e-Dossier: Switzerland, the refugees and the Shoah

A sketch from a German deserter's drawings of the mass executions of Jewish civilians on the Eastern Front (dodis.ch/11994)

There are many ways in which Switzerland was confronted with the Nazi extermination of European Jews. From Hitler's rise to power in 1933 to the end of the War in 1945, numerous persecuted Jews attempted to seek refuge in Switzerland, temporarily at least. With regards to issues surrounding refugees, it became clear that Switzerland could not steer clear from the violent developments taking place on the continent: Again and again, officials were faced with complicated decisions.

The Évian Conference (1938)

For the authorities, the issue of Jewish emigrants from the German Reich was already a matter of concern before the War. From 1933 onwards, and particularly after the Austrian Anschluss of March 1938, the number of refugees increased drastically. In July 1938, an international conference on refugees, which had been initiated by U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, took place in Évian, on the shores of Lake Geneva. The Head of the Police section of the Federal Department of Justice and Police (FDJP), Heinrich Rothmund, took part in this conference as the Swiss representative. The Swiss authorities' approach to the Évian Conference and its outcomes can be observed through various documents (dodis.ch/46507, dodis.ch/46522, dodis.ch/46606 and dodis.ch/46613).

The introduction of the «J» stamp

In September 1938, a treaty was signed between Germany and Switzerland, the aim of which was to regulate the entry of Jewish emigrants from the German Reich. It stipulated that «passports held by Jews belonging to the Reich [...] should bear a distinguishing feature characterising its owner as Jew» (dodis.ch/15384, original in German). This mark was later to be known as the «J» stamp.

What was «one» aware of and since when?

With Germany attacking the Soviet Republic in June, and the U.S. entering the War in December 1941, not only the acts of war, but also their repercussions on European Jews entered an entirely new phase. A key factor in assessing how much room for manoeuvre officials actually had lies in the following question: when did the authorities know about the Nazis' specific extermination policy? The documents issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – the Federal Political Department (FPD) – reveal that political leaders in Bern became aware of the atrocities perpetrated on the Eastern Front at a relatively early stage.

Diplomats reporting on the extermination policy at the end of 1941

Already in the months of November and December 1941, the Swiss Consul in Cologne, Franz-Rudolph von Weiss, sent reports to the FPD regarding the deportation of German Jews towards Eastern Europe (dodis.ch/47311, dodis.ch/11981 and dodis.ch/47318). Both Paul Rüegger, diplomatic envoy in Rome, and René de Weck, envoy in Bucharest, gave word of «systematic persecutions» and of the attempted «biological extermination of a large part of the populations in occupied territories» of the East (dodis.ch/47313 and dodis.ch/47314, originals in French).

Increasing evidence: Spring 1942

In the Spring of 1942, reports of German deserters also reached the authorities. They contained detailed information regarding the mass executions of Jews taking place in occupied territories of the Soviet Union (dodis.ch/11994 and dodis.ch/11995). In May, Consul von Weiss provided the Intelligence Service with «photos taken on the Russian Front» showing «the execution of Poles» and «Jewish corpses being unloaded from German wagons» (dodis.ch/32107 and dodis.ch/32108, originals in French). An article written by the research group of the DDS and published in the Schweizerischen Zeitschrift für Geschichte (Swiss History Journal) reconstructs the history of these photos.

«The boat is full»

In late Summer of 1942, the Swiss asylum policy took a drastic turn. By presidential decree, the Federal Council decided that «a larger amount of refugees from abroad should henceforth be turned away, regardless of whether these measures would subject them to increased risks of being injured (threats to the body or life) (dodis.ch/47408, original in German). Federal Councillor Edward von Steiger, Head of the FDJP, answered for the toughening of the refugee policy (dodis.ch/47431) before the Parliament. In a talk, he compared the country to a «very full little lifeboat with limited capacity» (dodis.ch/14256, original in German), a methaphor that was later to be known as «the boat is full».

The refugee policy hardens

A number of documents from the FDJP, reports (dodis.ch/11987 and dodis.ch/11991) and instructions (dodis.ch/11988) as well as the minutes of a conference of the cantonal immigration police authorities (dodis.ch/14255) explain the motives for the toughening of the asylum policy and how the measures were carried out.

A letter written by schoolgirls from Rorschach

In September 1942, a girls' class from Rorschach wrote a letter to the Federal Council, the aim of which was to protest against the refugee policy (dodis.ch/12054). The fact that this evolved into a big affair involving both von Steiger and Marcel Pilet-Golaz, Head of the FPD, brings to light the high tension that existed between asylum policy and public opinion (dodis.ch/12055, dodis.ch/47424 and dodis.ch/35365).

Jews in France

In 1942 also, Switzerland's diplomatic representatives protested against a series of measures undertaken by Vichy France. These measures were aimed at Jewish children having been placed in homes belonging to the Swiss Red Cross in France (dodis.ch/47420). The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs was also concerned by the fate of Swiss Jews in the occupied territories of northern France (dodis.ch/47454 and dodis.ch/47454).

From September 1943 onwards, Bern was aware of the existence of death camps

Other documents are also revealing of the authorities' amount of knowledge. Such is for instance the case of documents relating to the attempts made by Polish diplomats in Bern to smuggle Jewish refugees from the General Government to Latin America, in the Autumn of 1943 (dodis.ch/47624 and dodis.ch/11959). It becomes clear from a memo, that Rothmund, for instance, was informed of the existence of «death camps» (dodis.ch/11958, original in German).

The horrifying extermination of the Hungarian Jewry

In 1944, following the German occupation of Hungary, local Jews too felt the full impact of the Holocaust. The Church, the press, but also the wider Swiss public were horrified by «the extermination of the Jewish population of Hungary which [was] currently in process» (dodis.ch/11977, orginal in German, dodis.ch/11978, dodis.ch/47775 and dodis.ch/47828). Based on the reports of Jewish refugees, the authorities were already at this point in possession of detailed information on the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau (dodis.ch/11979).

Vice-Consul Carl Lutz's rescue operation

A series of documents provides insight into the activities of Carl Lutz (dodis.ch/47896, dodis.ch/14325, dodis.ch/14326 and dodis.ch/14327). Vice-Consul Lutz was the Director of the protecting-power department of the Swiss Legation in Budapest, which represented Great Britain's interests as well as those of the U.S. and twelve other belligerent states. In the Winter of 1944, going far beyond his mandate, Lutz provided passports and travel insurances enabling Hungarian Jews to emigrate to Palestine. In doing this, he saved tens of thousands of them from deportation to extermination camps.

Aid offered to concentration camps survivors

In the Spring of 1945, after the end of the war, a number of former concentration camp inmates, prisoners of war, deportees as well as forced labourers were hospitalised in Switzerland for their remission. Many of them considered Switzerland as a transit country on their way to Palestine or oversees (dodis.ch/48020, dodis.ch/48020, dodis.ch/48038, dodis.ch/1705 and dodis.ch/320). Regarding the temporary hospitalisation of the «Buchenwald children», the authorities were also torn between their «moral ideals» and the fear that it would be difficult to «get rid» of former concentration camp prisoners (dodis.ch/13, original in French, dodis.ch/1714, dodis.ch/2182 and dodis.ch/2183).