THE SWISS HAD THEIR VILLAINS--AND THEIR HEROES

By Louis Rene Beres

[Reprinted with permission of the author. Copyright (c)1997. All rights reserved]

West Lafayette, Ind.

I was born in Zurich in 1945, the son of Austrian Jewish refugees. During the frightful years of World War II, my parents found safety and friendship in that country.

There is no question that during the Second World War, Swiss financial institutions plundered Jewish bank accounts and that they dealt comfortably with the Nazis' mass murderers.

It is also beyond doubt that the Swiss Government itself collaborated with the German authorities on restricting Jewish immigration, which led to the notorious proposal by Heinrich Rothmund, the chief Swiss police official, that the Nazis affix a special stamp on the passports of all "non-Aryans" and "Aryans" whom German leaders wished to expel permanently from their country and from German-occupied Austria.

But it is also true that thousands of ordinary Swiss--Christians as well as Jews--did a great deal to assist Jewish immigration and to ease Jewish suffering, sometimes in direct opposition to their government.

My parents, Sigismund and Margarete Beres, were married in Vienna on July 31, 1938. That night they fled their country, taking the train to Italy. They told the Italian border control officials that they were headed for a honeymoon in Venice. When they were informed that they would not be allowed into the country, my mother, not yet 18 years old, sat down on the tracks and wept. Where could they go now?

The answer appeared as if out of nowhere. As in some carefully crafted script of a Hollywood movie, a mysterious man, dressed in a trenchcoat, approached them and presented them with two tickets to Zurich.

"Take the next train to Switzerland," he instructed. "When you arrive, there will be refuge."

And so it was. To be sure, the Swiss authorities did not give them any special opportunities; they were confined for about a year in a special refugee work camp near Lugano.

But the environment was not punitive (certainly nothing like that of the internment camps for Japanese-Americans in the United States.) After a time, my parents were permitted to move to Zurich and to seek normal employment.

Weeks before their wedding, my father had waited for days and nights at the American embassy in Vienna, seeking escapes from the Nazis, who were fighting their noose on Austria.

American officials did not even let him through the embassy doors, let alone grant him a visa. Like tens of thousands of other Jews who believed that the United States would care, he was left to find another place of refuge. Had he depended upon rescue by the United States, he and his wife would surely have perished.

The Swiss were not perfect. They could have done more. Certain financial institutions ultimately exploited whatever Jewish wealth had been entrusted to them for safekeeping. But few other countries did better during those terrible years. And many countries did far worse.

It is unfair to Switzerland, a tiny country, to suggest that it was in some way uniquely delinquent. After the war, because of their growing anti-Communist obsession, United States officials set up top secret operations, code-named "Ratline" and "Paperclip," that offered refuge and considerable affluence to major Nazi war criminals. At the same time, they kept out Holocaust survivors. The United States is certainly not now in a position to claim absolute purity in these matters.

No European country has a longer tradition of receiving persecuted refugees than has Switzerland. More than 15 percent of the country's inhabitants were aliens in 1914, giving it the highest proportion of outsiders of all European countries except Luxembourg at that time. Moreover, the Swiss Confederation admitted large numbers of refugees from Germany in 1993. For about five years, this was the Swiss policy.

Shortly after my parents' safe arrival in Switzerland, the authorities effectively announced, "Das Boot ist voll"--the boat is full--and denied sanctuary to any more Jewish refugees.

Indeed, Erna Benesh, my mother's sister, and Richard, her Catholic husband, were denied entry only two months later. They survived the war, but just barely, and thanks more to their own perseverance and ingenuity than to any government.

Yet, my parents did owe their lives to the Swiss safe haven, and so do I.

What must also be recounted is that during their almost nine years in Switzerland, a number of Christian families, ordinary folk--no bankers or government officials--went out of their way to help my parents. Their kindness and great decency ought never to be forgotten.

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