Switzerland’s most celebrated immigrants never actually came

From Albert Einstein and Vladimir Lenin to writers James Joyce and Herman Hesse, Switzerland has long been home to some of the world’s most high-profile immigrants. But perhaps the most famous immigrant family – the singing Von Trapps that crossed over the Swiss Alps at the closing of The Sound of Music – never actually came.

The Austrian Von Trapp family was real enough. The father Baron Georg von Trapp was a naval captain who lost his family fortune in a banking collapse during the turbulent interwar years. His wife died of scarlet fever, and with his daughter Maria ill as well, he visited Salzburg’s Nonnberg Abbey in search of someone to care for the child. A young woman –  Maria Kutschera, played by Julie Andrews in the celebrated film – took on the job, and went on to fall in love first with the 7 Von Trapp children before falling in love with their father Georg as well. Though Hollywood placed their marriage on the eve of World War II, the real Maria and Georg married more than a decade earlier, in 1927.

The family’s musical talents were first recognized by Father Franz Wasner, a priest who had come to stay with the family when Georg took on boarders to pay the bills. The priest continued the training they’d already received from their birth mother and, as portrayed in The Sound of Music, in 1936 the Von Trapp family won first place in the Salzburg Music Festival. But unlike in the film, that was not the night of their flight abroad.

In fact, the Von Trapp family built on the success of their Festival victory to start touring around in Europe, singing classic music, madrigals and folk songs. It was this success that assured them a steady future career as touring musicians in America – that is, once they left Austria.

But how did they do it? For one thing, the real Von Trapps didn’t climb any mountains with their instruments in hand, and they never walked into Switzerland – perhaps the closest Swiss border crossing near Valsot, in Canton Graubünden, would have taken them nearly three days and nights of non-stop walking to reach.

Thankfully for the Von Trapps, there was an easier way to leave: by train. The family left in daylight, legally and openly, and headed straight to Italy, where Georg had citizenship, before the family set their sights on America. There, the Trapp Family Singers, as they came to be known, toured for more than a decade before the now-adult family members split off to pursue careers beyond singing. While they never actually set foot in Switzerland, Maria Von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers were perhaps the greatest mid-century exporters of Alpine culture to the United States, introducing the country to folk songs, traditional Alpine costume, and in one famous TV appearance, even taught Julie Andrews – who played Maria in the film – how to yodel. Hollywood is always a bit fuzzy on historical details, but it’s good to remember that often reality can be just as inspiring as fiction.