New research has reignited debate on Swiss policy towards Jews fleeing the Nazis. A historian claims around 3,000 Jewish would-be refugees were turned away at the Swiss border with France between 1940-1945, compared to a previous overall estimate of 24,500 people.
According to historian Ruth Fivaz-Silbermann, who presented her 1,000-page postgraduate research project, ‘The flight to Switzerland’, at Geneva University last Saturday, 15,519 Jewish people tried to enter Switzerland via the Franco-Swiss border between 1939 and 1945. In all, 12,675 were allowed to enter, but 2,844 were turned away at the frontier in western Switzerland.
“My research gives a much clearer picture of how many people fled and their stories: where did they come from, why did they flee and how? Could everyone leave? What were the dangers?” Fivaz-Silbermann told swissinfo.ch on Monday.
Switzerland also has borders with Germany (north), Austria and Liechtenstein (east) and Italy (south). But the historian estimates that two-thirds of all Jewish refugees entering Switzerland during the war crossed into Switzerland from France.
Her detailed work, which involved combing tens of thousands of individual files held by the Swiss authorities, also revealed that 248 Jews who were deported from Switzerland later died in Nazi camps. However, she believes this figure could be higher.
Her more precise estimates into the number of Jewish people who fled to Switzerland and were turned away during the war also contrasts with the official overall number of 24,500 forcibly returned – cited by the Bergier Commission, which from 1997-2002 investigated Switzerland’s role during the Second World Warexternal link.
“We also know that 27% came via Italy. A study by the Ticino archives, which has not yet been published, estimates that 6,000 Jewish people entered and around 300 were turned back. For the German and Austrian borders there have been no studies but it is believed the numbers were very small,” she explains.
“Jewish people from Germany tried to immigrate to Switzerland between 1933 and 1939 but the Holocaust was horrific. People were either being deported or they emigrated or hid from the authorities. It was extremely difficult to travel from Berlin to Switzerland, for example. Very few people came from Germany compared with France and Italy. This is not a hypothesis, it's a fact.“
The number of 24,500 was based on research completed in 1996 by Guido Koller, a historian at the Federal Archives in Bern. This figure includes people of other confessions and would-be refugees who were turned away at the Swiss borders several times.
Koller and Georg Kreis, a member of the Bergier Commission, refused to comment on the report for Swiss public television, RTS, stating they had not yet read it. But both reportedly welcomed the fact that new research was providing a more precise view on Swiss wartime policies and their consequences.
Two other historians have also taken a similar look at Swiss policy towards Jewish refugees during this period. In 2013, renowned French Nazi hunter and historian Serge Klarsfeld also claimed that far fewer Jewish refugees were turned away at Swiss borders than previously thought. Klarsfeld also put the number at 3,000.
In 2010, writer Henry Spira published a study into Jewish refugees in the northwestern Jurexternal linka region that borders with France. He also found that statistics were often over-exaggerated.
In her conclusion, Fivaz-Silbermann also gave a nuanced view on the actions of the Swiss authorities, especially cantonal police, and their application of the government’s decision to close all borders hermetically on August 13, 1942.
“Switzerland showed a certain openness. It was not totally closed. It let many endangered people enter while keeping the border officially closed,” said the researcher.
“There was official policy – that of dissuading people to enter - but this strategy involved a great deal of easing… in September 1942, thousands of Jews fled Vichy France to Switzerland, to Geneva and Valais and by boat across Lake Geneva and the Swiss authorities gave instructions not to turn people away. These were not official but via telephone with the police directors of specific cantons. But it wasn't always positive at the customs as the Swiss army still decided who should be turned away.”
It took Fivaz-Silbermann 19 years to complete her research, combing tens of thousands of individual files held by the Swiss customs, police and migration authorities in various cantons as well as in Bern.
“It was a real painstaking job; detailed archive research which was not easy,” she commented. “For each family or individual I recreated a biographical file. Such as, ‘I was born in Warsaw and emigrated to Germany and then left for Belgium when Hitler arrived. Then I was deported to France and held in such and such a camp, later I fled and paid a smuggler so much to get to Switzerland’. She said she saw thousands of stories like that.
Fivaz-Silbermann's PhD research should be soon published on the Geneva University website. She plans to produce a shorter version and to write a book. She also hopes to be able to continue to answer the hundreds of requests for information that she has received from family members who are seeking information about their Jewish relatives who fled to Switzerland.