- In the past two centuries, Switzerland has provided asylum to political refugees. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Swiss welcomed thousands of refugees, including Jews, seeking to escape the Nazis. Some Jews also placed money in Swiss banks in fear that the German government would confiscate their assets. Jews felt secure in placing their money in Swiss banks because of the 1934 Swiss banking secrecy laws that sought to protect their clients’ deposits from Nazi scrutiny. After the Anschluss in March 1938, Switzerland changed its policy of providing political sanctuary when it closed its borders to some 30,000 Jewish refugees streaming toward them. The Swiss had already provided a haven for approximately 21,000 Jews when the new policy went into effect. In the fall of 1938, Heinrich Rothmund, Switzerland’s chief of police, persuaded the German government to require that Jews of German or Austrian extraction have their passports stamped with the letter “J” (for Jude or Jew). The Swiss were now able to employ a means of identification to keep Jews out of Switzerland.With the outbreak of war in September 1939, Switzerland maintained its policy of neutrality but was intimidated by the presence of foreign troops along the borders with Germany and Austria. Furthermore, the Swiss depended on Germany for the importation of gold, iron, coal, and other products that were produced by slave labor. In turn, the Swiss banks laundered the gold ingots they received from Germany and exchanged them for hard currency, which enabled Germany to continue the war. But the Swiss never questioned the source of the gold. The Germans, in fact, had confiscated gold from the countries under their occupation, as well as extracting gold fillings from the teeth of the victims of the death camps. Under these circumstances, Swiss “neutrality” was a benevolent one toward Germany, especially when it came to the Jews. The Swiss government, in curtailing the number of Jewish refugees allowed entry into Switzerland, defended its action with the argument that “a life raft can only absorb so many people.” In short, the Swiss boat was full. In August 1938, the Swiss government officially closed its borders to Jewish refugees. There were, however, Swiss officials, such as Paul Gruninger (1891–1972), the chief of police of the Swiss canton of St. Gallen, who disobeyed the order closing the borders. He lost his position as a result of providing a haven in Switzerland for 2,000 Jewish refugees who crossed into Switzerland from Germany and Austria in 1938–1939.During the war, tens of thousands of refugees entered Switzerland, and among them were Jews, some of whom came in special transports, such as the 1,684 Hungarian Jews who arrived from BergenBelsen in 1945. About 1,200 Jews arrived from Theresienstadt as a result of negotiations between Heinrich Himmler and representatives of the American War Refugee Board that took place toward the end of the war.Recent disclosures, however, shed new light on the relationship between Switzerland and Germany during the war years. Documents uncovered in the mid-1990s unearthed evidence that gold looted by the Nazis was discreetly sold on the world markets by the Swiss National Bank, with the proceeds used to help the Germans finance their faltering war effort.Additionally, the Swiss also traded freely with the Germans in stolen artworks and jewelry. The United States government concluded that not only did the Swiss help the Nazis prolong the war by at leasttwo years, but they also shielded millions of dollars worth of German assets in the immediate postwar period.The same documents also raised the question as to the fate of the bank accounts, insurance policies, and other wealth deposited in Switzerland by Jews who subsequently perished in the Holocaust. The record shows that the Swiss commercial banks did little to help survivors of the Holocaust gain access to assets deposited by relatives who died at the hands of the Germans. Rather, they used the dormant accounts of Holocaust victims to compensate Swiss businesses for expropriated assets in the former communist East European countries.
Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. Jack R. Fischel. 2014.