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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 January, 2004, 08:30 GMT
Swiss to pardon refugee helpers
By Imogen Foulkes
BBC correspondent in Berne

Almost 60 years after the end of World War II, Switzerland has introduced a law pardoning Swiss citizens who helped refugees fleeing the Nazis.

Neutral Switzerland accepted many refugees but turned away large numbers of Jews, apparently out of fear of offending the Germans. But several thousand Jewish refugees were helped by local people.

If they were caught, the refugee helpers faced fines, the loss of their jobs and even imprisonment.

Jewish refugees were officially rejected by the Swiss
In 1942, a young Swiss man, Jacob Spirig, helped to bring four elderly Jewish women over the border from Germany into Switzerland.

He was caught by the Swiss authorities and the women were sent back to concentration camps, where two later died.

Jacob Spirig was tried by a Swiss court and sent to prison.

Although Switzerland accepted around 300,000 European refugees during the war, historians estimate at least 24,000 people, most of them Jews fleeing Germany, were turned away.

'Too little, too late'

But not everyone supported the official policy of returning the refugees.

Many Swiss farmers living on the borders, and even policemen and border guards, took pity - they helped refugees to stay and found places for them to hide.

Switzerland's reward for such acts of humanity on the part of its own citizens was harsh: hundreds of people faced prosecution.

They were fined, fired from their jobs and stripped of their pensions; some served time in prison.

Now, over six decades later, a law is coming into force pardoning these people.

Many see it as the final chapter in Switzerland's reassessment of its role during World War II.

The Swiss Government apologised officially for its treatment of war-time refugees back in 1995.

But others argue that the law of pardon, which makes no provision for any form of compensation, is far too little and far too late.

Jacob Spirig, like most of the refugee-helpers, died before he could see his name cleared.

Country profile: Switzerland
14 Dec 03  |  Country profiles
Swiss wind up Holocaust fund
03 May 02  |  Europe


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