Study says Swiss 'deliberately hurt' Jews during WWII Officials deny mistreating any refugees who fled to camps in Switzerland

January 14, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

As the dark clouds of war gathered over Europe, Jews by the tens of thousands fled to neutral Switzerland only to end up in labor camps where conditions were so rigorous that some died, according to a study released yesterday.

Many families were forcibly separated by police -- including, in some cases, nursing infants from their mothers, the study says. A "special Jew-tax," it says, was levied on the richest foreign Jews -- but not on Christians or refugees of other faiths -- to help underwrite their upkeep in Switzerland.

"The Swiss were really sadistic: They wanted to hurt the Jews -- to deliberately hurt the Jews," Alan Morris Schom, the American historian who wrote the study, said in a telephone interview from his home in the Loire Valley of France.

The study was released by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

The Swiss government said the monograph was insulting, simplistic and laced with errors.

"Any former refugees who were in Swiss camps today express gratitude toward Switzerland for the fact that they survived the war because they were accepted in Switzerland," said Linda Shepard, a spokeswoman in Bern, the Swiss federal capital.

She rejected his thesis -- that the Swiss had treated Jews differently from other refugees during World War II. "In the refugee camps, there were not only Jews," she said. "And the majority of the Jewish refugees were not housed in the refugee camps."

After more than a year of research, including into archival records recently declassified by the British Foreign Office, Schom concluded that there is no doubt that the camps -- which held an estimated 22,500 men, women and children by 1944 -- were meant specifically for Jewish refugees.

"At least 80 percent of the inmates were Jews," Schom said. "Some camps had up to 95 percent or 98 percent Jewish membership."

Men as old as 60 were made to haul logs in forests or dig ditches on roads in the Alps, including during the Swiss winter, Schom said. Women often were assigned to institutions and private homes to mop floors, clean toilets or perform other domestic chores.

Living conditions in unheated barns or wooden barracks were Spartan at best. Male inmates might be insulted with anti-Semitic remarks or forced to carry out tasks beyond their strength.

Refugees who complained could be sent to "punishment camps" or expelled from Switzerland altogether.

"These were really slave labor camps," Schom maintained. "On the whole, people were absolute prisoners. If they tried to leave their jobs, they could be handed back to the Gestapo."

The study on Switzerland's "unwanted guests" was commissioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation. Its

conclusions, and similar charges aired in a Jan. 5 news report on Britain's Channel Four television, appear certain to intensify pressures on the Swiss for a full and frank accounting of their country's wartime acts.

For more than a year and a half, international Jewish organizations and the Clinton administration have been pushing and prodding the Swiss to divulge the extent of wartime dealings with the Nazis and the whereabouts of what may be billions of dollars in assets stashed by Holocaust victims in Swiss banks.

"Tragically, I think this is potentially a greater embarrassment for the Swiss than the issue of Nazi gold," Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Monday of the latest allegations of wholesale Swiss discrimination against wartime Jewish refugees.

"The Swiss ran the Red Cross. They viewed themselves as humanitarians, were proud of their reputation as humanitarians. Yet in their own back yard, they treated the Jewish refugees as unwanted guests. They couldn't wait to get rid of them."

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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