at the beginning of the war, and all Swiss men served as soldiers from twenty to forty years of age. Ruth’s father kept his rifle handy, like the Minute Men during the Revolutionary War.
Brings to mind something American speed skater Apolo Ohno quipped:
Don’t get mad. Don’t get even. Get stronger, faster and more powerful. Fill yourself with knowledge and empathy and an indomitable spirit, because no one else can do that for you. In the end, it’s your life, your choice and your world. Give 110%, always.”
Boy, did the Swiss ever follow this mantra—their Press openly criticized the Third Reich, often infuriating its leadership. Berlin denounced Switzerland as medieval and called its citizens renegade Germans.
Attempts by the Nazi party to effect an Anschluss, or connection between Germany and Switzerland failed due to a strong sense of national identity. The country’s belief in democracy and civil liberties stood it in good stead.
Case in point: Ruth remembers a German bookstore that sold only Mein Kampf and boasted a huge poster of Adolph Hitler at the entrance. She and her girlfriend decided to investigate (spurred by curiosity and possibly their Girl Scout exploits). The owner pushed them out and slammed the door to his regret. The Swiss home guard instantly absconded him to the authorities and closed down his so-called bookstore.
We’ll never come to the end of all the stories, and writing about these strong survivors strengthens me. Ah . . . to have lived in that time, though I would be far less bold.
But seeing the light in her eyes as she tells the tale makes me feel I was there, a silent onlooker cheering her on.
Any writers out there, has meeting with actual participants in your historical plot events instructed you? And readers, how does an author make you feel as though you yourself witnessed what just happened—on the Swiss border or elsewhere?