Neutral Switzerland sustained the war without damage. As long as borders remained closed, refugees could only choose illegality. When the deportations of Jews to extermination camps began, Switzerland represented the last chance for Jewish refugees, thousands of whom were turned away at the border. Swiss authorities knew that Jewish refugees faced potential death after 1942. Whoever managed to enter Switzerland illegally was not turned away but rather detained in a camp. More than 50,000 refugees found asylum in Switzerland during the war, including 20,000 Jews, although it was only in July 1944 that Switzerland recognized that Jews should be granted asylum because of the persecution. Since the state didn’t support refugees until 1941, private welfare organizations paid all expenses. The Swiss Union of Jewish Welfare Organizations supported a heavy financial burden for many years, as did the 19,000-strong Swiss Jews and their umbrella organization, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities. They received support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The majority of Holocaust survivors in Switzerland were not Swiss at the time of their persecution. They came rather from the German Reich or other European countries, and as Jews were immediately targeted by Nazi persecution. A number of them survived concentration and extermination camps; others were saved by escaping or going into hiding. Most came to Switzerland after World War II. The fact that Holocaust survivors live in Switzerland only entered public consciousness at the time of the debate about dormant assets and the historical findings of the “Bergier historical commission” at the end of the 1990s. Since then, the political world and civil society have helped historical research move forward and get updated, and Holocaust memory has been strengthened. Switzerland’s commitment to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), founded in 1998 in Sweden, is one example. Besides the United States, Israel, Argentina and Canada, 27 European countries are part of this international body. Its goal is to explain what the Holocaust is, preserve its memory and encourage research into its causes, since the Holocaust shook the founding principles of Western civilization.

Nazi crimes were committed more than 70 years ago. However, genocides, “ethnic cleansings”, racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia still exist today. To confront the Holocaust is to become aware of the grave dangers that threaten when nationalism, xenophobia and the discrimination against religious minorities questions the very principles of our democratic rule of law. In 2017 and 2018, Switzerland presides over the IHRA. Therefore the exhibition The Last Swiss Holocaust Survivors was conceived. It gives voice to the last Holocaust survivors and to their descendants.

Dr. Gregor Spuhler and Dr. des. Sabina Bossert
Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich