Paul Gruninger, born in 1891 in the north-eastern Swiss city of St. Gallen near the Austrian border, was an ardent footballer in his youth. Playing for the local team, he helped them win their only Swiss championship.
After serving as a lieutenant in the First World War, Gruninger joined the local police force. Successful in his chosen career, he was promoted to police captain of St. Gallen and became president of the Swiss Policemen’s Association.
Then Gruninger’s dedication to his career clashed dramatically with his feelings of humanity. When the Nazis annexed neighboring Austria in August 1938, the Jewish residents found themselves in serious danger of persecution. Neutral Switzerland quickly tightened its already strict immigration policy. Afraid of repercussions from Germany, the Swiss government decided to only admit refugees considered victims of political persecution rather than of race or religion. With official channels of emigration closed to Austrian Jews, many decided to risk crossing the Swiss border illegally despite the difficulties and danger of being caught.
Although the Swiss government had issued strict instructions that all illegal Jewish refugees must be returned to Austria, Gruninger made a heroic personal decision and saved over 3,000 Jews.
Not only did Gruninger permit these tired, hungry and exhausted Jews illegal entry to Switzerland, he falsified the dates of their documents, classifying them as prior legal immigrants. He went even further, buying them winter clothing with his own funds and finding them housing. His valiant efforts continued for a period of eight months from August 1938 until April 1939.
One morning, when Gruninger arrived at the police station, he found the entrance blocked by the order of the Commander in Chief. Although Gruninger protested and questioned the move, he immediately realized his actions had been discovered.
A friend of his family, who was working a border post near Bergenz, an Austrian town annexed to the Third Reich, had already warned him that he was on a blacklist, but he did not pay much attention. He continued his illegal activities, falsifying documents for Jewish refugees from Austria.
Ironically, the Gestapo had been alerted of his activities due to a Jewish woman he had tried to help. The woman had left her jewelry behind in a hotel in Bergenz. When she reached Switzerland, she asked Gruninger to help her recover her belongings. He contacted Ernest Prodolliet of the Swiss Consulate in Bergenz. Having worked with Prodolliet on similar missions, Gruninger felt he was trustworthy.
Then the woman wrote a letter to family members in Vienna commending the kind man who had assisted her. “There is a wonderful police captain called Paul Gruninger. He promised me that he would look after my jewelry and bring it to me from our friend’s hotel.”
Unfortunately, this letter was seized by the Nazis who imprisoned the hotel owner and confiscated the jewelry. From then on, the Secret Police began to keep an eye on Gruninger. Soon afterwards, the Swiss Federal Authorities in Berne were informed about his illegal actions.
As punishment, Gruninger was fired from his job without any compensation or pension. In 1940, he was brought to trial for permitting the illegal entry of 3,600 Jewish refugees into Switzerland. Found guilty of fraud, he was fined by the court and served time in jail. With a criminal record and his heroism forgotten, Gruninger struggled to find employment long after the war ended. He lived in poverty without his police pension. Yet despite these difficulties, he never regretted his brave actions.
In 1971, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem granted Gruninger a Medal of Honor as a “Righteous Among the Nations.” On that occasion he finally explained his heroic actions: “My natural inclination to help had its roots in my deep Christian beliefs and in my conception of the world. Although I got myself in difficulties in many cases, there was always a way to get through. I felt God’s help in a powerful and abundant way.”
“Gruninger paid a high price for the choice he made. In the struggle between his sense of duty as a police officer, and dedication to the concepts of humanity, the latter triumphed,” states Yad Vashem.
Paul Gruninger passed away in 1972 at the age of eight-one. In 1995, fifty years after the war had ended and twenty-three years after his death, in the same courtroom where he had been condemned, his trial was reopened, and he was absolved of all charges. A year later he was completely exonerated by the Swiss government. A movie called “The Affair of Gruninger” was made by Richard Dindo in 1997, based on a book by Stefan Keller. The movie was filmed in the same courtroom where the Jewish refugees, whose lives had been saved by Gruninger, came to pay him tribute.
The Justice for Paul Gruninger Association was founded to fight against racism and anti-Semitism with his spirit. One of the goals of this association was getting the city of St. Gallen to compensate Paul Gruninger for the damages he had suffered and to rename a public town square near the Police Headquarters after him. A school and a stadium were also named in his honor.
“Paul Gruninger should be an example to us all,” said Fredy Fassler, police and justice chief in the canton of St. Gallen at a commemoration for the late officer. Gruninger’s 92-year-old daughter Ruth Roduner unveiled a plaque in his honor at St. Gallen police headquarters. His name also appears on the plaque of the monument in the memory of the Jews in Washington D.C.
Paul Gruninger was the first Swiss citizen to be honored by the government of the United States. His name and his courage deserve to be remembered.