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Manfred Gerstenfeld on “Nur ein Durchgangsland”: Arbeitslager und Internierungsheime für Flüchtlinge unter Emigranten in der Schweiz 1940-1949

Filed under: International Law
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)


Swiss Policy toward Refugees Before, During, and after World War II


“Nur ein Durchgangsland”: Arbeitslager und Internierungsheime für Flüchtlinge unter Emigranten in der Schweiz 1940-1949 (“Only a Transit Country”: Work Camps and Internment Homes for Refugees among Emigrants in Switzerland, 1940-1949) by Simon Erlanger

Reviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

For decades Swiss banks have refused to disclose the names of the owners of dormant accounts from the pre-Holocaust and Holocaust periods. By the mid-1990s, the banks’ prolonged attempts to appropriate for themselves monies of murdered deposit holders led to international media censure not only of them but also of the Swiss government.

That, in turn, led to ongoing international criticism of Swiss wartime behavior. Initially this came from Jewish organizations such as the World Jewish Congress. Subsequently many Western media added their voices. Thus it became widely known, for instance, that at the end of World War II and immediately thereafter, the United States considered economic sanctions against Switzerland in view of its prolonged collaboration with Nazi Germany.1

The pressure became so great that the Swiss government appointed a commission of independent international historical experts, headed by history professor Jean-Fran?ois Bergier of ETH Zurich University, to investigate major aspects of the Swiss wartime past and how the country had dealt with it in the postwar period.2 Many of the researchers’ conclusions confirmed the country’s major failings.

One finding was that Switzerland and Sweden were the only countries that already before the war applied selective, racist criteria to Jews based on Nazi definitions.3 In the framework of the Bergier Commission’s research, a major study was also devoted to Switzerland’s treatment of refugees.4


The Jews in Internment Camps

A new book by Simon Erlanger addresses a theme that received little attention in the commission’s research: the situation of the mainly Jewish refugees who were forced to stay in internment camps in Switzerland during the war. The author lectures in Jewish history at the University of Lucerne. The book is his PhD thesis at the University of Basel. One aspect of this study, concerning why Jewish refugees had to leave Switzerland after the war, has been published in an earlier issue of this journal.5

Erlanger points out that the internment camps were established partly because of the Swiss authorities’ fear that an excessive number of Jewish immigrants would stir up latent anti-Semitism in the country’s population (78). This is striking in light of the fact that Jews constituted far less than 1 percent of the Swiss population.

The official Swiss policy, then, was to separate the immigrants from the general population. It was rigidly implemented by the national, cantonal, and communal authorities. In Basel, refugees were banned from certain caf?s and had to sign a declaration that they would not visit them. In Lucerne they could not sit on benches near the lake, nor enter certain areas of the town. Some communities tried to keep Jewish immigrants out entirely. The town of Adliswil did not want immigrants to come there even for the few hours they could occasionally leave a nearby refugee camp. This probably involved at most ten to twenty immigrants compared to the town’s population of five thousand.

Erlanger gives a nuanced picture of the internment camps. He mentions that the organization that was responsible for their management made a substantial effort to hire competent personnel. A number of these were genuinely interested in the refugees’ wellbeing. Some others stole food from the refugees and sold it on the black market.

The book also deals with certain aspects of the pre- and postwar periods. It shows that after the war the Swiss authorities made great efforts to get the Jewish refugees to leave. Only a small percentage, consisting of the old and sick, were allowed to remain. In earlier years, a major motivation for Swiss refugee policies had been preventing foreigners from competing with the Swiss labor force. The refugees were thus forbidden to work. A few years after the war, however, Switzerland needed workers and let thousands of Italians in, while pushing the Jewish refugees out.


Preventive Anti-Semitism

There are increasing indications that some of the discriminatory phenomena of the 1930s are returning to Western society. In this context, the book’s section on the prewar period provides important insights as well. As Erlanger shows, the attitude in Switzerland was so profoundly discriminatory that the Jewish community felt the need to set up a body that dealt with complaints about the behavior of individual Jews.

The Swiss Jews realized that their small community was in a difficult position. Anti-Semitism was prevalent throughout the country. When a Jew committed a misstep, in Swiss eyes this could warrant accusations against all Jews. Thus, for instance, the community sought out-of-court solutions to business disputes involving a Jew. The longtime secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, Gerhard Riegner, described this approach as preventive anti-Semitism.

One complainant was a prominent Swiss businessman who later also became internationally known. Gottlieb Duttweiler, the founder of the Migros retail chain, is widely considered a model of the ethical businessman. In 1939, he wrote to the Jewish community that a Mr. Friedlander had criticized some developments in the Swiss food retail business. He warned the community that such expressions could strengthen prejudices against Jews. The community’s chairman, Saly Braunschweig, replied that Mr. Friedlander was not a member of the Jewish community and probably not a Jew. Even if he were a Jew, one could not consider his views on a certain issue as representing the entire Jewish community (68).

Erlanger notes that there is only one documented case of a Jew who, when asked by the Jewish community to resolve a commercial dispute, replied that it should mind its own business. In 1942, the community approached Rolf Liebermann in Ascona to pay immediately 27 Swiss Franks he supposedly owed his barber since 1938. The latter had contacted the Jewish community to collect this money.

Liebermann replied that the barber was using the typical anti-Semitic method of holding other Jews responsible for what was a civil claim. He asked the community whether, if the barber had wanted money from a Protestant client, he would have complained to the relevant church organization. Liebermann remarked that the barber was trying to exploit the Jews’ anxiety-ridden condition.

Erlanger’s book yields other insights on today’s situation. At a time when various European as well as “progressive” church moralists falsely claim the ethical high ground against Israel, it is important to show that when the Jews were in a threatened position the moralists lay low at best.

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1. Avi Beker, “Why Was Switzerland Singled Out? A Case of Belated Justice,” in Avi Beker, ed., The Plunder of Jewish Property during the Holocaust (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001), 142-63.

2. For an analysis in English of the commission’s research, see Helen B. Junz, “Confronting Holocaust History: The Bergier Commission’s Research on Switzerland’s Past,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, No. 8, 1 May 2003.

3. Schlussbericht der Unabhängigen Expertenkommission Schweiz – Zweiter Weltkrieg, Die Schweiz, Der Nationalsozialismus und der Zweite Weltkrieg, 2nd ed. (Zurich: Pendo edition, 2002.) [in German]

4. Unabhängige Expertenkommission Schweiz – Zweiter Welkrieg, Die Schweiz und die Flüchtlinge zur Zeit des Nationalsozialismus (Zurich: Chronos, 2001.) [in German]

5. Simon Erlanger, “The Politics of ‘Transmigration’: Why Jewish Refugees Had to Leave Switzerland from 1944 to 1954,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 18, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 2006).

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DR. MANFRED GERSTENFELD is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is an international business strategist who has been a consultant to governments, international agencies, and boards of some of the world’s largest corporations. Among his ten books are Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (JCPA, Yad Vashem, WJC, 2003); American Jewry’s Challenge: Conversations Confronting the 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) and, most recently, Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss? (JCPA and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2005).