"Switzerland is a country famous for the fact that you can
be free there. However, only if you’re a tourist.”
Refugee Conversations, Number 9
Switzerland held great appeal for persecuted German as well as Austrian
Jewish actors, cabaretists and writers, particularly since they could
continue to work in their native language there.
Then why did so many of them go into Swiss exile only to leave again in
Swiss law in 1933 required refugees to apply for asylum within a
specific time frame. The authorities then would rule on whether or not
to grant the petitioner permission to remain in Switzerland.
However, the laws also stipulated that every such ruling must take into
account the land’s spiritual and economic interests... as well as the
degree of “over-foreignization” at that time; and even if asylum was
granted, the refugee was prohibited from working… or from any form of
political expression… the goal being that any refugee only conceive of
Switzerland as a temporary stopover and quickly move on to somewhere
Further, in 1938, Switzerland imposed even more dissuasive measures;
subsequent to Hitler’s annexation of Austria, massive numbers of Jews
needed to flee, and Switzerland’s reaction was to institute a new entry
visa requirement for Austrians… and simultaneously to threaten the same
events that ensued belong to the most shameful chapters in Switzerland’s
Effective September 19th 1938, Switzerland requested that the
Nazi regime henceforth visibly stamp the letter “J” into every Jew’s
passport. As Swiss historian, Alfred A. Häsler points out in his eminent
book, “The Boat is Full”, the immediate effect was to prominently brand
all German and Austrian Jews – also those situated abroad - as “estranged”,
“rejected” and “practically devoid of any rights”.
Then in 1939, upon Hitler’s launch of the war, Switzerland again
intensified their visa requirements for any foreigners entering or
transiting through the country, so that anyone without a valid visa
immediately was escorted to the border manu malitaria and sent
back to their country of origin. For thousands of refugees, the new
Swiss German expression “Ausschaffung” (= to get rid of) invented by the
Swiss Authorities became synonym for “horrible death without exception”.
Thus, according to Swiss police statistics, from August 1942 to 1945
alone, the Swiss Authorities sent 9751 persons to this fate.
parallel, as of March 1940, the Swiss Authorities decided to confine in
work camps even those refugees who had been granted asylum. Within a
year ten such camps were in operation; and by May 1st 1944
there were thirty-five.
Then in August 1942 Switzerland entirely closed all its borders. Heart-breaking
scenes resulted, including suicides on the spot. Only in 1944, when the
ultimate defeat of fascism became foreseeable, did the Swiss Authorities
relent in their asylum policies and begin taking in those whose life and
limb was at risk.