LOS ANGELES (Jan. 20)
Talk to Jews from Poland, Germany, Yugoslavia or Hungary who somehow escaped the Nazi dragnets and made it to safety in Switzerland, and they will assert, usually with considerable emotion, some or all of the following statements:
During World War II, Switzerland split up Jewish refugee families, putting the men into forced labor camps, where they underwent long hours of back-breaking work under primitive living conditions.
The Swiss treated the refugees with decency and respect, and living conditions were no harsher than those endured by most of the Swiss population.
Forced labor camps were surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards.
Many of the camps were actually former resort hotels and the refugees were free to leave on weekends and meet with their families in other parts of the country.
The Swiss allowed refugees to attend universities and pursue their studies, often at no cost.
Anti-Semitism was pervasive throughout the Swiss population and Christian refugees were treated markedly better than Jewish ones.
Switzerland was no more anti-Semitic at the time than most European countries – – or the United States — and all refugees, Jewish and non-Jewish, were treated alike.
The latest furor about Switzerland’s questionable role in World War II was triggered earlier this month by a British television documentary that offered a powerful indictment of Switzerland’s treatment of Jewish refugees.
But what really caught the attention of the American and international media was a report by historian Alan Morris Schom, commissioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and released last week in Los Angeles.
The report, “The Unwanted Guests: Swiss Forced Labor Camps, 1940-1944,” included damning charges of Swiss avarice, brutality and anti-Semitism.
Wire services, newspapers and television networks immediately picked up on the report and delivered it around the world, often with provocative headlines and graphics.
The new list of accusations hit Swiss officials like a blow to the belly.
They were already reeling from more than a year’s worth of charges that Swiss banks had filled their vaults by appropriating accounts set up by Holocaust victims and by laundering Nazi gold.
But at least these transgressions dealt mainly with bankers and money.
The new report went further by attacking the fundamental image of the Swiss as a decent and humane people.
An official with the Swiss embassy in Washington telephoned and spoke in a choked voice about a segment televised by CNN that dealt with the Wiesenthal Center report. The report opened with footage of Nazi concentration camps.
The implied comparison was obviously odious and even the harshest critics of Switzerland have rejected it.
No Jews were killed in Swiss camps, though there were some cases of medical negligence, and none were deliberately worked to death.
On the contrary, a number of Jewish veterans of Swiss camps have rallied to the defense of Switzerland, hailing the country as the savior of some 25,000 Jewish refugees — who survived the war together with Switzerland’s 20,000 Jewish citizens. At the same time, however, Switzerland turned back more than 30,000 Jewish refugees at the border.
Al Finci of Los Angeles crossed the Swiss border as a teen-ager with his family in the spring of 1944.
At all times, “we were treated courteously and with respect,” he wrote in The Los Angeles Times, “and sent to a boarding school for me, a Swiss family for my 10-year old sister, and a vacant hotel, used to accommodate refugees, for my parents.”
In an interview, Finci added, “I have no special love for the Swiss, they are a cold and often gruff people, but they saved my life. When my uncle got sick, he was well taken care of for free in a hospital, and when my grandfather died, the Swiss arranged for a burial in a Jewish cemetery.”
Arthur Stern, a Holocaust survivor who spent much of the war in Switzerland, described parts of the Schom report as “a lot of garbage.”
A self-described “professional Jew,” who holds leadership positions in numerous Jewish organizations, Stern said it violated Jewish tradition when false accusations are leveled for the sake of publicity.
The Swiss government did a number of inexcusable things, but “compared to Portugal, Spain and Sweden, and even the United States, which only admitted 50,000 Jews when 600,000 unused visas were available, Switzerland comes out very well,” Stern said.
Despite such testimony, Schom and the writer of the British documentary stand fully by their reports and say they have witnesses to back up their charges.
Schom is not connected with any academic institution and has written a number of books, dealing with French history and the Napoleonic era. He said that his attempts to interview Swiss officials were rebuffed and that he has had little contact with people who were inmates in the Swiss camps.
Most of his research has been through secondary written sources, but he has spent more than a year studying recently declassified documents in British and French archives.
He added that some of his own cousins from Germany and Lithuania had tried to flee to Switzerland during the war but had been turned back by border guards and subsequently perished in the Holocaust.
Simon Reeve, the British journalist who wrote the script for the British television documentary and a lengthy article for the current international edition of Time magazine, said in a telephone interview from London that he has interviewed 25 veterans of the Swiss camps, of whom only one “had a positive experience.”
“I am a young man and I’m not Jewish, so I don’t carry a historical burden and can judge the Swiss on their own merits,” said Reeve.
“I found that there was a broad policy of anti-Semitism in Switzerland before and during the war, and there is no doubt that Jewish refugees were exploited, not just for Switzerland’s survival but to further the country’s economy.”
One of his witnesses was Manfred Alexander, who after escaping a German concentration camp, made it to Switzerland.
There, Alexander told The New York Times, “I was put in a prison with murderers. Then I was sent to camps where they put us into striped uniforms and we worked from daybreak to sundown in the fields. A guard beat people. Those who tried to escape they sent dogs after them.”
Other former inmates cited examples of senseless cruelty or sheer greed.
Michael Jacobovitz of New York, then a 17-year old Orthodox Jew from Cologne, Germany, would not eat non-kosher food in his camp, and when he begged a guard for a second slice of bread, was threatened with forcible return to Germany.
How can one reconcile such contradictory experiences and testimonies?
One partial answer, say experts, is that as the fortunes of war turned against Hitler, Swiss policies and attitudes toward Jewish refugees apparently mellowed — so that later arrivals encountered better treatment than the initial waves of refugees.
Also, conditions in the more than 100 camps scattered across Switzerland differed drastically, according to the nature and disposition of the Swiss commandants in charge.
This view was offered by two of the foremost Swiss experts on the refugee camps, both of whom were cited in the British documentary.
Jacques Picard, research director for the Independent Commission of Experts now investigating Swiss refugee policy and other wartime issues, said commandants had great latitude in how to run the camps. Some opted for a humane way; others imposed militaristic and fascist methods.
The status of refugees also varied considerably, noted Guido Koller, a Swiss government historian.
Though legally all refugees were subject to internment, refugees with money or the right contacts were allowed to live with private Swiss families or even study at universities.
A balanced and authoritative evaluation of Switzerland’s refugees policy and treatment is expected this summer, when the Commission of Experts, commonly known as the Bergier Commission, is slated to release its findings.
The commission, though appointed by the Swiss government, includes Swiss, American, Israeli and British historians of unquestioned probity, who, contending parties believe, will tell it like it was.