Reprinted with permission of the author. Copyright (c)1997. All rights
On August 24 or 25th, 1942, I no longer remember the exact date, I crossed
the French-Swiss border illegally on foot.
The border, in this case, was the crest of a mountain, Cornettes de Bise,
elevation about 8,000 feet.
How and why I had decided to seek refuge in Switzerland is yet another story.
Suffice it to say that the odds of being arrested in France
as a Polish Jew and former soldier, and sent to a German concentration camp,
were extremely high.
Switzerland appeared to be the only refuge available at that time, after having
tried and failed in reaching England through Spain.
On the way to any destination, I had heard that although the official policies of
the Swiss government was against acceptance of refugees and that many (including
some friends of mine) were returned to France or into the hands
of the Gestapo, there was a recent swell of public opinion to
open the borders.
In fact, a anonymous woman on the train to Thonon, near the
Swiss border, perhaps guessing my destination, handed me an article in the
Journal de Geneve, published some days before, openly exhorting
the government to open the borders to the victims of the Nazi
Apparently similar articles appeared in August 1942 in the German-Swiss press, notably
the Neue Zuricher Zeitung, but I had never seen those. It must be remembered that,
at that time, the Holocaust was still a well-kept German secret.
I entered Switzerland without difficulty through this unguarded mountain peak
and was soon several kilometers inland, not having been molested by anyone.
Rather exhausted, hungry and thirsty, I voluntarily entered the barracks of a military
unit, about 10 kilometers from the border, and declared myself a refugee.
I was fed and offered a cot to sleep. The soldiers, simple Swiss citizens,
couldn't have been nicer.
The next day, I was formally arrested and sent to the police station in the
small city of Martigny where I was put in jail.
I was interrogated by a police officer who promptly informed me
that I was to be sent back to France as an illegal alien. However, he consented to
listen to my story, told through tears, and offered to inquire of the authorities
in Bern what should be done with me.
I discovered shortly thereafter that there was a
group of at least 30 other men in the same predicament in the same Martigny jail.
We were all treated with great consideration by the police and the guards.
A few days later we were apparently accepted and sent to a camp
for political refugees established on the grounds of a penal institution,
Belchasse (a sort of Sing-Sing) in Sugier-les-Vernes, in the Canton of
I spent several months in Belchasse, followed by several months in a labor camp
in Aesch-bei-Birmensdorf, near Zurich.
It was hardly luxury but it was SAFE. I only wished that my parents and my
only sister, who stayed in Poland, could have been with me. They all
In September, 1943, I was allowed to resume studies of medicine at the
University of Bern, the Swiss capital.
During the three and a half years that I spent at the University of Bern , I
have never had to pay any tuition. The administration of the University, my professors
and my colleagues were extremely considerate of my penury and
loneliness, and offered moral and sometimes monetary
The Federal Police, to whom I had to report on a weekly and then monthly basis,
were increasingly friendly, as the fortunes of war changed.
In fact, as I was leaving Switzerland for the United States in 1947 to start a new
they addressed their last communications to me with the title
"Doctor," better than the previous "refugee."
The Swiss have not only saved my life and that of thousands of other refugees,
but also gave me an outstanding education that has allowed
me to forge a successful scientific career in the United States.
I am now 76 years old, and eternally grateful to the Swiss people for
what they have done for me.
As a token of my appreciation, through the courtesy of an Association of former medical
at the University of Bern, the Abelin Foundation, I established a lectureship
at the University of Bern in October, 1996.
I hope that this lectureship will serve the purpose of conveying to my Swiss
friends and to others that there was another war-time Switzerland, very remote from
the dreary image of greed and collusion with the Nazis that is now emerging.
Leopold G. Koss, M.D.
The writer is professor and chairman emeritus of the Department of Pathology at
the Montefiore Medical Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.