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Commentary

There Was Nothing Sinister in Swiss Refugee Camps

World War II: Switzerland deserves credit, not a bashing, for taking in Jews and Gentiles without discrimination.

January 19, 1998|THOMAS G. BORER | Thomas G. Borer is Swiss ambassador-at-large and head of a government task force investigating Switzerland 's role during and after World War II

BERN, Switzerland — Fifty-three years have passed since the end of World War II--surely time enough for Jewish wartime refugees to speak out against living conditions in the camps they shared then with Gentile refugees. Some complaints about the spartan compounds did indeed arise, but Swiss soldiers, too, grumbled about their lot in similar "no frills" camps.

A soul-searching nationwide reappraisal of Switzerland's wartime role is still underway, but it deals with ethical issues over official and private-sector conduct, actual moral misconduct and policies atoning for it.

Thus it came as a shock to read of American historian Alan M. Schom's report, just published by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, labeling Switzerland a "slave-labor camp" for Jewish refugees during the war.

Speaking for my fellow Swiss--both Jews and Gentiles--I find the allegations insulting and dishonest. Schom's charges are outrageous. They can only be treated with utter contempt.

One Jewish refugee from Poland, Leopold G. Koss, entered Switzerland in 1942 and wrote last year in the Jerusalem Post of his several months in a labor camp near Zurich. The refugee, now a renowned professor and chairman emeritus at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, described the camp to Israeli readers:

"It was hardly luxury--but it was safe," he said. "My only wish was that my parents and my only sister, who had stayed in Poland, could have been there with me. They all perished."

In September 1943, Koss could resume medical studies at the University of Bern, spending 3 1/2 years there without being asked to pay tuition. His experience, he wrote, was "one far remote from the dreadful image of greed and collusion with the Nazis now being painted."

Such realities--basic field-research work for any serious historian--would find no place in the fictitious "slave-labor camp" described by Schom.

What concerns me most about Schom's allegations is the confusion they sow in readers' minds: Likening Swiss refugee work camps to Nazi concentration camps not only casts a terrible slur on Swiss humanitarianism; in effect it trivializes Nazi atrocities, reducing German "war crimes" to a tolerable gray area.

Any fair-minded judge of Switzerland's wartime role as a refugee haven should keep these facts in mind:

During World War II, Switzerland accepted 300,000 refugees (not 128,000 as claimed by Schom), 28,000 Jews among them. Entry was refused to 30,000 Jews and Gentiles, not 100,000 as asserted by Schom who cites no verifiable evidence.

These figures aside, denying entry to those fleeing the Holocaust is clearly a black mark on Swiss history. Since 1995, my government has repeatedly offered its apologies for this. It should be noted that Switzerland still managed to offer wartime refuge to far more fleeing Jews per capita than the United States.

The refugees accepted were treated according to their legal status (military or civilian, then as men, women and children, finally those able-bodied or in need of medical care). But they were never divided by race or religious faith.

Most of the 28,000 Jews accepted were never placed in working camps. Only those who could not be placed in families among the 4 million population were assigned to camps. No more than 4,000 refugees at any given time were sheltered in all refugee camps in Switzerland.

The myth that only Jews had to cover their refugee costs needs correction: All civilian refugees were treated equally. The concept of a "special Jew tax" being assessed is totally absurd.

Surely the refugee camps were no vacation paradises. Unfortunately, in some camps harsh treatment was imposed. However, times were tough. All Swiss faced hardships including mandatory farm labor during the war. And refugee workers earned wages and were served meals similar to those given Swiss soldiers. They also had leisure time and could regularly leave the camps on evenings and weekends.

There are numerous former refugees who are more than willing to attest to these facts. Such accounts effectively rebut the Schom image of "slave labor camps."

Switzerland deserves fair treatment for its efforts to reappraise its World War II role--not the counterproductive form of Swiss-bashing engaged in by the Schom report.

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