Max Ehrlich
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"Switzerland is a country famous for the fact that you can
 be free there. However, only if you’re a tourist.”
                                          Bertolt Brech
                                          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 short time?

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 else.

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 for Germans.

The events that ensued belong to the most shameful chapters in Switzerland’s refugee history…

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.

In 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.


About Zurich
[...] Since this time, together with my wife and my monkey, who some evil tongues say looks like me, I lead a nomadic life. Every month in a different city, often in a different country; and unfortunately not all hotels are not up to the standards of the exemplary Leipzig Astoria. 

In fact, two months ago in Zurich we even had our own apartment. The dining room was charming. It was wood grained and tinted red. But the ceiling was so low that all we could eat in there was flounder. In compensation, the bedroom had running water, down the walls... 

Excerpt from Max Ehrlich's
 "Sermon about Myself" (1924)


Über Zürich
[...] Seit dieser Zeit Führe ich mit meine Frau und meinem Affen, von dem böse Zungen behaupten, er sei mir ähnlich, ein Nomadenleben. Jeden Monat in einer anderen Stadt, oft in einem anderen Land, und leider sind nicht alle Hotels so wie das vorbildliche Leipziger Astoria.

In Zürich hatten wir sogar vor zwei Monaten eine eigne Wohnung. Das Speisezimmer war reizend. Es war gemasert und gescharlacht. Aber es war so niedrig, dass wir immer nur Flundern drin essen konnten. Darfür hatte das Schlarfzimmer fliessendes Wasser von der Wänden herunter...

Auszug von Max Ehrlich's 
 "Sermon über mich" (1924)









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                                 Last modified: January 5th 2012