About my parents and their background


My mother

My mom, Annemarie Näf-Clémann (1927-2004), was a medical doctor. She was the second of three girls. Their father, Ernest Clémann (1873-1932), was an adventurous and romantic guy from Ilzach, near Mulhouse, Alsace. He had left Europe around the turn of the 20th century working for the Paris based company of J. Ullmann Jewlers in Vladivostok until 1916. After world war I he settled down in Peking, where he married my grandma. He died when his youngest girl, my mom's little sister, was only a few months old. My grandma, Mary Clémann-Lu (1900-1977), half chinese and half german, raised the three girls pretty much by herself. She turned the small business, her husband had started, into a successful silver manufacturing workshop, which she managed until the communists of Mao Tse Tung took power in Peking in 1949. At that time my mom and her older sister were studying in Europe, thinking that they would return to China as soon as they were done with their studies. However, world history took a different turn. After the final defeat of General Chiang Kai-Shek and the official creation of the People's Republic of China on October 1st 1949 my grandma was now considered a capitalist exploytor. She was forced to give up her business. After two stressful years she was finally able to leave for Europe together with her youngest daughter, who was just turning 20.

When the money stopped coming to Europe after the closing of the family business, my mom's older sister Rose Clémann (1925-2009) had gotten a job at a UN typing pool in Geneva. After a while she got transferred and became an Escort Officer of the International Refugee Organization, IRO. The IRO took care of thousands of so called "displaced people", who, four or five years after the end of world war II were still waiting in various camps for their repatriation or resettlement. Rose accompanied thousands of these people on ships chartered by the IRO going back and forth from Europe to Australia and to Canada. She was now the main provider of the family, supporting her mother and her two sisters.

My mom often talked about her past to us three boys. When we became older we sometimes told her teasingly that the Chinese were write by driving their capitalist exploiters out of the country. For my brothers and me this was more of a joke than a serious political statement, but for our mother this was no joke at all. For her the chinese cook, her Ama, the workers in the shop, the Riksha coolies, the servants in the houses of their friends, the beggers in the streets of their neighbourhood, the soldiers at the gates of the city, the farmers in the markets and all the other chinese people were part of her childhood world. She remembered their kindness, their smile, their happyness, their loyalty and the intimacy which had existed between her and many of them. She was talking about personal connections, about individual people she had loved and known, she was talking about smells and jokes, certain kinds of food, certain frutes or vegetables, grunts and other sounds we had never heard ... We were talking or rather trying to talk about general principals and ideas, about colonialism, wages, poverty and wealth, justice, capitalism, living conditions in China ...
My father was caught between my mom and us kids. He sometimes tried to join the debate on our side by pointing at a few "historical facts", which justified our position. But for my mom all these things had nothing to do with "her China", a space in her life none of us knew ... Her cook was not a poor exploited chinese man, who had to leave his family and get a job in some far away place in order to support them. The cook was the guy who slipped a piece of kandy into her hand when she was sad. He was the one who looked after the three girls and gramma Lu in their summer cabin near Peking, when her mother remained in the city to take care of the shop. He was the one who told the three girls about the robbers in the hills and the gosts in the temples, and he was the one who rescued them and brought them safely back into the city when its gates were closed because of a sudden war threat in the summer of 1936 or 1937 ... And likewise her ama was not a poor woman who served their family for 20 or 30 years demanding almost nothing, living in the tiniest of spaces in their house. For my mother she was a person madly in love with her three girls, singing and chanting to them and scorning them, when they were not behaving well. Her ama was the old woman who didn't want to leave the three girls, when they had become teen agers, because she was convinced that something terrible would happen to them, if she wasn't looking after them anymore. And wasn't she right? For when she had finally made up her mind and retired to her own family in the northern provinces around the end of world war II, she knew, she had to return to Peking to Madame. Clémann, my grandma, and her three kids and low and behold! What did she see, when she got there three weeks later: The youngest was in bed with a feaver, the oldest had broken her ankle and my mom had gotten into some other trouble! This was the Ama my mom remembered, and this is the world my mother and occasional visitors from her childhood days passed on to us. A middle class perspective of colonial China based on and imbedded in many stories and lot's of memories, sanctified by strong emotions. It was a fascinating world beyond the italian camping grounds and the towns of northern Europe we got to know on our regular vacation trips in the summers of the 1960s and 70s. It was a world much richer and much more alife than all the stale stuff we had to study in the old traditional Gymnasium I attended then. It was also more exotic than the history of my fathers family.

Annemarie Näf-Clémann 1927-2004 Hans und Annmarie Näf-Clémann

My father

My father's ancesters were farmers, teachers, employees of the Swiss postal office, owners of one of the two restaurants in a small village ... All hard working people from the backcountry of Luzern, a middle sized Swiss town, which has since then developped into one of the prime destinations for tourists in our country. Unlike the folks on my mothers side, the ancesters of my father had never travelled far. Many of them have never been beyond the town of Luzern and some of them may never have gotten that far.
My father's father, Johann Näf (1888-1982), was a rather daring figure in this nerrow world. He told me how people stared at him, when he got his first pair of skis sometime around 1908. During World War I he was securing the Swiss border toward possible invasions by German or French troups. After the war, he ventured to England to improve his English. When he married he was already 35 or 36 years old. Before the marriage my granma, Josephine Näf-Marfurt (1900-2001), – some 12 years younger then my granpa – had all her upper or lower teeth (I don't remember which ones) pulled. They got replaced by dentures paid for by her parents. This way, the future husband was sure, that their wouldn't be any unforseen problems and dental costs. My granpa was not especially crual. This was common practice in rural Switzerland of the time, and my granma never complained about it. The fact that my granpa was a civil servant with the post office, who got part of his pay in real gold and who might one day get a position in Luzern, the city of cities and the incarnation of all the hopes she had for her young life made up for everything! Even when he forbid her to continue singing her beloved Schubert songs with the local teacher she agreed, for he offered to give up his weekly card game at the village pub in return for her sacrifice. Having grown up in such a place herself, she hated nothing more than the men who spent evening after evening in her parents pub, joking about their women, playing cards and drinking, while she – 14, 15 years old – had to sit up and wait on them until they would finally go home.
My father's mother was not a revolutionary woman. She had learned to accept the fact, that women had to obey their men and that they had no political rights. Unlike her husband, who was a religious sceptic, she was a good catholic, and she didn't see any reason to protest, when the priest explained that women should obey their men, that they should not mingle with politics or other public affairs. During the 50 plus years of their marriage every lunch consisted of salad, soup and a main course, which had to be served in their modest living room, for a meal at the kitchen table was unthinkable for my granpa even after their two kids had long left home. My father's father, who died when I was 27, was a friendly ruler, who would discuss his views and decisions with his wife and the kids rather than just boss them around, but he was a patriarch nevertheless, who barely knew how to prepare a fried egg or a cup of coffy. My granparents were not big fighters. They kept their opinions to themselves, when they disagreed with something. They were very private people -, respected in their small town, but not popular. My father's mother had been quite a lively woman, when she was young. Some think, that there was some italian blud in her. My granpa – shy and somewhat uptight - was always concerned about the neighbours and what they might say about them or their family, if they heard or knew this or that.

When world war II started, my granpa was 51 years old. He was too old to serve in the military. But my granparents like everybody else felt the "shadow of the war", they were worried, they listend to the news in the radio with increasing anxiety. Like everybody else they turned the lawn around their house into a small potato field, and they too had to get use to food rationing and other restraints on daily goods. Most able bodied younger men were away from civil life for long periods of time patroling the borders of the country, while women and older men took over at home, in offices and facturies. Although it never happened, people were living under the constant threat of a German invasion. Like most Swiss, my granparents disliked the politics of the nazis. But this dislike and the rumors and critical newspaper reports about refugees turned back from the Swiss borders and other issues didn't trigger any active response. Like most Swiss they were worried, but they did not get involved.

A couple of years before the war had started, my father, Hans Näf (born in 1925) had become a student at the Gymnasium run and staffed by the monastry of Engelberg, a small place in the Swiss alpes about 30 km away from Luzern. The school served in part to recrute new monks for the monastery, in part it had become something like a private catholic boarding school for people like my granparents who didn't quite trust the lax ways of modern public education.
Like most of his teenaged friends my father was excited about the war. At first he was fascinated by the incredible successes of the Germans and by the way they handled the whole thing. After the defeat of France in June of 1940, when the danger of an invasion of the country by nazi troups became a real threat to Switzerland his admiration for the Germans started to compete with his desire to fight against them should they ever dare to attack his country!
It took some time until he realized, that war had not only to do with heroism, gigantic tanks and a sky full of planes, but that war meant dying and injured men, blown off limbs, massacred children, raped women, people dying in burning cities and towns, people being gunned down by thousands. When the first photos of liberated concentration camps appeared in swiss newspapers in february and march of 1945 he like many others was shocked by the attrocities these pictures revieled. As a young recrute in the Swiss army he realized at the same time, that if he and his peers would have been in the situation of the german soldiers most or all of them would have acted just like them, because all they had learned in their schools or the army was to obey, to be tough and do, what ever they were told to do. This realisation was deeply troubling for my father and many of his friends, and it lay at the heart of his work as psychologist and school reformer in later years.