Behind the Headlines: Survivors Recall Swiss Policy of Using Jews for Slave Labor

Some of Switzerland’s most famous ski resorts were the sites of forced labor camps for Jewish refugees during World War II.

This latest revelation — unveiled in a British television documentary this week — is likely to further tarnish the pristine reputation of neutrality that the Swiss had nurtured over the past half-century.

Switzerland has always denied that any of the approximately 25,000 Jewish refugees who were permitted to enter the country during the war, along with other non-Swiss Jews — some of whom had lived in Switzerland for years — were subjected to forced labor.

But the mounting body of evidence, supported by recently released official documents and backed by victims’ statements, has swept away any lingering doubts.

“I have not spoken of this for 50 years,” said Walter Fischer, now 82 and living in France. “But I am convinced the Swiss are guilty of terrible crimes. They exploited us, and they have blood on their hands.”

It is now known that a network of more than 100 work camps was established by an official decree on March 12, 1940.

Those who were interned do not equate the Swiss labor camps with the Nazi concentration and death camps, but they do say Jews were held, against their will, in harsh conditions.

“I know we were singled out as Jews because Jews were the only ones there,” said Arnold Marque, now 76 and living in California.

Marque had moved to Switzerland from Germany and had been working as an apprentice baker for three years before the start of the war. He was sent to a camp at Bad Schauenberg where, he recalled, the food consisted of cabbage and potatoes, the pay was equivalent to slave wages and any perceived violations by inmates resulted in threats by the Swiss authorities that they would be sent back to Germany.

Guido Koller, a historian at the Swiss Federal Archive in Zurich, has confirmed that “sanctions were applied” and that some Jews were indeed handed over to the Nazis for “misbehavior.”

“The legal status of the refugees meant that the government could send them to places where they didn’t want to go,” he said. “They had to do work that they didn’t want to-it was compulsory.”

Betty Bloom, who now lives in London, considers herself lucky.

She was 13 years old when she arrived in Switzerland, after narrowly escaping a 1943 deportation to Nazi death camps by the government of Vichy France.

“We were treated like criminals,” said Bloom, recalling the six months she spent in Swiss camps without proper food or medical attention.

Even when she contracted tuberculosis, which left her unable to have children, the Swiss did not provide medical help.

“Yet I think of myself as one of the luckier victims of the Swiss refugee policy,” she says.

“Ten other children from my French children’s home crossed the border but were sent back by the Swiss border guards, straight into the arms of the Germans,” she added. “They perished in Auschwitz. No apology from the Swiss will bring them back to life.”

According to Jacques Picard, a Swiss historian who is research director for a Swiss commission of inquiry into the camps, conditions in the camps varied.

But Charlotte Weber, who now lives in Zurich, recalled being sacked as a young commandant of a camp called Bienenberg because she was considered too kind to the Jewish women under her control.

For the Swiss authorities “these Jewish refugees were just third-class citizens,” said Weber, 85.

“I was astonished when I discovered the conditions in other camps — Jews were treated abominably. It made me ashamed to be Swiss.”

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