Conflicting Stories

During World War II, did an anti-Semitic Swiss government split upJewish refugee families, require the men to perform backbreaking workin forced labor camps, and treat Jews markedly worse than Christianrefugees?

Or, on the contrary, were Jewish refugees generally treated withdecency and respect at a time when all Swiss had to work for thecommon good and share tight rations?

Talk to former refugees who escaped the Nazi dragnets and foundsafety in Switzerland, and their reports are often wildlycontradictory.

The latest furor about Switzerland’s questionable role in WorldWar II was triggered earlier this month by a British televisiondocumentary on Channel 4 that amounted to a powerful indictment ofSwitzerland’s treatment of Jewish refugees.

Historian Alan Morris Schom presents his report, “TheUnwanted Guests:

Swiss Forced Labor Camps, 1940-1944.” Photocourtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

The harsh picture took on even darker hues in a report byhistorian Alan Morris Schom, “The Unwanted Guests: Swiss Forced LaborCamps, 1940-1944,” commissioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center andreleased last week in Los Angeles as Wire services, newspapers and TVnetworks immediately picked up on the report and delivered it aroundthe world, often with provocative headlines and graphics. And it’snot over, with both Time and Newsweek coming out with major stories.

The new list of accusations hit Swiss officials like a blow to thesolar plexus. They were already reeling from earlier charges thatSwiss banks had filled their vaults by appropriating the accounts setup by Holocaust victims and by laundering Nazi gold — but at leastthese transgressions dealt mainly with bankers and money. The newreport went further by attacking the fundamental image of the Swissas a decent and humane people.

An official with the Swiss Embassy in Washington phoned The JewishJournal and reported, in a choked voice, on a CNN news segment thatopened with footage of Nazi concentration camps.

The implied comparison was obviously odious, and even the harshestcritics of Switzerland have rejected it. No Jews were killed in Swisscamps — though there were some cases of medical negligence — andnone were deliberately worked to death.

Now a number of Jewish veterans of Swiss camps have rallied to thedefense of Switzerland, hailing the country as the savior of some28,000 Jewish refugees (although roughly the same number were turnedback at the Swiss border).

Al A. Finci of Sherman Oaks, a native of Sarajevo, crossed theSwiss border as a teen-ager with his family in the spring of 1944. Atall times, he said, “we were treated courteously and with respect …and sent to a boarding school for me, a Swiss family for my 10-yearold sister, and a vacant hotel, used to accommodate refugees, for myparents.”

In an interview, Finci said, “I have no special love for theSwiss; they are a cold and often gruff people, but they saved mylife.”

Arthur P. Stern, a Holocaust survivor who spent much of the war inSwitzerland, described parts of the Schom report as “a lot ofgarbage.”

A self-described “professional Jew,” who holds leadershippositions in numerous Jewish organizations and retired as presidentof Magnavox Advanced Products, Stern said that it violates Jewishtradition when false accusations are leveled for the sake ofpublicity.

The Swiss government did a number of bad things, such assuspending the country’s traditional right of refuge to limit Jewishimmigration, but “compared to Portugal, Spain and Sweden, and eventhe United States, which only admitted 50,000 Jews when 600,000unused visas were available, Switzerland comes out very well,” Sternsaid.

Alex Koron, a native of Munich now living in Desert Hot Springs,was assigned to a camp at Birmensdorf in October 1942.

“We lived in military barracks and slept on straw mats. The foodwas sufficient and was rationed even for the Swiss. I worked in thekitchen, did repairs, removed tree stumps and blew up rocks to clearfields to grow food,” said Koron.

“I worked eight hours a day, there were no guards, no barbed wire.Almost every weekend, I went into town. I never encounteredanti-Semitism.”

Despite such testimony, the Wiesenthal Center, Dr. Schom, theauthor of “Unwanted Guests,” and Simon Reeve, the writer of theBritish documentary, stand fully by their reports and have witnessesto back their charges.

Reeve said in a call from London that he interviewed 25 veteransof the Swiss camps, of whom only one “had a positive experience.”

“I found that there was a broad policy of anti-Semitism inSwitzerland before and during the war, and there is no doubt thatJewish refugees were exploited, not just for Switzerland’s survivalbut to further the country’s economy,” Reeve said.

One of his witnesses was Manfred Alexander, who, after escaping aGerman concentration camp, made it to Switzerland.

Alexander told The New York Times: “[There], I was put in a prisonwith murderers. Then I was sent to camps where they put us intostriped uniforms and we worked from daybreak to sundown in thefields. A guard beat people. Those who tried to escape, they sentdogs after them.”

Other former inmates cited examples of senseless cruelty or sheergreed. Michael Jacobovitz of New York, then a 17-year-old OrthodoxJew from Cologne, would not eat non-kosher food in his camp, and whenhe begged a guard for a second slice of bread, he was threatened withforcible