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Switzerland refused to help 24,500 Jews in war

SWITZERLAND ISSUED a formal apology yesterday for its role in the Second World War after an independent commission condemned it for sending thousands of Jewish refugees to their deaths.

"Nothing can make good the consequences of decisions taken at the time, and we pay our respects before the pain of those who were denied access to our territory and were abandoned to unspeakable suffering, deportation and death," the government said in a statement read out by President Ruth Dreifuss, whose Jewish father was among the minority who did help refugees.

Switzerland took in 20,000 Jews from Germany and Nazi-occupied countries but yesterday's report said it turned away or expelled at least 24,500 more. Motivated by anti-Semitism, the government closed the border to Jews in 1942, fully aware of what awaited them.

The government's callousness was matched by the cold-heartedness and occasional brutality of officials and policemen who preyed on the victims, robbing them before delivering them to the Nazis. The 956-page initial report gives examples of the fate of refugees.

"By creating additional barriers ... Swiss officials helped the Nazi regime achieve its goals, whether intentionally or not," the commission concluded. "A more humane policy might have saved thousands of refugees. from being killed by the Nazis ..."

The panel entrusted with lifting the veil on Switzerland's wartime history consisted of experts from Britain, Israel, Poland, the US and Switzerland. Earlier this week another independent commission castigated Swiss banks for hiding the accounts of Holocaust victims from their families.

The historians who published their findings yesterday found evidence of widespread anti-Semitism in the country, which had prompted the government to "close the border, to take in only a small number of persecuted people, and to reject those, such as Jews, seeking refuge solely on racial grounds". Switzerland had also colluded with Germany to have passports of Jews stamped with a "J" for easy identification. "Without Swiss pressure, the passports would not have been stamped until later, perhaps not at all," the report said. "This would have made it less difficult for refugees to find a country willing to accept them."

The panel, led by the Swiss historian Jean-Francois Bergier, did not address the question of whether Switzerland acted with any greater dishonour than other democracies, such as Britain and the US.

But Saul Friedlaender, the Israeli member of the panel, thinks the Swiss did less to help people fleeing the Holocaust than other neutrals. Spain and Portugal accepted refugees irrespective of race. He also cited the example of Sweden, which restricted Jewish immigration up to 1942 but then reversed its policy. Switzerland did the opposite: in autumn 1942 it began expelling Jews who had managed to get across the border and continued until 1944, when popular outrage forced it to open the doors. By then, most Jews in occupied Europe had been taken to the death camps.