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Swiss Catholics failed to help Jewish refugees, study finds

Historian Jean-François Bergier says the study is a timely contribution Keystone Archive

The Catholic Church in Switzerland failed to defend Jews, who tried to flee from the Nazis, according to a new study.

This content was published on October 30, 2001 - 11:17

In "Swiss Catholicism from 1933 to 1945", presented in Zurich, the Catholic Church and its hierarchy in particular come under fire for failing to criticise official refugee policy before and during the Second World War.

The study says the Church avoided confronting the government for turning Jews away at the Swiss border, even though most faced certain death on their return to Nazi Germany.

"They remained silent as refugees were being sent back to probable death in Germany," said Jonas Arnold, one of the study's 15 contributing historians.

The Swiss government in 1938 adopted the Nazi policy of stamping Jewish refugees passports with a "J" when they entered Switzerland, and from 1942 onwards turned most Jews back from the border.

Victor Conzemius, the study's main author, says the Catholics, unlike the Protestants, had no strong personalities who were prepared to stand up to the government. "They were afraid and they wanted to be considered good Swiss," said Conzemius.

History professor Jean-François Bergier, who has been leading an international inquiry into Switzerland's wartime role, says the study comes at the right time.

"This research breaks a taboo," said Bergier on Monday. "For the time, the relationship between Catholics and Protestants has been documented."

The study shows there was a rift between Catholics and Protestants before and during the war. Bergier says this is surprising given that both religions share the same basic values.

Catholic charities are also criticised for failing to help members of the Jewish community. The Catholic refugee aid organisation only offered its services to "Aryan" Catholics and converted Jews.

Caritas, another major charity, used the racial categories developed by the Nazis for its records. Refugees were registered as "Aryan", "half Aryan" and "non Aryan".

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