A panel of independent historians has concluded that wartime Swiss officials refused entry to thousands of Jewish refugees even after it was known that they faced almost certain death in Nazi Germany.
By the summer of 1942 at the latest, the historians said in their detailed 350-page report, the Swiss authorities were aware that Jews were being annihilated by the Third Reich.
The historians also said there was no evidence that accepting many more asylum seekers would have put neutral Switzerland in danger of "invasion by the Axis or caused insurmountable economic difficulties." They thus rejected an argument advanced in Switzerland's defence after earlier disclosures of the country's treatment of Jews trying to escape the Holocaust.
Rather, the report cited anti-Semitism and an entrenched fear of foreigners in Switzerland as the reasons the authorities turned away more than 24,000 Jews.
Swiss officials "became involved in the crimes of the Nazi regime by abandoning the refugees to their persecutors," Jean-Francois Bergier, the Swiss historian who headed the panel, said at a news conference today.
The study is part of a larger historical inquiry, commissioned by the Swiss government, that produced another report last year on Switzerland's gold transactions with Hitler's Germany. Earlier this week, a separate report by Swiss banks and American Jewish groups found that 54,000 Swiss bank accounts might be linked to Holocaust victims.
The latest report was prepared during the last two years by nine historians from Switzerland, Israel, the United States, Britain and Poland who had unprecedented access to the Swiss national archives as part of Switzerland's effort to come to terms with its wartime history. Jewish groups praised the new report, but there were complaints from the government and from some private grounps that the sharply critical study failed to measure official actions against the troubled international situation at the time.
Although the report did not delve deeply into other countries' treatment of World War II refugees, the historians said at the news conference that Sweden, also neutral during World War II, had been significantly more helpful than Switzerland. Sweden, like Switzerland, had limited Jewish immigration between 1938 and 1942, but reversed its policy after officials learned of the mass killings of Jews.
Switzerland followed suit only in July 1944, when it declared that persecution for being Jewish was a valid ground for granting asylum. Switzerland's governing body, the Federal Council, issued a statement today saying the country's asylum policy "was marred by errors, omissions and compromises" - renewing its 1995 apology for wartime refugee policy. "Nothing can make good the consequences of decisions taken at the time, and we pay our respects before the pain of those who were denied access to our territory and were abandoned to unspeakable suffering, deportation and death," the seven ministers said.
But the ministers said the report ignored "fears generated by the threat facing Switzerland, the uncertainty of maintaining, foreign trade to ensure the country''s survival."
Switzerland took in 51,000 civilian refugees during the war, including some 21,000 Jews, although many of those had slipped into the country illegally and were then allowed to stay.
There were some heroes among Swiss officials, particularly among consular employees who "were very liberal in granting entry visas," but the report details specific instances of serious "human suffering" to highlight the impact of Swiss refugee policy.
The study cited as particularly egregious the Swiss push for a requirement, enacted in 1938, that German passports for Jews be stamped with a "J." It also cited the closing of the border with Germany in 1942 to refugees persecuted solely because they were Jews.
"Without Swiss pressure, the passports would not have been stamped until later, perhaps not at all," the report concluded. "This would have made it less difficult for refugees to find a country willing to accept them."
The report was particularly critical of the 1942 decision to close Swiss borders to Jews even though senior officials were "aware of the fact the refugees sent back were being threatened with deportation to Eastern Europe culminating in death."
Although there was some public protest, the Swiss authorities stepped up rejections of asylum seekers - even denying most the right to pass through the country to other destinations - declining to "help people in mortal danger," the report said.
Scribe: The action of the Swiss Government in denying entry to Jewish refugees was to satisfy the greed of Swiss bankers who saw in the German persecution of Jews an opportunity to grab their assets which they had trustfully salted away in Switzerland.
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