The little-known story of Swiss victims of the Holocaust is finally being brought to light, in a recently published book by three Swiss journalists, Balz Spörri, René Staubli, and Benno Tuchschmid. The book, Swiss Concentration Camp Prisoners: The Forgotten Victims of the Third Reich, explores the lives of Swiss Holocaust survivors and includes a comprehensive list of Swiss victims.
The book heavily features a dance teacher who goes only by the name, Marcelle. She lived in France with her husband Jean Giudici, until mass deportations broke out in 1942. Fearing the deportations, the young couple planned to seek refuge in Switzerland – a place that Jean’s family fled years earlier due to poverty – but their plans were forced to change when Marcelle went into labor. Unfortunately, Marcelle was deported to Auschwitz where she passed away before the end of the war.
The book also tracks the life of René Pilloud, a 17-year-old who was captured by the Nazis while on his way to a sports tournament. Unlike other prisoners, the Swiss government was particularly invested in his release, writing that Pilloud is “worthy of [our] particular interest.” The government even went so far as to consider a prisoner exchange, although they eventually backed down.
After completing the book, the three journalists concluded that "Switzerland could have saved dozens of lives if it had shown more courage with the German authorities."
In an interview with the Swiss Review, Spörri concedes that it’s “always easier” to criticize the actions of a government in retrospect. Nevertheless, he argues that the book takes into account the unique historical perspective of Switzerland during the Holocaust.
The research yielded no indication that the Federal Council of Switzerland investigated concentration camps or the Swiss prisoners in these camps before 1944, but rather it was courageous diplomats like the Swiss envoy to Berlin, Paul Dinichert, who intervened in individual cases. Unfortunately, Dinichert’s successor, Hans Frölicher, did not continue the legacy of his predecessor. Frölicher feared that by provoking Hitler, he would decide to invade his neutral country.
The authors also discovered that Swiss authorities were less inclined to protect citizens abroad that had a lower social standing, including criminals, the disabled, and anyone they deemed unworthy. This policy greatly affected the life of Anna Böhringer-Bürgi, who authorities referred to as “licentious” after she married a German and thus forfeited his Swiss nationality. Bürgi’s application for asylum was rejected at the start of the war as a civil servant described her as "a prostitute and a notorious delinquent" and that one must be very careful "to give back the right of cantonal city to such an image of the woman." Bürgi passed away in Ravensbrück concentration camp towards the end of the war.