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Proposal for an official Swiss Holocaust memorial gets a boost

One of the many unofficial Swiss memorial sites is in the Ecole des Cropettes in Geneva inaugurated in 2017. The school served as a sorting camp for refugees smuggled into Switzerland during the Second World War. Among the hundreds of Jews who passed through the school, some were turned back. © Keystone / Martial Trezzini

Some 450 Swiss lost their lives during the Holocaust, while 1,000 were interned in concentration camps. The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) has been campaigning for years for a memorial and now the issue has reached parliament. 

The motion, proposed this week by Social Democrat senator Daniel Jositsch and People’s Party parliamentarian Alfred Heer, demands that the government “create an official Swiss memorial site for the victims of National Socialism”. 

Justifying the motion, they write that “future generations should know what happened, so that they can develop an awareness about how fragile democracy and the rule of law are, and about where racism and discrimination can lead”. The motion is signed by more than a third of all parliamentarians, including all parliamentary party leaders and party presidents. 

Expat proposal 

The wide backing among politicians will give a significant boost to an issue that was initially raised at the conference of the Swiss Abroad in Visp in 2018, when the OSA decided to include the demand for a Swiss Holocaust memorial in its agenda. 

OSA President Remo Gysin said this week he was “extremely pleased by the initiative proposed by the [two] parliamentarians”. Gysin, who was the first to propose such a memorial, managed to drum up broad support for the idea over the past three years, and also set up a steering committee to drive it. Now, “the range of signatories of the motion shows just how wide a spectrum of support is behind a Swiss memorial site for Nazi victims”, Gysin said. 

The steering committee’s idea of a “Swiss monument for the victims of National Socialism” will, according to the text of the motion, be put to the government over the next weeks in the form of a concept. This presents the monument as “one of the official Swiss memorial sites in the public space, where educational informational material would also be available”. 

Remo Gysin, president of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), was one of the first to call for an official memorial. Keystone

Official memorial 

Swiss public radio, SRF, reports that Switzerland already has some 54 Holocaust memorials, including a site in Riehen in the northwest and a monument in the Jewish cemetery in the capital Bern. Others are simply found on roadsides, for example at the historic town of Büren an der Aare, where a reference is made to a former internment camp. But “only very few landmarks are accessible to the wider public”, as the Jewish weekly newspaper Tachles recently wrote. 

Switzerland, in contrast to many other countries, thus lacks an official, state-sponsored memorial site. It needs to “catch up with other countries, where memorial sites, museums or educational institutions have been established for years”, writes Tachles. 

Remembrance of concentration camp victims who once lived in Zurich. The so-called “Stolpersteine” (stumbling stones) are the most recent of the unofficial Swiss memorials. Keystone / Ennio Leanza

Homage to all 

According to the concept, the proposed site would honour all victims of Nazism: the persecuted, disenfranchised, or murdered; Jews, Swiss, minorities, political opponents, as well as refugees who were turned back at the border. The site would also pay homage to those in Switzerland who offered help to victims of Nazi persecution – on this point, the motion goes beyond what the OSA initially proposed, which was limited to the Swiss victims of Nazism. 

As well as the scope, the level of support for the idea has also widened over time: over 100 public figures and groups from society, politics, and economy back the initiative – including the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, the Christian-Jewish Friendship Group, and the Swiss Archives of Contemporary History.

Protestant churches, Amnesty International, and various cultural figures, historians and politicians are also in support. 

It’s not the first time the idea of the memorial has been raised in parliament. In 2018, when the government was asked about the OSA’s idea, it answered that the “relevant sections of the federal administration were open to the idea”. However, the idea later petered out during parliamentary discussions. 

The current proposal is more ambitious in that it is binding, obliging government action. As a first step, the government will therefore work with the cantons to identify a suitable location; OSA president Gysin says that Bern, as the official seat of the federal government, would be a possible option. 

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR