Border History: Nazi hunter says Swiss rejected fewer Jews

by Clare O’Dea,

Renowned French Nazi hunter and historian Serge Klarsfeld has claimed that far fewer Jewish refugees were turned away at Swiss borders than previously thought. Klarsfeld puts the number at 3,000, compared to a previous estimate of 24,500.

The service of Swiss border guards in the Second World War is commemorated in this Ticino museum (Keystone)

The higher figure included in the 1999 Bergier report into the treatment of Jews by Switzerland during the Second World War was based on imprecise archive material which did not specify the rejection of Jews or the reasons for denying people entry, Klarsfeld told Der Sonntag newspaper.

Klarsfeld has called on Switzerland to create a new commission to examine the question of the acceptance and rejection of Jewish refugees at the Swiss border during the war years.

“The number of 24,000 is totally wrong,” Klarsfeld told Swiss public radio on Sunday. “It’s unfair to let international opinion believe that 24,000 Jews were turned away from Switzerland and died because of that when the figure of people denied entry is closer to 3,000.”

Klarsfeld also pointed out that 30,000 Jews were admitted into Switzerland at the same time.

“It should be known how many Jews managed to find refuge in Switzerland and how many were turned away – and what happened to them. This is about Switzerland’s image in the world, and that’s important for the country,” he said in the Sonntag interview.

Klarsfeld is famous, along with his wife Beate, for their success in tracking down the infamous Gestapo commander Klaus Barbie in Bolivia in the 1970s. The 77-year-old now devotes himself to researching the destiny of French wartime Jews.

Sensitive issue

The issue is still sensitive in Switzerland. Swiss President Ueli Maurer came in for harsh criticism last month on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day when he issued a communiqué in which he described the country as a refuge for a large number of persecuted people.

Several days later, Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga emphasised Switzerland’s failings during the Second World War. “Human beings were turned away at our borders and sent towards certain death,” she told an asylum conference in Bern.

The Swiss government apologised for these actions in 1995, Sommaruga said, adding that “such mistakes are not excusable after the fact”.

But what are the facts? Along with other researchers before him, Klarsfeld calls into question the analysis of the Swiss archives carried out by the Bergier investigation, according to Der Sonntag. Klarsfeld joined forces with fellow historian Ruth Fivaz-Silbermann to conduct more research in France, Italy and Germany.

“In fact most of the Jewish refugees tried to enter Switzerland through France. A maximum of 1,500 Jews were rejected at this border,” he explained.

In collaboration with the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Centre in Milan, Klarsfeld established that 300 Jews were turned away at the southern Swiss border of canton Ticino. He estimates a further 1,200 people were rejected in Germany and Austria.
Nazi gold

The Bergier commission led by historian Jean-François Bergier was established by the Swiss government to undertake an investigation into various aspects of Swiss conduct during and after the war. It found evidence of the Swiss central bank buying Nazi gold and Jewish refugees being turned away from Swiss borders.

According to United States judge Edward Korman, the Bergier Commission identified “a conspiracy among the Swiss banks to stonewall heirs of survivors who were making claims to Swiss bank accounts and, specifically, those which had been improperly transferred to the Nazis.”

Last month, 15 years after the “Nazi Gold” controversy, Korman confirmed that around $1.3 billion (SFr1.2 billion) had been paid to Holocaust survivors and descendants.

The offices of the Claims Resolution Tribunal (CRT) in Zurich and in New York were closed at the end of December, according to the CRT.

Clare O’Dea,

Categories: Europe, Israel, Switzerland

1 reply

  1. Many Swiss were hiding Jews during the Second World War to protect them from being expelled (returned to Germany) as ‘illegal residents’ (having crossed into Switzerland illegally). We had a family friend who was hiding some in her large house in Zurich. During the Algerian war of liberation from France she also hid some Algerians to prevent them from being returned to France. May Allah bless her soul for her humanity.

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