Latest Swiss mess: forced labor camps

LOS ANGELES — 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 globally, 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 those 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, although there were some cases of medical negligence, and no Jews were deliberately worked to death.

On the contrary, a number of Jewish veterans of Swiss camps have rallied to the defense of Switzerland, hailing it 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.

But 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."

A balanced and authoritative evaluation of Switzerland's refugee 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.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent