A Victim Of Swiss History Remembers One Of Its Righteous

April 21, 1997|By Leo Bretholz

IN DECEMBER 1993 an injustice was righted in the case of Paul Grueninger, a police captain in the Swiss Canton of Saint-Gallen.

Fifty-four years previously, Grueninger, in obedience to the directives of his heart and his conscience, had saved 3,000 despairing Austrian Jews by ordering the border guards of his province to let them cross into Switzerland. This was in violation of the Swiss federal government's orders, which had closed the borders in August, 1938.

For this compassionate act, Captain Grueninger was dismissed from his post. He lost his pension, paid a heavy fine and lived the remainder of his life in dire financial circumstances. He died in 1972 at the age of 80.

Only posthumously, through a court action brought by his family, was he retrospectively pronounced not only "not guilty" but "righteous among nations."

Alfred A. Haesler, author of 1969 book "The Lifeboat is Full," exposes the response of the Swiss people and bureaucracy to the plight of the refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany.

He writes of Dr. Heinrich Rothmund of the Federal Justice and Police Department, who took it upon himself to preserve Switzerland's "purity" from "foreign-thinking elements." Rothmund returned 2,600 men, women and children to certain death in the land they had fled, flagrantly violating the sanctity of neutrality. In a despicably clear case of aiding and abetting the Nazi regime, he suggested to the German government that German Jews be identified by stamping a red letter "J" on their passports.

Grueninger was a humanitarian; Rothmund was not. Both are figures of Swiss history.

One of those turned away

I have followed these events very closely because I identify with them on a personal level. News reports this year suggest that there is evidence, documented by historians, that the Swiss police turned back up to 30,000 Jewish refugees at the country's borders.

I was one of those turned away.

I lived in France under the Vichy regime's restrictive anti-Jewish laws. On October 5, 1942, I arrived by train at Evian-Les-Bains, on Lake Geneva, where I met a Frenchman who would help me cross into Switzerland.

I had no money to deposit in a Swiss bank, no gold to secure. Mine was a simple search for freedom in a country whose neutrality I trusted.

The next day, following the itinerary outlined to me by the Frenchman, I was treading through mountainous, wooded terrain. At nightfall, from across Lake Geneva a sea of lights reflecting on the water, representing hope and life. My freedom was at arm's reach. Soon I would be out of danger.

At dawn, I crossed a mountain brook and entered Switzerland. Suddenly a Swiss border guard appeared before me, sporting a ranger's hat, a leashed Shepherd dog at his side. In perfect French, he politely asked for identification. He left me with a sergeant, in charge of the police station, at the Franco-Swiss border village of Saint-Gingolph. Unexpectedly, my hopes and dreams turned into a nightmare. This proved to be the notorious Sergeant Arretaz, who, as Oxford historian Sir Martin Gilbert in his book "The Holocaust" describes it, "turned people back like a sadist . . . straight into the hands of the French militia."

Perpetrators and abettors

I pleaded with the sergeant for permission to explain my case to a judge, and to be interned in a work-camp, all to no avail. He reacted with a cynical and sardonic smirk.

I was handed over to the Vichy authorities, who transferred me to the camp of Rivesaltes. On October 20 many of us were sent to the infamous camp of Drancy, near Paris, where the deportation convoys to the East originated. On November 5, I was placed in Convoy No. 42, among 1,000 deportees, many of whom also had been sent back by the Swiss. Destination: Auschwitz.

I escaped from that train the next night. Of that human cargo 773 were gassed on arrival, as documented in the report on the "Deportation of Jews from France." For a few hours I had glimpsed certain death because Sergeant Arretaz had smugly carried out his nefarious duty.

History tells us that there were victims, perpetrators and bystanders. There were also abettors. Again, the eyes of the world are on Switzerland.

Leo Bretholz writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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