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You are here: Recent Events National & Political Hate A Swiss Commission rehabilitates 137 people punished during WWII for helping Jews escape the Nazis.

A Swiss Commission rehabilitates 137 people punished during WWII for helping Jews escape the Nazis.

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The Swiss parliament declared on December 28, 2011 that a commission established in 2004 had finished the process of rehabilitating 137 people punished during World War II for having helped Jews escape Nazi persecution, ending seven years of historical research to redress what it now considers a “serious injustice.” The rehabilitation amounted to official recognition that their actions were right and proper. It did not include any compensation.

A committee of historians concluded in 2001 that the policy pursued by the Swiss between 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, and 1945, when he was finally defeated by the Allied forces, had been "excessively restrictive." The Swiss parliament adopted the rehabilitation law in 2004 as a result, setting up a commission to investigate the injustice done to people in Switzerland who took it upon themselves to help Jews escape Nazi persecution.

Those involved in helping Jews during the war had their convictions canceled and were formally rehabilitated, the government’s Rehabilitation Commission said in an e-mailed statement. The commission wound up its activities at the end of the year 2011.

Switzerland responded to a growing stream of Jewish refugees from Germany fleeing the Holocaust by imposing a visa requirement for people described as “German non-Aryans” in 1938. A year later, all foreign nationals had to apply for visas to enter the country. Most border crossings were closed at the outbreak of World War II.

The Swiss courts punished those they caught on the grounds that their actions had violated Swiss neutrality. According to historians, several hundred people lost their job, were fined and in some cases even jailed for having sheltered Jews hiding from the Nazis.

Of the 137 people rehabilitated, 59 were Swiss, 34 French, 24 Italian, six German, three Polish, with one Czech, one Hungarian, a Spaniard -- and several others who at the time in question were stateless.

According to the work of the researchers some of them acted for purely humanitarian reasons and others out of a sense of patriotism, while some were also motivated by the money that refugees offered them. "All these people are today dead," Alexandre Schneebeli, the secretary of the Swiss parliament's rehabilitation commission, told AFP.

And of them, only Aimee Stitelman lived to see her name officially cleared, several years ago. In 1945, a Swiss military court ordered her detained for 15 days for having helped 15 Jewish children who were fleeing the Nazis, some of them orphans, to enter Switzerland. The rehabilitation commission struck down the conviction in March 2004, when she was 79 years old. She died a year later.

In another case, a 25-year-old commercial traveler was jailed for two and a half months by a court for having helped a Viennese Jew get into the country. The Jew he helped was also jailed for two months -- and then sent back over the border.

The commission’s work has brought an important chapter of the country's history to public attention, publicizing the actions of people who until now were unknown, Wednesday's statement said. "This recognition was essential in the eyes of the people concerned and those close to them," the statement added.

Switzerland in World War II

The Swiss partially justify their refugee policy because Switzerland was surrounded by territory controlled by the Axis Powers from 1940 to 1944. It is true that at the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Switzerland immediately began to mobilize for a possible invasion by fortifying positions throughout the country. The total strength of the army and militias grew to exactly 498,327 men.

The Swiss press vigorously criticized the Third Reich, often infuriating the Nazi leadership. In turn, Berlin denounced Switzerland as a medieval rudiment and its people renegade Germans.

Under General Henri Guisan, a massive mobilization of militia forces was ordered. The Swiss military strategy was changed from one of static defense at the borders, to a strategy of organized long-term attrition and withdrawal to strong, well-stockpiled positions high in the Alps known as the Réduit. This controversial strategy was essentially one of deterrence. The idea was to cause huge losses to German forces and render the cost of invading too high. During an invasion, the Swiss Army would cede control of the economic heartland and population centres, but retain control of crucial rail links and passes in the Réduit.

In the course of WWII, detailed invasion plans were drawn up by the German military command, such as Operation Tannenbaum, but Switzerland was never attacked. Switzerland was able to remain independent through a combination of military deterrence, economic concessions to Germany, and good fortune as larger events during the war delayed an invasion.

Nazi Germany repeatedly violated Swiss airspace. During the Invasion of France, German aircraft violated Swiss airspace at least 197 times. In several air incidents, the Swiss shot down 11 Luftwaffe planes between 10 May 1940 and 17 June 1940. Germany protested diplomatically on 5 June 1940, and with a second note on 19 June 1940 which contained clear threats. On 20 June 1940, the Swiss air force was ordered to stop intercepting planes violating Swiss airspace. Swiss fighters began instead to force intruding aircraft to land at Swiss airfields. Anti-aircraft units still operated. Later, Hitler unsuccessfully sent saboteurs to destroy airfields.

Refugees Rejected by Switzerland

After Adolf Hitler had seized power in Germany in January 1933, some 2000 refugees (mostly Jews and intellectuals) fled from Germany into Switzerland, and towards the end of 1938, after the annexation of Austria by Germany, there were already 10,000 refugees in Switzerland.

As a neutral state near Germany, Switzerland was easy to reach for German refugees. The really large number of Jews in the East had no way of reaching Switzerland. However, Switzerland's refugee laws, especially with respect to Jews fleeing Germany, were strict. From 1933 until 1944 asylum for refugees could only be granted to those who were under personal threat owing to their political activities only; it did not include those who were under threat due to race, religion or ethnicity. On the basis of this definition, Switzerland granted asylum to only 644 people between 1933 and 1945; of these, 252 cases were admitted during the war.

All other refugees were admitted by the individual cantons and were granted different permits, including a "tolerance permit" that allowed them to live in the canton but not to work. Over the course of the war, Switzerland interned 300,000 refugees. Of these, 103,689 were foreign troops interned according to the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers outlined in the Hague Conventions. The rest were foreign civilians and were either interned or granted tolerance or residence permits by the cantonal authorities. Refugees were not allowed to hold jobs. Of the refugees, 60,000 were civilians escaping persecution by the Nazis. Of these, 26,000 to 27,000 were Jews.

The Swiss turned over thousands of refugee Jews fleeing the Nazis and seeking safety in Switzerland and closed their border to between 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish refugees, even after the government was informed, that the Nazis would not only send them to labor camps but rather murder them systematically.

It is difficult to assess just to what extent that anti-Semitism was a factor in the Swiss refugee policy, but few doubt that it was a factor.

German J(ew) Stamps in passports

There are various actions of Swiss officials during the WWII that were morally questionable. For instance, the Swiss were involved in the introduction of a new stamp (a red J) by Germany to mark passports of Jews.

From 1933 to 1938 the German Nazi regime instituted various measures discriminating against Jews. The restrictions taken in 1938 were especially severe, so that many Jews considered leaving Germany. The Swiss authorities, however, wanted to restrict immigration to their country.

Dr. Heinrich Rothmund, head of the Swiss Immigration Service (“Fremdenpolizei”), began imploring the German government to stamp the letter “J” in red into the passports of Jews so that it would be easy to identify them at border crossings. It was not easy at that time to persuade the Germans to do this because at that stage they were concerned to “cleanse” Germany of Jews and they feared retaliation from other countries who were liable to adopt this method and imprint special seals in the passports of German citizens. The Germans also demanded reciprocity, and suggested that Switzerland stamp the passports of German Jews, something Swiss public opinion would not stand for.

Finally Germany decided to mark passports of Jews with a stamp ("J") in October 1938. The Swiss government acknowledged the involvement of Swiss officials in the affair with the J-stamp and publicly apologized on 8th March, 1998. (See answer of the Swiss government to a parliamentary interpellation: Antwort des Bundesrates auf die parlamentarische Anfrage 98.3447 von Ständerat Maximilian Reimann vom 7. 10. 1998).

Controversy over financial relationship with Nazi Germany

There is also an argument that World War II would have ended in 1943 had not Swiss banks oiled the German war machine by laundering gold looted by the Nazis.

The Swiss justifiably argue that Switzerland's trade was blockaded by both the Allies and by the Axis. Each side openly exerted pressure on Switzerland not to trade with the other. Economic cooperation and extension of credit to the Third Reich varied according to the perceived likelihood of invasion, and the availability of other trading partners. Concessions reached their zenith after a crucial rail link through Vichy France was severed in 1942, leaving Switzerland completely surrounded by the Axis. Switzerland relied on trade for half of its food and essentially all of its fuel, but controlled vital trans-alpine rail tunnels between Germany and Italy.

Switzerland's most important exports during the war were precision machine tools, watches, jewel bearings (used in bombsights), electricity, and dairy products.

Until 1936, the Swiss franc was the only remaining major freely convertible currency in the world, and both the Allies and the Germans sold large amounts of gold to the Swiss National Bank. Between 1940 and 1945, the German Reichsbank sold 1.3 billion francs worth of gold to Swiss Banks in exchange for Swiss francs and other foreign currency, which were used to buy strategically important raw materials like tungsten and oil from neutral countries. Hundreds of millions of francs worth of this gold was monetary gold plundered from the central banks of occupied countries. A total of 581,000 francs' worth of "Melmer" gold taken from Holocaust victims in Eastern Europe was sold to Swiss banks.

Germany's Clodius Memorandum in June 1943 stated that the deliveries of war material from Switzerland represented only 0.5% of German production. If so, the Swiss claim would be justified that their trade did not significantly lengthen the war.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a private humanitarian institution, it is based in Geneva, Switzerland. The ICRC clearly held a very passive attitude concerning the prosecution of Jews and other minorities by the Nazis during the war. In 1989, ICRC officials admitted that the ICRC would have been morally obliged to take care of the Jews in all areas under German influence. It pointed out at the same time, however, that the protection of the civilian population had only been agreed upon with the IV Geneva Convention of 1949.

During the war, the ICRC failed to obtain an agreement with Nazi Germany about the treatment of detainees in concentration camps, and it eventually abandoned applying pressure to avoid disrupting its work with POWs. The ICRC also failed to develop a response to reliable information it received about the extermination camps and the mass killing of European Jews.

Swiss historian Jean-Claude Favez, who conducted an 8-year review of the Red Cross records, says that even though the Red Cross knew by November 1942 about the Nazi’s annihilation plans for the Jews – and even discussed it with U.S. officials – the group did nothing to inform the public, maintaining silence even in the face of pleas by Jewish groups.

Because the Red Cross was based in Geneva and largely funded by the Swiss government, it was very sensitive to Swiss wartime attitudes and policies. On October 1942, the Swiss government and the Red Cross’ board of members vetoed a proposal by several Red Cross board members to condemn the persecution of civilians by the Nazis. For the rest of the war, the Red Cross took its cues from Switzerland in avoiding acts of opposition or confrontation with the Nazis.

Toward the end of the war, on 12 March 1945, ICRC president Jacob Burckhardt received a message from SS General Ernst Kaltenbrunner accepting the ICRC's demand to allow delegates to visit the concentration camps. To the credit of one of the delegates, Louis Haefliger, the forceful eviction or blasting of Mauthausen-Gusen was prevented by alerting American troops, thereby saving the lives of about 60,000 inmates. His actions, however, were condemned by the ICRC because they were deemed as acting unduly on his own authority and risking the ICRC's neutrality. Only in 1990, was his reputation finally rehabilitated by ICRC president Cornelio Sommaruga.

Dormant accounts of Jews in Swiss banks

A particularly troubling action by the Swiss occurred after the war regarding Switzerland's banks' handling of dormant accounts belonging to Jews and other victims of Hitler's death camps.

Starting in 1995, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) began negotiations on behalf of various Jewish organizations with Swiss banks and the Swiss government over dormant Jewish World War II bank accounts. The WJC entered a class-action in Brooklyn, NY.

They alleged improper difficulties in accessing these accounts because of requirements such as death certificates (typically non-existent for Holocaust victims), along with deliberate efforts on the part of some Swiss banks to retain the balances indefinitely.

During the negotiations, the Swiss banks agreed in 1996 to pay for another audit of wartime accounts headed by ex Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.

In January 1997, Christoph Meili, a night watchman at the Union Bank of Switzerland, found employees shredding archives compiled by a subsidiary that had extensive dealings with Nazi Germany. The shredding was in direct violation of a Swiss law adopted in December 1996 protecting such material.

Less than two weeks later, the Swiss ambassador to the U.S. resigned in the wake of a leaked memo in which he characterized those seeking an accounting of Swiss wartime activities as "opponents" who "cannot be trusted."

The Volcker commission gave its final report in December 1999. It determined that the 1999 book value of all dormant accounts possibly belonging to victims of Nazi persecution that were unclaimed, closed by the Nazis, or closed by unknown persons was CHF 95 million. Of this total, CHF 24 million were "probably" related to victims of Nazi persecution. It also "confirmed evidence of questionable and deceitful actions by some individual banks in the handling of accounts of victims."

On November 22, 2000, Judge Edward R. Korman announced settlement of this case with his approval of a plan featuring the payment of $1.25 billion into funds controlled by the plaintiff organizations. By October 2009, some $490 million had been paid out to individual claimants, and acceptance of new claims had been discontinued.

At the time of the negotiations, the Bergier commission in Bern was formed by the Swiss government on 12 December 1996 to investigate the volume and fate of assets moved to Switzerland before, during, and immediately after the Second World War. It was made up of Polish, American, Israeli and Swiss historians The Commission concluded in March 2002 that the dual responsibilities of a democratic state to its own people and to the international community were not met during the period examined, and were often ignored during the fifty year post-war period.

The Bergier commission found that after the war, when victims of the Holocaust or relatives of victims tried to access bank accounts that had been dormant during the war, Swiss banking authorities hid behind an interpretation of banking secrecy laws to block access and restitution. Such behavior was deemed to have been determined by institutional self-interest rather than the interests of the victims of the Nazi state who had transferred their assets to Switzerland for safekeeping.

Further Reading:

Two Girls' Memories of Kristallnacht, November 1938

The Evian Conference