Confronting Swiss refugee policy, past and present, in school

The new school booklets aim to link the experiences of modern refugees, such as these Bosnians, with their World War Two counterparts Keystone

Two new booklets aimed at helping Swiss school students study and understand the country's refugee policy during World War Two have been published. They will also help the students look at current asylum policies.

This content was published on June 27, 2000 minutes

The controversy over Switzerland's wartime refugee policy, with the country standing accused of turning back Jews fleeing the Nazis, has shown a certain ignorance or unwillingness on the part of the Swiss when it comes to dealing with the past. Many schoolteachers feel increasingly puzzled or even helpless when faced with questions from students about both wartime policy and contemporary asylum issues.

The booklets aim to complement existing history materials on the school curriculum. They are both quite different in their approach but have a common goal.

Barbara Kürz, from the SJW publishing house, which specialises in literature for children and young people, said the aim of their booklet was to help "young people identify themselves with people from another period of history."

The method chosen for the 60-page booklet is simple and effective. "At least save my Child" is a compilation of profiles and memories of witnesses who lived through World War Two, whether refugees, the people who tried to help them, or those who acted as loyal citizens and soldiers carrying out the government's policy which was morally not beyond reproach.

The second publication, produced by the education authorities in canton Berne, is part of a series for schools looking at issues as far apart as doping in sport, mobile phones, and the Balkan crises. It mixes articles on wartime refugees with analysis of contemporary asylum issues, and includes autobiographical portraits of refugees from Kosovo, Bosnia, and Sudan.

Bruno Meier, a historian and one of the authors of the booklet, said the intention was to "produce something like a journal for schools on the subject of refugee policy." He said it set out to link Switzerland's wartime refugee policy with current asylum issues.

Meier said his work was not unlike that of a journalist. He had to simplify without distorting facts, to focus on a few aspects. He also stresses that the book might not be valid for teaching for a very long time.

He uses a specific example to link wartime and contemporary asylum issues: the story of Charles Sonabend and his family, who were refused entry into Switzerland and as a result were left at the mercy of the Nazis. On the following page, the book sums up current Swiss asylum policy.

It portrays Abdelbagi Shahto, a Sudanese man who fled his country a few years ago and had to go through a lengthy asylum procedure. Now he has been granted temporary refugee status.

Comparisons like that might raise a few eyebrows. But Rolf Bloch, vice president of the European Jewish Congress, says it's vital that to keep the past alive: "We learn about it in history lessons, but the point is that it's taught as history, and we need to be able to see the relationship with today."

"If we show children what happened in the past, and what influence it may have on the present, then they will start to think about it, and find a new way of facing up to current problems," said Bloch.

by Urs Geiser

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