PARIS — As the dark clouds of World War II gathered over Europe, Jews by the tens of thousands desperately hoped to find sanctuary in neutral Switzerland. Many were turned away at the frontier, or even handed to the Nazis by the Swiss.
But in other cases, even those permitted to cross the Alps to safety were not at the end of their ordeals. A study--to be formally released today in Los Angeles, and already disputed in Switzerland--asserts that the thousands of Jewish refugees who were confined by the Swiss in camps were kept under grim, sometimes cruel conditions behind barbed wire at gunpoint and forced to work for little or no pay.
Many families were separated by police--including, in some cases, nursing infants from their mothers--the historical study says. A "special Jew-tax," it says, was levied on the richest foreign Jews--but not on Christians or refugees of other faiths--to help underwrite their upkeep in Switzerland.
"The Swiss were really sadistic: They wanted to hurt the Jews--to deliberately hurt the Jews," Alan Morris Schom, the American historian who wrote the study, said in a telephone interview from his home in the Loire Valley of France.
After more than a year of research, including into archival records recently declassified by the British Foreign Office, Schom concluded that there is no doubt that the camps--which held an estimated 22,500 men, women and children by 1944--were meant specifically for Jewish refugees.
"At least 80% of the inmates were Jews," Schom said. "Some camps had up to 95% or 98% Jewish membership."
Men as old as 60 were made to haul logs in forests or dig ditches on roads in the Alps, including during the harsh Swiss winter, Schom said. Women were often assigned to institutions and private homes to mop floors and clean toilets.
Living conditions in unheated barns or wooden barracks were spartan at best. Male inmates might be insulted with anti-Semitic remarks or forced to carry out tasks beyond their physical strength, Schom said. Refugees who complained could be sent to "punishment camps" or expelled from Switzerland altogether.
"These were really slave labor camps," Schom maintained. "On the whole, people were absolute prisoners. If they tried to leave their jobs, they could be handed back to the Gestapo."
The study on Switzerland's "unwanted guests" was commissioned by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Foundation. Its conclusions, and similar charges aired in a Jan. 5 news report on Britain's Channel Four television, appear certain to intensify pressure on the Swiss for a full accounting of their country's wartime acts.
For more than a year and a half, international Jewish organizations and the Clinton administration have been pushing the Swiss to divulge the extent of their wartime dealings with the Nazis and the whereabouts of what may be billions of dollars in assets stashed in Swiss banks by Holocaust victims.
Last month, a commission of experts revealed that Switzerland helped the German Reichsbank realize 76% of its gold bullion sales, providing a valuable source of income for Hitler's war machine.
"Tragically, I think this is potentially a greater embarrassment for the Swiss than the issue of Nazi gold," Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Monday of the latest allegations of wholesale Swiss discrimination against wartime Jewish refugees. "The Swiss ran the Red Cross. They viewed themselves as humanitarians, were proud of their reputation as humanitarians. Yet in their own backyard, they treated the Jewish refugees as unwanted guests. They couldn't wait to get rid of them."
In a letter to Swiss President Flavio Cotti, Hier has proposed that Switzerland issue a public apology to the former camp inmates and provide compensation.
Linda Shepard, spokeswoman for the Swiss Federal Task Force in Bern, a government agency created to deal with allegations of Swiss misconduct during World War II, had not seen the Wiesenthal center report Monday. But when informed of its chief allegations, she flatly rejected them.
"We have to underline that the Jews were not treated differently from other refugees," she said. "All able-bodied Swiss also had to do mandatory labor to help secure the survival of Switzerland during the war years."
There were many Jews in the labor camps, she acknowledged, but she said that was because Jews were prevalent among those fleeing Nazi tyranny. The Swiss government, she added, "refutes absolutely" any likening of the camps, called "voluntary work camps," to Nazi concentration camps.
For decades, the official version of history in Switzerland depicted the country as a small but valiant nation that faced down the threat of Nazi invasion through its policy of "armed neutrality." Recent revelations from newly unsealed wartime records have sketched a very different picture: one of a nonbelligerent that efficiently and profitably served the Nazi cause by acting as Germany's banker and business middleman.