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Yehuda Bauer: My Brother's Keeper

A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee 1929-1939

[Holocaust preparations in Europe and resistance without solution of the situation]

The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1974

Transcription with subtitles by Michael Palomino (2007)



Chapter 6. The Beginning of the End
[D.] The refugees

[6.10. Switzerland 1938: Camps for Jewish refugees - handover to the Reich - and money questions]

[1938: Switzerland: 6 camps for German Jewish penniless refugees]

In Switzerland, too, the influx of refugees from Austria caused a sharp reaction. Despite the measures taken in March and April, Jews continued to cross the Swiss border [because also the smugglers did not want to resign to the profit from the refugees]. VSIA cared for those (p.239)

that managed to do so and in 1938 erected six camps housing 877 penniless refugees.

(End note 51: Saly Mayer files (SM), VSIA-2)

[July-15 August 1938: About 2,300 coming German Jewish refugees]

Throughout July and during the first half of August [1938] about 2,300 Jewish refugees managed to cross the border illegally.

[with the help of smugglers who were paid well by the Jewish refugees].

[15 Aug 1938: Berlin announces all Austrians will be Germans on 1 Jan 1939 - Swiss government looks for action against Austrian German Jewish refugees]

Since March, Austrian passport holders had had to obtain Swiss visas of entry to get to Switzerland, but a German decree of August 15 announced that as of January 1, 1939, all Austrian passports would be changed into German ones; and German passport holders could enter Switzerland without a visa. The Swiss government therefore took a series of measures against the refugee influx.

[10 August 1938: Switzerland shuts down the frontier for German Jewish refugees - handing over to Germans is avoided if concentration camp would be followed]

On August 10 a police circular to border police stations established a policy of refusal of entry to refugees.

On the same date the Swiss chief of police submitted a report to his government; in it he stated that refugees who said they would be interned in a concentration camp if they were returned to Germany would not be handed over to the Germans.

The problem was what to do with the illegals already in the country. He thought they should be expelled to Germany, but he did not dare to take this step because it might "arouse a tremendous outcry against Switzerland in all civilized countries."

(End note 52: Ludwig, op. cit. Ludwig, Carl: Die Flüchtlingspolitik der Schweiz seit 1933 bis zur Gegenwart. Bericht an den Bundesrat [The refugee policy of Switzerland since 1933 to the present]; Zurich, no date [1957], pp. 86-87)

[But the civilized countries were NOT civilized but all were preparing war in Europe against Soviet Union].

[17 August 1938: Switzerland: Police officials conference - concentration camp threat does not count any more]

A conference of police officials on August 17 confirmed this policy, which was then approved by the Swiss government on the August 19.

(End note 53: Ibid. [Ludwig, Carl: Die Flüchtlingspolitik der Schweiz seit 1933 bis zur Gegenwart. Bericht an den Bundesrat [The refugee policy of Switzerland since 1933 to the present]; Zurich, no date [1957]], p. 90)

This latter decision, however, went even further: henceforth there was to be no refugee immigration from Austria at all, thus presumably eliminating all exceptions regarding persons threatened with concentration camps.

The position of Swiss Jewry in all this was quite difficult. At a general meeting of VSIA [Verein Schweizerischer Israelitischer Armenpflegen [Confederation of Swiss Israelite poor care] it was noted that while the situation of the refugees was tragic, Swiss political and economic interests should not be ignored.

[Big parts of the upper class of Switzerland had studied mostly in Germany and were very anti-Semitic, supported Nazi homes in Switzerland, and whole Switzerland depended on German coal for heating in winter].

[Feb 1938: Rumours that SIG would not want Jewish refugees]

At the same time, however, the head of SIG [Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund, Engl.: Swiss Israelite Federate Corporation], Saly Mayer, very energetically denied rumors regarding supposed communications from the heads of the Swiss Jewish community to the government, to the effect that Swiss Jewry objected to the further entry of refugees into the country. "The law of 'love thy neighbor' is still the guideline for our actions, and we must try to achieve as much as is possible for our brethren who are in trouble."

(End note 54: Saly Mayer's declaration at SIG in February 1938, SM, VSIA-2)

[But the left Yiddish Jews are not wanted at all].

This was said, however, a month before the Anschluss. After that event the situation changed. The economic burden brought on by the sudden influx of thousands of refugees could not be sustained by the tiny Swiss Jewish community. While some of the immigrants went on to other destinations, and others had money at their disposal and did not become a burden to the community,

[Oct 1938: Switzerland: 2,400 Jewish refugees in poor care]
about 2,400 had to be supported by October 1938.

(End note 55: Ibid. [Saly Mayer's declaration at SIG in February 1938, SM, VSIA-2])

SIG stated that it was not capable, technically and financially, of supporting a further influx.

(End note 56: This was repeatedly stated in appeals to JDC from March 1938 on).

[19 August 1938: Switzerland closes the borders - VSIA warns IKG to send no refugee any more]

On the same day that the Swiss government made its decision to close its borders, August 19 [1938], VSIA cabled IKG [Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, engl.: Israelite cultus congregation] in Vienna warning it not to send any more illegal refugees (all refugees were illegals, because no Austrian Jew could get a legal entry permit into Switzerland unless he was in transit to another country or had plenty of money in Switzerland).

(End note 57: SM, VSIA-2)

In other words, Swiss Jewry felt that it had to yield to Swiss official pressure and play a part in the official antirefugee policy.

[End 1938: 10-12,000 German Jewish refugees in Switzerland - the police partly hands them over to the NS German side]

By the end of 1938 there were 10-12,000 Jewish refugees who could not get beyond Switzerland. Tragedies on the borders became the order of the day; refugees physically resisted expulsion into German hands. But of course such resistance was of no avail.

(End note 58: Ibid. [SM, VSIA-2])

[JDC money questions about Jewish refugees in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Czechoslovakia]

In its despair Swiss Jewry, through Saly Mayer, turned to JDC. In a cable on August 25 [1938] Kahn reported to JDC that Swiss Jews needed 1 million Swiss francs, but that only one-third of the sum could be raised locally. The reaction of New York was that local resources should be tapped first, because JDC's income was not geared to such large-scale emergencies. Then, New York told Kahn, ICR should be approached. "We have constantly in mind that settling such refugee difficulties quickly will encourage pushing many others over frontiers."

But Kahn had a different view. He announced to his head office that he had given emergency support not only in Switzerland, but in Luxembourg, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia. Baerwald thought that these appropriations were "staggering", and objected. Khan reacted sharply: on August 26 he explained in a curt cable that it was imperative to preserve the goodwill of Jewish and non-Jewish (p.241)

institutions. "(The) entire record (of) JDC activities constitutes (a) precedent supporting such appropriations." He had given the money to the Swiss "to avoid (a) debacle." Baerwald had no wish to quarrel with his European director. In any case, he realized that JDC would have no choice but to support the Europeans as much as possible.

On August 28 [1938] he assured Kahn that he fully realized "appropriations unavoidable". He added: "Please do not worry. Nothing will be done against your judgment."

(End note 59:
-- 9-40, Baerwald to Kahn; and:
-- Administration Committee files (AC), 8/24/38 [24 August 1938])

Indeed, unless they decided to change the director in Europe, JDC in New York had no choice but to confirm the judgment of its Paris office. The increasing force of the crisis in Europe, however, did lead the New York leadership to weigh the possibility of a change in its European personnel.

[JDC Kahn's decision for financing of Jewish refugees in Switzerland: Figures]

As far as Switzerland was concerned, Kahn's action turned the country's Jewish aid committee, VSIA, into one of Europe's main recipient of funds. For its six refugee camps and its support of refugees outside the camps, JDC paid a total of $ 66,000 in 1938. Total JDC expenditures in Switzerland amounted to $ 72,000, which included small sums given to vocational training institutions as well. These sums fell short of Swiss demands - Saly Mayer wanted a monthly allocation of $ 57,600, but in the last two months of 1938 JDC allocations to Switzerland were running at a monthly rate of $ 20,000, which was only a little less than what was being spent in Austria itself.

The dollars were converted into Swiss francs at the most favorable rated, and SIG reported that they got 415,449 Swiss francs as a result, or about 33.8 % of the Swiss Jewish community's total income of 1,820,457 Swiss francs.

(End note 60: SM, VSIA-2)

Switzerland and France were by no means the only trouble spots in the summer of 1938.