Report says Swiss turned away thousands of refugees

BERN — In 1942, a 19-year-old Jew identified as "Leo H." attempted to enter Switzerland three times to escape the Nazis.

Each time, Swiss borders guards denied him haven in Switzerland. During one of his tries, they robbed and beat him.

In October 1943, a 15-year-old Jewish girl seeking refuge was sexually molested by drunken Swiss soldiers. Swiss police in Geneva later determined she did not deserve asylum and handed her over to Nazi officials at the border with France. She was sent to Auschwitz.

She and Leo were but two of the 24,500 Jews — including thousands of children — who were denied refuge in Switzerland between January 1940 and the war's end in 1945, according to a long-awaited report of an international panel of historians.

Many of those turned away at the border were given directly to the Nazis, making Switzerland an accomplice in the Holocaust, the panel said.

Switzerland "declined to help people in mortal danger," the panel known as the Bergier Commission added in its harshly critical assessment of Switzerland's wartime policy toward Jewish refugees.

The panel issued its harsh findings even as it acknowledged that Switzerland accepted more than 51,000 refugees during World War II, including 21,000 Jews.

By comparison, the United States admitted 21,000 Jewish refugees during the war. Canada admitted about 9,000.

Formally called the Independent Commission of Experts, the panel headed by historian Jean-Francois Bergier was created by Switzerland in December 1996 to study the nation's wartime past.

In May 1998, the commission issued a report concluding that during the war, officials of the Swiss central bank knew they were buying looted gold from Nazi Germany, but turned a blind eye and went ahead with "business as usual."

On Dec. 10, the panel issued its report on wartime refugee policy during the war years.

Describing their findings as "a lesson for all humanity," the historians condemned the wartime practices of Swiss officials, accusing them of pursuing an inhumane policy at odds with the country's tradition of offering asylum to those facing persecution.

The nine-member panel spent 18 months preparing the 956-page report, considered the most definitive yet on the country's wartime treatment of refugees.

Its release seems bound to trigger renewed controversy because it challenges one of Switzerland's most cherished national myths.

The Swiss have long believed that their oasis of neutrality was preserved by a plucky militia that kept Hitler's forces at bay and that they bravely resisted any dealings with the fascist powers even though their nation was surrounded by Axis armies.

The report, however, produced overwhelming evidence that Switzerland collaborated with the Nazi regime — even to the point of urging Germany to mark Jewish passports with a "J" to make it easier to prevent Jews from entering the country.

"What is alarming in the report is the extremely high level of anti-Semitism among the Swiss authorities," said Saul Friedlander, an Israeli historian who served on the Bergier Commission.

"Switzerland even adopted the Nazi terminology of Aryans and non-Aryans," he added.

In the wake of the report, the Swiss Cabinet apologized last Friday to the victims, saying, "Nothing can make good the consequences of decisions taken at the time, and we pay our respects before the pain of those who were denied access to our territory and were abandoned to unspeakable suffering, deportation and death."

The report garnered positive reactions in much of the Swiss media.

One Swiss newspaper gave front-page treatment to the report under the large headline "NEVER AGAIN."

Rolf Bloch, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, praised the report during an interview on Swiss Television.

But at the same time, he said he fears that Swiss Jews will suffer an anti-Semitic backlash because of the report.

Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress, praised the report as a landmark and called it an example for other European nations to follow.