1940: The internment camp (until 1942/43)

The Second World War, which broke out in 1939, did not leave the University unscathed. Shortages arose because of lecturers and students being drafted into military service; and due to problems with the energy supply, most of the rooms had to remain unheated during the winter. All in all, however, regular teaching could be maintained throughout the war period.

In the history of HSG, its camp for internees forms an important chapter. After the military surrender of France, 13,000 Polish soldiers who had transferred to the Polish division of the French army, as a result of the occupation of Poland, arrived in Switzerland. Many of these soldiers who, because of the war, had been obliged to interrupt their university studies, wanted to continue their studies in Switzerland; and HSG made its contribution to meeting this need.

The university camp for internees for which the school was responsible was opened at the end of October 1940 in Sirnach, Thurgau, along with the other two such camps in Winterthur and Fribourg. In the first semester, 78 regular students and 15 guest students began their studies. The HSG teachers came by train, for half a day each week, to give lessons free of charge. The President of the university camp for internees was Prof. Max Wildi (English studies). Because of the relatively arduous journey from St. Gallen, the camp was moved to Gossau (to the Notker schoolhouse) in the canton of St. Gallen in its second semester, i.e. in April 1941. In Sirnach as in Gossau, the students lived in private accommodation. For the camp’s third semester, which began in October 1941, there was another transfer, this time to Herisau in the canton of Ausserrhoden, where the students were housed in army barracks. The camp itself was initially housed in an empty factory building (Zähner & Schiess) and then in the Heinrichsbad boarding house.

The school building which Sirnach provided.
Lecture in Sirnach, winter semester 1940/41

The lectures and exercises at the camp, which were held in German, were basically the same as at HSG itself. Since the German language caused great difficulties for most of the internees, compulsory German lessons were held daily in the first semester and four times a week in the third and fourth semesters, led by Polish assistants. This led to an overload of the weekly lecture schedule. Due to the lack of textbooks and the impossibility of going to the HSG library, the assistants and later the students themselves began to prepare lecture notes and transcripts in German. From the summer semester of 1942, students were able to attend at least some of the lectures at HSG on Notkerstrasse (in St. Gallen), and then, from the summer semester of 1943, all of them.

The student body had only one related association, called Brüderliche Hilfe (Brotherly Help), which was divided into five sections: Finance, Education, Choir, Sport, and Festivities. The section devoted to education had for its main task the publication of lecture notes. The student choir pursued the goals of cultivating the Polish tradition of vocal music and of making it known in Switzerland. The sports section focused mainly on football and skiing. Skiing excursions took place every year, and the students also took part in competitions organised outside the camp. Time and again, the internees had to carry out hard labour (for example, clearing 6,700 square metres of forest in Herdern, near Frauenfeld).

The Choir section in action (1941)
A large hall in the closed down Zähner & Schiess factory in Herisau (Obermoosstrasse) served as a dormitory for over 100 internees. They slept on straw or straw-filled sacks.

Considering the difficult conditions that prevailed, the teaching activities of the university lecturers at the camp for internees can be described as successful: by the winter semester of 1944-45, as many as 23 students had graduated with a degree, and some of them even continued their studies and earned a doctorate.

Sirnach in April 1941: The mayor together with about 300 residents give the internees a warm farewell.