Swiss finally acknowledge wartime “heroes”

by Jessica Dacey,

A chapter of Swiss history has been rewritten, clearing the names of people who helped smuggle refugees into Switzerland during the Second World War.

A parliamentary commission has completed the rehabilitation of all 137 known cases of people convicted by a Swiss military tribunal of breaking the law during the war by helping mainly Jews cross into the country illegally.

Nearly 70 years on, the rulings have been annulled and the names of these “heroes”, as they belatedly were known, published. They include Swiss, French, Italians, Germans and Poles.

All are now dead, leaving only their relatives to take comfort in the rehabilitation. Just three of the people were still alive in time to hear that their names had been cleared.

The commission and people closely involved in the rehabilitation admit the whole process started rather late. A law came into force in 2004 allowing refugee helpers to be pardoned. It was at this point that the rehabilitation body started going through archives, reviewing cases and formally noting that the people involved had acted correctly.

They were “unknown heroes”, Alexandre Schneebeli, secretary of the commission, told Publishing their names becomes somewhat of a memorial for their descendants, he said.

“Dangerous work”

During the war strict border checks were in force in Switzerland. Nevertheless, a total of some 300,000 people crossed the borders from Nazi-occupied countries for longer or shorter periods. Of these, over 100,000 were military personnel, who were liable to internment.

Of the civilian refugees, around 30,000 were Jews. About 20,000 civilians, mainly Jews, were turned away.

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Note: I remember from my parents talk that one of their best friends used to hide Jewish refugees in World War II. Later on she also hid Algerians fighting in their war of independence against France.

This image from 1943 shows Jews escorted from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers (Keystone)

2 replies

    The Swiss parliamentary rehabilitation commission was set up to rehabilitate people sentenced for helping refugees, mostly Jews, enter the country illegally during the Second World War.

    At the time thousands of fugitives were refused entry in an attempt to protect Switzerland from being overwhelmed by refugees.

    The commission, set up in 2004, rehabilitated 137 people who helped fugitives from Nazism between 1938 and 1945.

    68 cases were discovered in the federal archives and another 63 were brought by the Paul Grüninger foundation. Three cases were brought by people convicted at the time or by their descendants.

    They included 59 Swiss, 34 French, 24 Italians, six Germans, three Poles, one Czech, one Hungarian and one Spaniard. All are now dead.

    A five year probe into Switzerland’s wartime past was carried out by an Independent Commission of Experts (ICE) set in 1996 at the height of the debate over dormant accounts in Switzerland.

    It delivered its final report in 2002.

    It found that Switzerland’ policy towards refugees had been excessively restrictive. Around 20,000 had been turned away, most of them Jewish.

    This happened although the authorities knew the fate in store for them. In cases where they were allowed entry, their human dignity had not always been respected.

    The report said the government and parts of private industry went too far in cooperating with the Nazi regime. The Swiss government helped finance the Nazi war effort by extending export credits to firms supplying crucial materials to Germany and Italy.

    Pharmaceutical companies went out of their way to voluntarily “Aryanise” their German subsidiaries by sacking Jewish employees.

    The ICE also found that the government and businesses had failed to make proper restitution to the victims of the Nazis after the war.

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