A Swiss Twist

There lurks an almost unbearable irony in the appointment of UCLA Professor Saul Friedlander to an international commission of nine eminent historians that will probe, evaluate and ultimately judge Switzerland\'s role and conduct during World War II and the Holocaust era.
May 15, 1997

There lurks an almost unbearable irony in the appointment of UCLA Professor Saul Friedlander to an international commission of nine eminent historians that will probe, evaluate and ultimately judge Switzerland's role and conduct during World War II and the Holocaust era.

Nearly 55 years ago, on Sept. 29, 1942, Friedlander's Czech-born parents tried to cross into Switzerland from Vichy France. They were intercepted by Swiss border guards, who turned Jan and Elli Friedlander back and handed them over to French police.

The French passed the couple on to the Germans, who shipped the parents to Auschwitz, where both perished.

Just before the Friedlanders embarked on their ill-fated attempt, they managed to find a hiding place for their 10-year-old son in a French monastery, where he was raised as a Catholic.

Of the 12 Jews who attempted to cross the border with the Friedlanders, only those with children were permitted to cross. If young Saul had accompanied his parents, the family would have been saved.

“It shows how implacably horrendous the whole situation was,” says Professor Friedlander, sitting in his sunny office on the UCLA campus. “What you thought was the best turned out to be the worst.”

The horrors of the past came back to Friedlander's mind when he received a phone call last December from Switzerland's special envoy, Ambassador Thomas Borer, who asked him to serve on the Independent Commission of Experts.

The commission, Friedlander was assured, would have complete access to all of Switzerland's documents on foreign-policy, economic and financial dealings during the Nazi era; to its records of refugee treatment; and to the wartime archives of the international Red Cross.

Facing withering accusations of aid to Nazi Germany and mounting criticism over its banks' refusal to pay out accounts established by Holocaust victims, Switzerland was anxious to announce formation of the commission as quickly as possible.

Friedlander was given two hours to decide whether to serve on the commission. He based his acceptance on two considerations.

“The Swiss knew what had happened to my parents, that I had written about Switzerland's role in the war, and that I was an Israeli citizen,” says Friedlander. “Given all that, I took the Swiss offer as a sign that their intentions were really serious.

“As a Jew, as a human being and as a historian, I felt a deep commitment to make sure that the task would be carried through seriously.”

Friedlander was also reassured by the reputations of his fellow commission members — five Swiss, one American, one Briton and one Pole — all of whom he knows as scholars of high-standing and integrity.

The American is Dr. Sybil Milton, until recently, chief historian at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.

Even in that distinguished company, Friedlander is perhaps uniquely qualified for the job at hand.

Acknowledged as one of the world's top-ranking Holocaust scholars, he has taught history at universities in Israel, Switzerland, France and the United States.

He has written nine widely translated books in his field, including “When Memory Comes,” a moving account of his boyhood in Prague and his years in hiding in France.

The first volume of his “Nazi Germany and the Jews,” covering the period of 1933 to 1939, was recently published by HarperCollins. The highly readable book, already translated into French, German and Hebrew, has won early acceptance as the new standard on the subject.

To mark the publication, Friedlander will be honored at a 7 p.m. reception, on May 21, at UCLA Hillel. For information, call (310) 208-3081.

Two months ago, Friedlander attended the first plenary session of the Commission of Experts in Bern, and he came away with the sense that “our work will be done thoroughly and totally…nothing will be hidden.”

Given the mountains of hitherto secret documents and statistics and the international ramifications of Switzerland's wartime role, the job facing the commission can be fairly described as monumental.

“I expect the commission's work to take five to six years,” says Friedlander. Some 30 to 40 researchers have already been hired. In the months and years ahead, they will comb archives not only in Switzerland but in Germany, Russia, the United States and Israel.

To cite but one upcoming project, the commission will probe the records of a Swiss government agency that daily monitored the flow of gold into and out of Switzerland during World War II.

These records are expected to yield information on the precise amount of Nazi gold looted from occupied countries and Holocaust victims, channeled into Swiss banks, and largely retained there.

Based on both his personal and scholarly background, Friedlander plans to pay special attention to Switzerland's wartime policy regarding Jewish refugees seeking asylum.

The commission will issue interim reports on its findings. It is also expected that, as the investigations deepen and widen, they will shed new light on the assistance given to the Nazi regime and war machine by such “neutral” nations as Sweden, Portugal, Spain and Argentina.

Such future research will give further impetus to a historical phenomenon: That, as the Nazi era and the Holocaust recede in time, the world's attention is not slackening but increasing.

“With the passage of time, we are slowly grasping the vastness of the amplitude and ramifications of the Hitler period,” says Friedlander.

Another remarkable historical aspect of the commission's work is the fact that, apparently for the first time, an independent nation is asking an international body to probe its past behavior, albeit under intense American and global pressure.

“Germany opened its records, but only as a defeated nation under Allied control,” says Friedlander. “America investigated the Pearl Harbor disaster, but that was done by the U.S. Congress. Switzerland, to my knowledge, is the first sovereign country to agree to such an international investigation.”

Friedlander earned his doctorate at Switzerland's University of Geneva and currently splits the academic year between two positions. He is professor of history at UCLA, where he holds the “1939 Club” Chair in the History of the Holocaust. In Israel, he is professor of modern European history at Tel Aviv University, where he is also director of the Besen Institute for the Study of Historical Consciousness and is editor of the journal “History & Memory.”

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