«Preserving humanity in difficult times»

On the Swiss television DOK programme “Die Buchenwaldkinder – The Buchenwald Children” treating the historical drama “Peace”

by Diana and Winfried Pogorzelski

The DOK programme “Die Buchenwaldkinder” (The Buchenwald Children) by Hansjörg Zumstein1 on Swiss television SRF paints a distorted picture of Switzerland and its refugee policy during and after the Second World War. This does not correspond to reality, but gives the impression that the humanitarian commitment of the Swiss Confederation was insufficient and mainly based on political calculations, rather than on humanitarian grounds. The assertion of this documentary on the prestigious six-part SRF historical drama “Peace”2 is based primarily on the report of the so-called “Unabhängige Expertenkommission Schweiz Zweiter Weltkrieg” (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland Second World War). Under the leadership of the social and economic historian Jean-François Bergier, which levelled massive criticism at Switzerland’s conduct or policy during the Second World War. The humanitarian efforts made by Switzerland under the most difficult conditions are largely ignored. Moreover, research findings from the period after the Bergier Report3 are ignored, so that a one-sided and false picture of Swiss refugee policy emerges.

Accusations against Switzerland

The various accusations voiced against Switzerland in the documentary can be summarised as follows: Petra Volpe, scriptwriter, director and supporting figure of the entire film project, not only spent nine years researching the material – which is of particular concern to her – but also wrote the script. She speaks of a deep anti-Semitism as being considered normal and, to a certain extent, going with the territory – at least in part of the Swiss population. With her film project, she pursues the goal of shaking up the traditional – in her eyes probably too positive – image of Swiss politics that still exists in her view: Her aim is that “we should not close our mind to ugly facts”, as we did then as we do now, and not only in relation to Switzerland.
  The historian Madeleine Lerf criticises Switzerland’s humanitarian commitment as being motivated primarily by political considerations: according to her, Switzerland wanted to avoid being done down by UNRRA – the relief agency of the victorious powers – if the latter were to be the only agency to provide aid to children and young people from concentration camps. 
  The historian Tiphaine Robert, a member of the Swiss Historical Society, speaks of an “extremely restrictive” Swiss refugee policy, especially towards Jews. Not only did the Federal Council accept the “J-stamp” in the passports of refugees, but it introduced the slogan “The boat is full” as an excuse to order civilian refugees to be turned back at the border, i. e. those fugitives who were not seeking protection for political reasons but because they were being persecuted for racist reasons. Yet it was known that they would surely be killed on their return.
  A former member of the Bergier Commission, the French historian Marc Perrenoud, also had his say. On the one hand, he claimed, Switzerland had shown the humanitarian gesture of accepting refugees from the concentration camps, but on the other hand, this gesture had been impaired by political considerations. For example, the willingness to take in refugees declined just when the systematic extermination of the Jews began in 1942. The small group of the rescued stood in sharp contrast to the multitudes of those murdered. Perrenoud conceded that all the democratic states were of the same opinion, namely that there was no place for them, especially since the Evian Conference in 1938. The Federal Council delegate for refugee aid had suggested taking in refugees to improve Switzerland’s “international image”; but in addition, it would have to be arranged that they were “got rid of” again, so here too, we see the accusation of political calculation.

Extreme conditions, responsible tasks

The director of the Swiss Red Cross, Markus Mader, is the only expert in the documentary to point out the dilemma in which the country found itself all along. The refugees could not be treated better than the country’s own population, which had too little to eat. He is alluding to a scene in the feature film in which the Buchenwald children on the Zugerberg ask for more food and for toothpaste. The Swiss population of the war years – especially in central Switzerland – was also very poor, suffered from hunger, had neither enough clothes nor soap, says Markus Mader. So, in each case one had to see what was feasible in the specific situation.
  The situation and the task were extraordinary: it was about nothing less than taking in and looking after Jewish youths who had survived the ordeal of the concentration camps – a Herculean task. It was a matter of course that not everything went smoothly, as Charlotte Weber, the person mainly responsible for the young people on the Zugerberg, explains: For example, for financial reasons the Red Cross had not planned to educate the arrivals. By means of letters of request, the counsellors organised school materials themselves and found apprenticeships for their charges at the end of their stay. According to Charlotte Weber, it was a great challenge of an unprecedented kind to look after traumatised young people who had escaped death and to return them to normal life after the horror they had undergone.

Concealed facts paint a different picture

Basically, it should be noted that the majority of the Swiss population felt a deep loathing for the Nazi regime and its majority was not anti-Semitic, either.4 This is also proven by the fact that General Guisan, who prepared the military and the population for resistance in the event of an occupation, enjoyed great sympathy, even veneration, among the population. Already after 1933 and before the beginning of the war, tens of thousands of refugees arrived in Switzerland, the exact number of which is not known, since visas were not yet compulsory.5 Many Swiss also opposed entry restrictions for refugees. Accordingly, until 1938, the Swiss never thought of “refusing entry to any person from the neighbouring country; restrictions were only imposed on the right to take up permanent residence in Switzerland. [...] We know that in 1933 about 10,000 German Jews were registered […] It is estimated that from 1935 to 1939 there were always about 12,000 Jewish refugees in the country. It seems that between a tenth and a sixth of the Jews fleeing Germany used Switzerland as a transit country.”6 From 1938 onwards, the flow of Jewish refugees swelled and the Swiss authorities were convinced that, in their small country, they would not be able to cope with this influx of refugees.7 At the Evian conference on refugees – Great Britain, France and the USA were among the participants –, Switzerland therefore offered to serve as a point of departure for the exodus. However, the countries represented at the conference – with the exception of the Dominican Republic – did not declare their willingness to accept any more Jewish refugees.
  The question of the so-called “J-stamp”, which was affixed to the passports of German Jewish immigrants, is always a topic of discussion – so also in the TV documentary. It should be pointed out once again that the initiative for this came from Germany and not from Switzerland8 and, moreover, that the realisation of this procedure would have been superfluous “if the participants in the Evian Conference had really made an effort to properly work out programmes to organise the flow of refugees to neighbouring states such as Switzerland […]”.9
  When the German government began deporting Jews living in France in 1942, the Swiss authorities attempted to close their western border, but earned heavy criticism, including that by the historian Edgar Bonjour, the theologian Karl Barth and many other personalities, as well as from church-based, liberal and socialist circles.10 As a result, the Federal Council was prepared to be more flexible in its decisions to expel refugees, i.e. to allow them to enter the country in emergencies. But since so many refugees continued to enter the country, the border authorities obviously did not take the Federal Council’s decision too seriously.
  The Bermuda Conference in 1943 – only the USA and Great Britain participated in the meeting in Hamilton (Bermuda) – was inconclusive with regard to the admission of Jewish refugees. Nor were the Allies prepared to bomb the railway lines to the concentration camps, which would have been easily possible and would have saved many lives.11
  Finally, one can refer to David Wymann’s statements that apart from Palestine, “Switzerland, measured by its surface area, was the state which, at the end of the war, had taken in the most Jews of all countries i.e., 21,304 Jewish refugees.”12 Proportionally to the total population, Switzerland took in five times more refugees than the USA.13 It should further be added that Switzerland also did an extraordinary job in helping children: during the war it housed more than 60,000 French children and after the war until 1949 it took in more than 80,000 children from several European countries.14
  The serious accusations against Switzerland are not tenable, although it should be noted that: “the Swiss government did not do everything it could have done to save the Jews; that is beyond question. But this in no way justifies the claim that the Swiss authorities, through their refugee policy, contributed to ‘the National Socialists being able to achieve their goals’. It would be more accurate to state that throughout the war, Switzerland took advantage of its neutrality and granted refuge and security in Switzerland to some 27,000 Jewish refugees and a further 20,000 Jews with Swiss nationality or right of settlement.”15 Historian Edgar Bonjour expresses a similar view: “Switzerland, though under much greater foreign policy pressure from the Axis as well as domestic pressure caused by food shortages and unemployment, spent more than many another state in the same situation – even if it could very well have done more …”.16 

Prejudices confirmed, opportunity missed

Conclusion: The authors and participants of the series and of the accompanying documentary would have done well to research more comprehensively and to present the actual facts and processes in a correspondingly more differentiated manner than to rely solely on the reports of the Bergier Commission, whose work already dates back eighteen years, all the more so because the TV production will continue to find numerous viewers in the future e.g., also when used for teaching purposes. It is regrettable that the opportunity was missed to supplement or correct the Bergier Commission’s largely one-sided view. Once again, justice has not been done to the responsible agents, including the active service generation during the 1930s and 1940s – the question is, what were the reasons? •

1 Available at: https://www.srf.ch/play/tv/dok/video/die-buchenwald-kinder---eine-schweizer-hilfsaktion?urn=urn:srf:video:2b4e3ccf-3ba1-4ad7-83da-261a39ea29fd;; cf. also “Die ‘Buchenwaldkinder’ auf dem Zugerberg, Wie die ‘Schweizer Spende’ traumatisierten Jugendlichen beistand” (The ‘Buchenwald Children’ on the Zugerberg, how the ‘Swiss Donation’ helped traumatised youths) by Winfried Pogorzelski, Current Concerns No. 22, 16 October 2020.
2 Daniel Fuchs. “Zu gross fürs Kino” (Too big for the cinema), in: Aargauer Zeitung, 7 November 2020, p. 4, cf. also Zachery Z.: TV series “Peace” – “Nur die Toten haben das Ende des Krieges gesehen” – Only the dead have seen the end of war), Schweizer Fernsehen SRF,
3 This is the 25-volume report of the so-called Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War, which, under the direction of the historian Jean-François Bergier, examined the situation and role of Switzerland during the Second World War from 1998 to 2001.
4 cf. Jürg Stüssi-Lauterburg, Hans Luginbühl. Freier Fels in brauner Brandung. Die Schweiz in den schwersten Jahren des Bundesstaates 1940 bis 1942 (Tower of freedom in a brown surf. Switzerland during the most difficult years of the federal state 1940 to 1942), Zollikofen und Baden 2009, p. 143.
5 cf. Ernst Leisi in accordance with Luzi Stamm. Der Kniefall der Schweiz (The Swiss genuflection”, Zofingen 1998, p. 110
6 Angelo M. Codevilla. Eidgenossenschaft in Bedrängnis. Die Schweiz im Zweiten Weltkrieg und moralischer Druck heute (Confederation in difficulties. Switzerland in the Second World War and moral pressure today). Schaffhausen 2001, p. 115 f
7 Herbert R. Reginbogin. Der Vergleich. Die Politik der Schweiz zur Zeit des Zweiten Weltkriegs im internationalen Umfeld (The settlement. Swiss politics at the time of the Second World War in an international context). Stäfa 2006, p. 114
8 cf. Jacques Picard, member of the Bergier Commission, in: Stamm, p. 96f
9 Walther Hofer, Herbert R. Reginbogin. Hitler, der Westen und die Schweiz (Hitler, the West and Switzerland), Zurich 2001, p. 464
10 Reginbogin, p. 114 f, Stüssi-Lauterburg, Luginbühl, p. 192
11 cf. Reginbogin, p. 119
12 cf. Reginbogin, p. 122, cf. Codevilla, p. 37
13 Codevilla, p. 37
14 Cornelio Sommaruga in the preface to: Serge Nessi. Die Kinderhilfe des schweizerischen Roten Kreuzes 1942–1945 und die Rolle des Arztes Hugo Oltramare (The Swiss Red Cross Children’s Aid 1942-1945 and the role of Doctor Hugo Oltramare), Vienna 2013, p. 9, cf. also Joseph Mächler. Wie sich die Schweiz rettete, Grundlagenbuch zur Geschichte der Schweiz (How Switzerland saved itself, fundamentals of the History of Switzerland), Zollikofen, 2017, p. 269.
15 Reginbogin, p. 123
16 Edgar Bonjour, Geschichte der schweizerischen Neutralität (History of the Swiss Neutrality), vol. VI, pp. 42, quoted in “Schweizerische Selbstbehauptung während des Zweiten Weltkriegs. Die militärischen, kriegswirtschaftlichen und humanitären Pfeiler schweizerischer Neutralitätspolitik in der Zeit schwerer Bedrohung” (Swiss self-assertion during the Second World War. The military, war-economic and humanitarian pillars of Swiss neutrality policy in a time of grave threat). Schweizerzeit series of publications No. 29, Flaach 1998, p. 225, cf. Stamm, pp. 108

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