Dark Side of the Moon

View from the Corniche on the Plateau du Rham

During the history of Luxembourg as a fortress, the Plateau du Rham opposite the city served for military purposes. Barracks for soldiers were constructed by the French in the 17th century and the Prussians in the 19th century. After the demolition of the fortress in 1867, the empty buildings were used for public welfare. The authorities’ hopes that the transfer of inmates from the hospice of Ettelbruck to the Rham would resolve the notorious problem of “asylum promiscuity”, were however only partially fulfilled. After Ettelbruck’s orphans and abandoned children, who arrived on the Rham in 1884, had been joined in 1893 by Ettelbruck’s invalid and elderly indigent, the Ettelbruck asylum was indeed kept for the mentally ill. But on the Rham, the cohabitation of children and adults had been restored, this until 1981, when the structure was transformed into a home for elderly citizens only. For decades, the Rham barracks served the triple function of an orphanage, which also admitted babies with or without mothers; a nursing-home for elderly indigents; and a hospital for indigents of all ages.

The former orphanage today accommodates a home for the elderly

The Rham setting may evoke The Great Confinement described by Michel Foucault in his seminal History of Insanity. The barracks formed a prison-like environment. Strict disciplinary rules, imposed by the nuns from the Elizabethan congregation, regimented the life of the orphans. 12-year-old Christine Schweig escaped twice from the orphanage. She was lucky, because a parent wrote to the authorities on 4 March 1914 asking for clothes and permission to take her home. Almost a century earlier, detailed records related the fate of Henry H. from the former orphanage, which had been established already in 1727 down in Grund, Bisserwee. The magistrate’s explanation for the marginal position referred explicitly to public order: “To relieve the upper town, it would be convenient to establish the orphans downtown, where they have found a place aside that is of no disturbance nor of interest to the public.” The case of the 17-year-old Henri H. regarded public order and unrecognised temporary mental disturbances. In December 1823, after having been submitted to the severe penalty of 8 days of incarceration, 40 whip-blows, public shaming and excuses, for a minor theft and to make an example, Henri H. became the leader of an open mutiny of the orphans and forced his leave for the Dutch colonies. Only during a hospital treatment on his return in 1833 as an ill and broken man, was he diagnosed as suffering from epilepsy  from a young age. Supporters of a positive view on the Rham cherish the nationally publicised charity events of orphans visiting the yearly Schueberfouer fair in the 1930s, in company of children of the grand-ducal family. They point to well-nourished Rham-babies, whose single mothers return to work soon after birth-giving, as shown in Le droit au soleil, a propaganda movie from 1959 celebrating the Luxembourg welfare-state. Even in the 2010s, grown-up former inmates occasionally came together to share memories of their days on the once so ill-famed Rham. But what if today, the familiar threat “Be good or you’ll go to Rham!” did rather apply to the cosy ward reserved on the Rham for the elderly inmates who suffer from dementia?

Findings are partially based on material from the Centre National de l’Audiovisuel (CNA): BERTOGNE, Pierre, D’Weesekanner op der Schuerberfouer, 1938; FRIEDRICH, Evy, La Journée des Orphelins, 1931; SCHNEIDER, Philippe, SCHNEIDER, Nicole, Le Droit au Soleil, 1959; See also this recently published article on children’s homes, FISCHBACH, Kyra, Gewalt und Missbrauch in staatlichen Kinderheimen. Warum die Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit so wichtig ist (29.05.18), in : Reporter