Behind the Headlines: Israeli Scholar’s Appointment to Swiss Body Filled with Irony
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Behind the Headlines: Israeli Scholar’s Appointment to Swiss Body Filled with Irony

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There lurks an almost unbearable irony in the appointment of Saul Friedlander to an international commission of nine eminent historians to probe, evaluate and ultimately judge Switzerland’s role and conduct during World War II.

Nearly 55 years ago, on Sept. 29, 1942, Friedlander’s Czech- born parents tried to cross into Switzerland from Vichy France. They were intercepted by Swiss border guards, who handed them over to French police.

The French passed the couple on to the Germans, who shipped Jan and Elli Friedlander to Auschwitz, where both perished.

Just before the Friedlanders embarked on their ill-fated attempt, they found a hiding place for their 10-year-old son in a French monastery, where he was raised as a Catholic.

Ironically, if young Saul had accompanied his parents, the family would have been saved. Of the 12 Jews who participated in the attempted border crossing, the Swiss admitted only those with children.

“It shows how implacably horrendous the whole situation was,” said Friedlander, sitting in his office at the University of California, Los Angeles. “What you thought was the best, turned out to be the worst.”

Friedlander recalled the horrors of the past when he received a phone call last December from Switzerland’s special envoy, Ambassador Thomas Borer, asking him to serve on the Independent Commission of Experts chaired by Francois Bergier.

Friedlander was assured that the commission, appointed by the Swiss government, would have complete access to all of Switzerland’s documents on foreign policy, economic and financial dealings, and treatment of refugees during the Nazi era, as well as the wartime archives of the international Red Cross.

Facing accusations of aid to Nazi Germany and refusal by Swiss banks to pay out accounts established by Holocaust victims, Switzerland was anxious to announce formation of the commission as quickly as possible.

Friedlander was given two hours to decide whether to serve and he based his acceptance on two considerations.

“The Swiss knew what had happened to my parents, that I had written about Switzerland’s role in the war, and that I was an Israeli citizen,” said Friedlander. “Given all that, I took the Swiss offer as a sign that their intentions were really serious.

“As a Jew, as a human being and as a historian, I felt a deep commitment to make sure that the task would be carried through seriously.”

Friedlander was also reassured by the reputations of his fellow commission members — five Swiss, one American, one Briton and one Pole. The American is Sybil Milton, until recently chief historian at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.

Even in that distinguished company, Friedlander is perhaps uniquely qualified for the job at hand.

Acknowledged as one of the world’s leading Holocaust scholars, Friedlander splits the academic year between UCLA and Tel Aviv University.

He has written nine widely-translated books, including “When Memory Comes,” a moving account of his childhood in his native Prague and as a hidden child in France.

Just published by HarperCollins is the first volume of his “Nazi Germany and the Jews,” covering the period of 1933-1939. The book, already translated into French, German and Hebrew, has won early acceptance as the new standard on the subject.

Two months ago, Friedlander attended the first meeting of the Commission of Experts in Bern, and came away with the sense that “our work will be done thoroughly and totally.”

Given the mountains of hitherto secret documents and statistics and the international ramifications of Switzerland’s wartime role, the job facing the commission can be fairly described as monumental. Some 30 to 40 researchers will comb archives in Switzerland, Germany, Russia, the United States and Israel.

“I expect the commission’s work to take five to six years,” said Friedlander.

In one project, the commission will probe the records of a Swiss government agency that daily monitored the flow of gold into and out of Switzerland during World War II.

These records are expected to yield information on the precise amount of Nazi gold, looted from occupied countries and Holocaust victims, channeled into Swiss banks, and largely retained there.

Based on both his personal and scholarly background, Friedlander plans to pay special attention to Switzerland’s wartime policy regarding Jewish refugees seeking asylum.

The commission will issue interim reports on its findings. It is also expected that the investigations will shed new light on the assistance given to the Nazi war machine by such “neutral” nations as Sweden, Portugal, Spain and Argentina.

Such future research will give further impetus to a historical phenomenon: That as the Nazi era and the Holocaust recede in time, the world’s attention is not slackening but increasing.

“With the passage of time, we are slowly grasping the vastness of the amplitude and ramifications of the Hitler period,” Friedlander said.

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