ETERNALLY GRATEFUL

By Leopold G. Koss

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

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 persecution.

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 Fribourg.

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 perished.

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 support.

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 life, 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 students 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.

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