Swiss face fresh war scandal after claims of labour camps for Jews

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The Independent Online
Just as the Swiss thought they were recovering from the Nazi gold scandal comes a report that they may have been reponsible for herding thousands of Jewish refugees into forced labour camps during the Second World War. Kate Watson-Smyth looks at the evidence.

Claims that the Swiss may have built up to 100 labour camps and that some 6,000 Jews passed through them are fresh embarassment for a country that has always prided itself on being neutral. It is still reeling from the revelations that its banks hoarded Nazi gold which was stolen from the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

A report by Channel 4 News yesterday also alleged that it was the wartime Swiss Government which asked Germany to put the letter J on the passports of its Jewish citizens so that they could be easily identifed when they crossed the border into neutral Switzerland and then deported back to Germany or sent to the Swiss labour camps.

Now lawyers in the United States are preparing cases against the Swiss Government on behalf of groups of Jews who suffered in the camps, the report said.

Fred Alexander, an inmate of the camps who fled Germany to escape the Nazi persecution, said: "We had to work from sunrise until the sun went down in the field. We had not much to eat, beside some soup, some coffee and bread.

"We weren't prepared to be punished in this way. When we were in the prison, we were told that we could be sent back to the German border."

Another inmate, Michael Roth, said: "We had to sleep on straw, plain straw, on wood boards, just like the concentration camp."

The report acknowledged that the Swiss camps did not inflict on inmates the same horrors endured by Jews in concentration camps in Germany and eastern Europe, but said there was evidence that it was the Swiss chief of police who suggested to the Germans the placing of the J on Jewish passports.

That helped Swiss immigration officers to reject up to 40,000 Jews desperately seeking sanctuary from the Nazis, many of whom later perished.

In a statement to the programme, the Swiss Government denied the allegations. "Switzerland never ran any forced labour camps. We had camps for refugees and military internees, including Allied pilots," it said.

"According to international law and custom, naturally the able refugees had to contribute to sustain the country's survival by providing mandatory labour, as all able Swiss had to do as well.

"This was one of our contributions and a humanitarian gesture as a neutral power. Why should a person who survived the war thanks to Switzerland sue its saviour 53 years later? These allegations have no legal or moral basis."

Ed Fagan, a New York-based lawyer who is handling litigation against the Swiss on behalf of former camp inmates, told the programme he believed legal action was justified.

"The Swiss didn't just accept people into their country and then treat them as refugees. They treated them as slaves. They didn't put them into internment camps, they put them into labour camps," he said.

"It's a violation of human rights to make a person work under those circumstances, especially under the circumstances in which they were let into the country in the first place. They were not neutral, they were not humanitarian, they collaborated ... with the enemy."

But Professor David Cesarani, a Jewish historian, said it was important to retain a sense of perspective about the way the Swiss treated Jewish refugees.

"As in many countries, Jews and refugees were interned. They were obliged to work for their subsistence. The work was hard, it was not particularly pleasant, but the conditions for people in general in Switzerland were not particularly good. There were food shortages, there were fuel shortages," he said.

It was "outrageous" to suggest complicity between the Swiss and Nazis.