Ten years ago, Professor Beres – following publication of his memoir in The New York Times− was invited by Swiss Ambassador Thomas Borer to present personal testimony before the specially constituted Swiss Commission on World War II. Here, now, is that testimony – still a poignant reminder of yet other critical aspects of the Holocaust.
My parents arrived as Austrian Jewish refugees in Switzerland almost exactly 60 years ago, on August 1, 1938 − the day of their own liberation coinciding with an anniversary of Switzerland’s day of independent statehood. It was also less than 12 hours after their wedding day. Today, my wife Valerie and I are in Switzerland on the exact day of our 30th wedding anniversary, an anniversary that would never even have been celebrated had it not been for the safe refuge that Sigismund and Margarete Beres found here, following their 1938 marriage in Vienna.
On August 1, 1938, my very young parents (my mother not yet 18 years old) entered Switzerland as a just-married couple, without any money, without any status, without any friends, without any nationality, and without any idea of a future. Today, their son speaks to a distinguished group of Swiss officials, headed by AMB. Thomas Borer, as a citizen of the United States of America, as a professor of international law with Ivy League university degrees, and as an honored guest of that very same country of Switzerland.
It is a moment that would have made my parents very proud; I am sorry that they didn’t live to see it.
My parents spent a year or two in a labor camp near Lugano − I never learned the exact amount of time, or the precise name of the camp − but after that internment they were able to move off to Zurich and live happily and quite comfortably. In Zurich, they were befriended by several Swiss families − both Christians and Jews − who did a great deal to help them become self-sufficient. This kindness of strangers they never forgot.
I was born in Zurich on August 31, 1945, an event for which I am understandably grateful. Had my parents not been allowed to stay on in Switzerland immediately after their marriage I would not be in Bern today, with Valerie, to celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary.
Had it not been for Switzerland, I would never have been born.
So, my reason for being here today, for accepting Ambassador Borer’s thoughtful invitation, is simple enough. My personal debt to Switzerland is obviously very great. It could not possibly be greater. When I now look at my own child, my own 24-year-old daughter, Lisa Alexandra, I acknowledge that my parents’ good fortune in this beautiful country 60 years ago made her life possible as well.
Had it not been for Switzerland she would never have been born.
Yesterday, we left our good Swiss friends in Oberlunkhofen, Canton Argau. Christel, the wife and mother, is the daughter of a Swiss Catholic couple that assisted and befriended my parents during the war. Christel was born two years after me, also on August 31 − exactly the same birthday as mine. Her son’s middle name is Alexander; my daughter’s middle name is Alexandra. We discovered this coincidence of middle names only a few days ago.
My parents, especially my father, always loved Switzerland. When I was a child I was raised, in part, with the stories of William Tell. When he returned to Europe on vacation he always went first to Switzerland. When he returned to the U.S. he brought back a bag full of Swiss flags as souvenirs. This was not what one would expect from a refugee who had any sad or angry recollections of his war years in Switzerland.
When the article I had written about my parents’ Swiss experience for The New York Timeswas reprinted recently in the NZZ (Neue Zuricher Zeitung), I received about a dozen letters from elderly Swiss people − none of them Jewish − who remembered my parents and simply wanted to tell me some nice things about them. Some telephoned me as well.
So, it is not difficult to understand why I am here today. My wife, Valerie, also cares for this country − not exactly in the same way as I (her own family having much longer roots in the United States), but certainly as an American tourist who appreciates magnificent mountains, wonderful cities and the company of good Swiss friends.
She has been here with me several times already, over almost 30 years, on various vacations that we remember with considerable affection and pleasure.
But now we need to be entirely honest about Switzerland in World War II. Not all Jewish refugees had the good fortune to be rescued here. There were grave mistakes, very grave, and also examples of complete indifference.
To be sure, thousands of other Jews did not share my parents’ relative good luck. Many were not the beneficiaries of the same relatively benign work camp experience. And thousands of others did not experience the same comforting history of particular Swiss friendships and concerns.
We know also, of course, that the Swiss banks and insurance companies often held on to money that was not properly theirs, and that they dealt commercially with Nazi Germany in ways that prolonged the war and the Holocaust. No one has any right to excuse these wrongs. No one!
But, this is not a perfect world, hindsight is always easy, and there is no real justice in identifying Switzerland as in some way uniquelydelinquent.
If anything, at least in a substantial number of cases, Switzerland was altogether decent − mistakes and indifference notwithstanding – and, ironically, the far greater wrongdoings of other nations are today sometimes more eagerly overlooked. Recently, a Jewish neighbor of mine in Indiana commented: “The Swiss were even worse than the Germans.” This is an outrageous remark, not only for its inexcusable penchant for generalization, but also because of its total and obvious inaccuracy.
(To be continued)
Copyright © The Jewish Press, July 11, 2008. All rights reserved
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press. His formal testimony to the Swiss Commission on World War II, offered ten years ago this month in Bern, offers both a personal and a philosophical view of Switzerland’s controversial position during the Holocaust. Professor Beres was born in Zurich on August 31, 1945.