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Nazi hunter says Swiss rejected fewer Jews

The service of Swiss border guards in the Second World War is commemorated in this Ticino museum Keystone

Renowned French Nazi hunter and historian Serge Klarsfeld has claimed that far fewer Jewish refugees were turned away at Swiss borders than previously thought. Klarsfeld puts the number at 3,000, compared to a previous estimate of 24,500.

The higher figure included in the 1999 Bergier report into the refugee policy of  Switzerland during the Second World War was based on imprecise archive material which did not specify the rejection of Jews or the reasons for denying people entry, Klarsfeld told the Sonntag newspaper.

Klarsfeld has called on Switzerland to create a new commission to examine the question of the acceptance and rejection of Jewish refugees at the Swiss border during the war years.

“The number of 24,000 is totally wrong,” Klarsfeld told Swiss public radio on Sunday. “It’s unfair to let international opinion believe that 24,000 Jews were turned away from Switzerland and died because of that when the figure of people denied entry is closer to 3,000.”

Klarsfeld also pointed out that 30,000 Jews were admitted into the country at the same time.

“It should be known how many Jews managed to find refuge in Switzerland and how many were turned away – and what happened to them. This is about Switzerland’s image in the world, and that’s important for the country,” he said in the interview.

Klarsfeld already in 1999 claimed that the number of rejected Jewish refugees did not exceed 5,000.

Along with his wife Beate, he is famous for tracking down the infamous Gestapo commander Klaus Barbie in Bolivia in the 1970s. The 77-year-old now devotes himself to researching the destiny of French wartime Jews.   

Sensitive issue

The issue is still sensitive in Switzerland. President Ueli Maurer came in for harsh criticism last month on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day when he issued a communiqué in which he described the country as a refuge for a large number of persecuted people. 

Several days later, Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga emphasised Switzerland’s failings during the Second World War. “Human beings were turned away at our borders and sent towards certain death,” she told an asylum conference in Bern.

The Swiss government apologised for these actions in 1995, Sommaruga said, adding that “such mistakes are not excusable after the fact”.

But what are the facts? Along with other researchers before him, Klarsfeld calls into question the analysis of the Swiss archives carried out by the Bergier investigation, according to the Sonntag. Klarsfeld joined forces with fellow historian Ruth Fivaz-Silbermann to conduct more research in France, Italy and Germany.

“In fact most of the Jewish refugees tried to enter Switzerland through France. A maximum of 1,500 Jews were rejected at this border,” he explained.

In collaboration with the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Centre in Milan, Klarsfeld established that 300 Jews were turned away at the southern Swiss border of canton Ticino. He estimates a further 1,200 people were rejected in Germany and Austria.

Nazi gold

The independent commission of experts led by historian Jean-François Bergier was established by the Swiss government to undertake an investigation into various aspects of the country’s conduct during and after the war.

It found evidence of the Swiss central bank buying Nazi gold and Jewish refugees being turned away from the borders.
According to United States judge Edward Korman, the Bergier Commission identified “a conspiracy among the Swiss banks to stonewall heirs of survivors who were making claims to Swiss bank accounts and, specifically, those which had been improperly transferred to the Nazis.”

Last month, 15 years after the Nazi Gold controversy, Korman confirmed that around $1.3 billion (SFr1.2 billion) had been paid to Holocaust survivors and descendants.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR