Introduction to Rescue by Switzerland


Switzerland’s pre-war Jewish population was 12,000.  Switzerland had been a traditional haven for refugees for hundreds of years.

Throughout the war, Switzerland remained strictly neutral. 

Afraid to jeopardize its neutrality and fearing threats of invasion by Germany, Switzerland instituted and enforced a highly restricted refugee policy.  Throughout the early part of the war, Swiss authorities did not wish to grant asylum to Jewish refugees.  They would, however, allow refugees on a limited basis to use Switzerland as a transit point.

In March 1938, after the German annexation of Austria, Switzerland tightened its already strict anti-refugee policy.

On October 5, 1938, Swiss authorities asked German officials to stamp Jewish passports from Germany and Austria with a large red letter “J.”  This would alert Swiss border control officers to prevent Jews from entering Switzerland.

Many Jews attempted to immigrate to Switzerland from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.  After large numbers attempted to cross into Switzerland, Switzerland implemented a policy to return refugees, known as “refoulement” in 1938.  Thousands of Jews were turned back under this policy.

By September 1939, 5,000 Jewish refugees were able to enter Switzerland.  Many of these were supported by relief agencies and the local Jewish community.

The Jews of Switzerland helped Jewish refugees throughout Europe.  Jewish rescue and relief organizations joined an umbrella organization called the Schweizerischer Hilfsverein für Jüdische Flüchtlinge (Swiss Aid Society for Jewish Refugees).  This organization lobbied for the relaxation of anti-refugee laws passed in Switzerland before and during the war.  Further, it aided refugees by finding them housing, employment and financial aid.  Much of this aid was supplied by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Switzerland was the headquarters for a number of major Jewish relief organizations.  The American Jewish Joint had a major headquarters in Switzerland.  It was headed by Saly Mayer.  Millions of dollars were appropriated by Mayer’s JDC office.  In addition, there was RELICO, administered by Silberschein, and the relief efforts of Isaac and Recha Sternbuch.  All of these organizations worked with diplomats in obtaining valuable transit documents.

In 1940, the Swiss government established labor camps for Jewish refugees.  These camps were benign and were supported by Jewish refugee aid organizations.

Switzerland served as a major listening post for Jewish organizations regarding the murder of Jews in Europe.  Gerhardt Riegner, of the World Jewish Congress, and George Mandel Mantello, a consul with the El Salvadoran embassy, did much to gather and disseminate information on the murder of Jews at Auschwitz and throughout Europe.

As the war turned badly for Germany after 1943, Swiss immigration laws were relaxed.

The Swiss Jewish community intervened to save 1,700 Jews from Hungary via the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and 1,200 Jews from Theresienstadt.

By war’s end, 28,512 Jewish refugees were allowed to enter Switzerland.  Most of these refugees left Switzerland after the war.

Swiss diplomats in Budapest, Hungary, 1944-1945, included Carl Lutz, Harald Feller, Peter Zürcher, Maximilian Jaeger and Ernst Vonrufs.  They worked to help save thousands of Hungarian Jews during the last days of the occupation.  Swiss diplomat Ernst Prodolliet helped other Jews by providing life-saving visas.



Survival of Jews in Switzerland


Jews of Switzerland – 100%; pre-war number of Jews in Switzerland: 18,000-25,000.  No Jews were deported from Switzerland; many, however, were refused entry and were turned back at the border.  By February 1945, there were 115,000 refugees in Switzerland; approximately half were soldiers.  Between 1933 and 1945, 300,000 refugees passed through Switzerland; 30,000 were Jews.[1]  In 1944, 1,684 Hungarian Jews were sent from Bergen-Belsen to Switzerland, 1,200 Jews were sent from Theresienstadt.[2]  49 Swiss have been honored for recuing Jews.[3]





[1] Yahil, in Gutman, 1990, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, “Switzerland,” pp. 1441-1444

[2] Carlgrew, 1977; Gutman, 1990, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, pp. 1441, 1443; Hasler,1969; Levine, 1998

[3] Bornstein, in Bender & Weiss, 2007, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous among the Nations: Europe (Part I) and Other Countries, s.v., “Switzerland: Historical Introduction,” pp. cxiv-cxvii; Bender & Weiss, 2007, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous among the Nations: Europe (Part I) and Other Countries, s.v., “Switzerland,” pp. 518-527


Updated November 5, 2017