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Bridging the gap
After more than 70 years in the U.S., Swiss icon Martha Bernet considers both places home
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Martha Bernet, center, with son, Hans, right, and daughter-in-law, Bobbie Bernet are decked out in Swiss garb. Martha found coming to the U.S. easier after learning English and getting involved in the community to help celebrate her Swiss roots.

MONROE — Although Martha Bernet has lived in the United States for more than 70 years, the connection to her homeland is palpable in her presence. 

After emigrating with her husband and his family in 1947, she was able to get through missing her hometown by taking a steadfast approach to learning English and making lasting friendships all the while working to ensure she kept her Swiss heritage alive.

Known as Monroe’s Swiss icon, Bernet, now 93, recalls her emigration to the United States as if it were yesterday when she boarded a rebuilt war ship with her husband and his family while pregnant with her oldest son, Hans. 

As she ages, Bernet’s love for her homeland and its culture are seemingly as strong and resilient as her mother tongue. She’s still honored to be a part of the local communities, despite them becoming more Americanized as time passes. 

Getting here

Bernet’s family history of emigration began first in 1927 when her in-laws, including her future husband Werner, came to the U.S. But in 1939 they returned to Switzerland after her father-in-law became ill, only planning to stay there for a year. However, because of World War II, they didn’t return to the U.S. until 1947. 

Martha grew up in Leissigen, Bern, and eventually began attending business classes that required her to take the train four times a day. It was there she met Werner, a train conductor who told his future bride that his plan was to eventually return to America, and she agreed to join him.  

The young love story began with the couple’s marriage — a Switzerland wedding in 1946, but it still took nearly a year to get back to the U.S. Martha was pregnant at that time with her oldest son, Hans, who was the first of the couple’s four children. 

Once of the nicest things Hans could do for me was to pick Bobbie for his wife.
Martha Bernet, Monroe

Martha recalls being sick on the ship as they traveled through the Mediterranean. She was with her father-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law with her daughter and 17 large trunks full of their belongings. Among those was her accordion — something that would later prove to be ones of her greatest treasures. 

“It was a long trip,” she said.

The train came as far as Brodhead where Werner’s uncle picked them up. Although his family had made limburger cheese the first time they were in the U.S., Martha said this time they opted to work at a Swiss cheese factory for two years in Juda before they got their own. 

Martha, who was the youngest of four children, wasn’t used to long days and intense work but took it in stride alongside her husband. As Werner’s assistant, Martha would often place the children in an empty cheese kettle with a quilt and toys while she worked. 

She often missed her friends and family. 

“The first two years were hell,” she said. “I was so lonesome for my family and for everybody. But once I could talk English (things were better).” 

She and her sister wrote letters back and forth every week for years. Hans recalls spending hours on Christmas day waiting to get a phone line through to Switzerland to wish quick holiday greetings due to the cost. 

After spending four years at the Stauffacher Cheese Factory in Dutch Hollow, the couple had an offer from Werner’s mother’s cousin, who was selling his chocolate Swiss shop located in the back of what is now the Suisse Haus. They decided to purchase it and Bernet’s Cheese and Sausage Shop opened in 1957. 

The shop also brought hard work and long days, but Martha loved the people. Hans recalls his parents only taking off on Easter and Christmas — and even then, his father would walk to the store in the afternoons to check the coolers. Along with selling cheese and chocolate, they also sold Bratzeli irons, wood carvings and other Swiss imports to bring a little bit of “home” to customers.

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Martha Bernet and husband Werner had a Swiss shop where they sold chocolates, wood carvings and other imported Swiss goods for more than 25 years. It was located in the back of what is now Suisse Haus.

Hans said as children they were able to be out and about with friends, but they always heard Martha’s loud whistle that carried across town, letting them know dinner was ready and they were to get home. 

Martha loved working at the store, she said, because she loved the people. Although Werner knew all about the cheese, Martha’s expertise was in the many exported goods. Eventually, they even began importing for other area stores and in the 1970s, Martha began traveling back to Switzerland, purchasing things for the store and bringing back ideas. 

In 1983, the couple decided to sell the store. They spent their first year of retirement traveling, visiting Switzerland, of course, and their daughter in Canada, taking time to sight see and enjoy life after so many years of hard work. 

It would be a year to remember, because sadly, Werner died in his sleep from a heart attack after the year was over. 

Staying busy

Through the years, despite the long days at the cheese factories and the store, it simply came naturally for Martha to also provide necessities for her family. She was known for making several holiday goodies, regular large family dinners and even sewed most of her four children’s clothing and knitted their socks. At Christmastime, everyone received a hand-knitted sweater from Martha. 

She said learning those things at home and also attending school in Switzerland was simply second nature.

“Some days I look back and wonder ‘how did I do it?’,” she said. “I loved to do those things.”

Hans recalls family dinners of traditional Swiss foods — Martha would often have spices imported that couldn’t be found here. Although Hans turned up his nose at the time, today he loves the dishes and feels grateful that his wife, Bobbie, has picked up some “tricks of the trade” from his mother and prepares them often. 

“Once of the nicest things Hans could do for me was to pick Bobbie for his wife,” Martha said. Although Bobbie has only a fraction of Swiss blood in comparison, she and Hans have enjoyed extensive travel together and she’s immersed herself in Swiss culture from the family. She’s even working on a project to collect stories of Swiss emigrants who have settled in Green County.

On Saturday afternoons, I could go to each store around the Square and someone could talk Swiss.
Martha Bernet, Monroe

Martha was also a founding member of the Monroe Swiss Club in 1952, and is the last remaining member of the group that once boasted more than 400 people. 

One of Martha’s most notable pastimes was always her yodeling, music and accordion playing. Her father told her before she left Switzerland that if she kept singing, she would be OK, and that’s what she did. Werner encouraged her involvement through the years as well, knowing his wife needed it. 

Martha was involved in the St. John’s church choir when the congregation was almost entirely Swiss and was also a charter member of the Swiss Singers in 1963 when the entire group was Swiss. She sang with them until last year. Hans and Bobbie are still members and Hans is one of two in the group who still speaks the native tongue. 

“On Saturday afternoons, I could go to each store around the Square and someone could talk Swiss,” Martha said of those who shared the language in earlier days. She recalled one day while shopping how she hoped to purchase seeds for sugar snap peas, but couldn’t recall the English words for it — fortunately, the shop owner simply said it in Swiss for her, which made her laugh. 

“Back then, 80% of the phone book were Swiss (names),” she said. “Now you have to look for them.”

She also put a lot of heart and soul into Monroe’s Cheese Days event each year, something that’s still important to her. In 1980, Werner and Martha served as the first Cheese Days king and queen. Martha chaired the entertainment committee and performed on stage for years and Martha was a co-chair in 1982.  

“It’s not as Swiss as it used to be, but we’re just trying to keep up the Swiss heritage as much as we can,” she said. 

One of the things Martha is also known for is her 60 years spent at the local WEKZ radio station. She started the job in 1956 after being asked and she retired on her 60th anniversary in 2016. Offering a Swiss program six days a week to listeners, including many homesick Swiss, Martha played Swiss music and spoke in English and Swiss German on her long running program. 

“Even now, they come up to me and tell me how they wanted to listen to rock and roll but their parents made them listen to my program,” she said with a laugh. “But they turn the Swiss music on now themselves because it feels like home.”

Hans said having his mother with her own program on the local radio station made her somewhat of a local celebrity.

“It was like growing up with a famous mother,” he said with a laugh. “Even if they didn’t recognize her, they would recognize her voice.”

In recent years, Martha played as one of the “Swiss Chicks” alongside Marion Kundert, where well into their 80s, the duo performed regularly around the area to keep yodeling and the accordion traditions alive. 

Calling both places home

At home while growing up, Hans said his father was adamant that they only spoke Swiss. Because Werner came to the U.S. early on, Hans said he likely realized the value of a second language, but for a young, impressionable boy who only wanted to fit in, he hated it.

“We lived in the country so there wasn’t a lot of interaction,” Hans said. “I hated speaking Swiss — but that was a real gift to us. As teenagers the last thing we wanted was to be different.”

“Werner said ‘as long as you have your feet under my table, you’ll speak Swiss at home,’” Martha recalled.

Martha said when Hans began school, his teacher spoke Swiss and would comment to her about how her son’s English was improving quickly. 

You don’t have to be Swiss to sing, eat limburger, play cards at Turner Hall. The Swiss-ness is just part of the appeal.
Hans Bernet on Monroe and New Glarus

As the years pass and the local Swiss towns become more Americanized, Hans said it’s all part of life. Bobbie said she finds local efforts to keep the heritage at the forefront valiant. 

“The efforts of lots of groups to hold on to the Swiss heritage is part of what make Monroe and New Glarus different from every other little town,” Bobbie said. “It’s what makes us special.”

“You don’t have to be Swiss to sing, eat limburger, play cards at Turner Hall,” Hans said. “The Swiss-ness is just part of the appeal.”

Martha now resides at St. Clare Friedensheim Assisted Living — a choice she made, and a place she enjoys and is able to stay active. She also enjoys social media and connecting with those from Switzerland that she could once only write to or spend a few minutes on the phone with due to costs. 

Although her physical world has become smaller due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Martha in contact online with people from all over, including grandchildren in Australia and Canada. A few weeks back, she was “tagged” in photos from her hometown when someone passed through. She loves to see them.  

She said they’re currently making a book about that town, going back three generations, to tell about the families — and they’ve called her several times for help, knowing her long term memory is spot on.

Through the years Martha has returned to Switzerland 35 times; the last time was in 2007 for her 80th birthday. She served as a tour guide for 17 years, taking groups and adding time to spend there with her family.

And despite Werner being gone for three decades, Martha never felt that she would ever permanently return to Switzerland. 

“I’m at home,” she said. “I have my family, my kids, my friends. I wouldn’t want to (go) back. Some never make the full transition, but I was able to bridge the gap, love both places and call both places home.”