Holocaust-Era Assets

Researching Swiss Refugee Policy

Presented on December 4, 1998 by Hannah E. Trooboff

Let me first thank Greg Bradsher and Michael Kurtz and their staffs for putting together this very valuable Synposium, which is enabling us researchers to share our specialized knowledge and to learn from one another.

I frequently get puzzled looks when I explain that my colleagues and I are researching World War II-era Swiss refugee policy in the United States for the Independent Commission of Experts: Switzerland — Second World War. So let me first explain why American archives and published literature are such important sources on this topic. First, as a neutral country surrounded by belligerent Axis and Axis-occupied nations during the war, Switzerland was a central vantage point for U.S. government intelligence operations. In addition, a number of public and private American refugee organizations had offices in Switzerland. Because of this choice location, during World War II U.S. government agents and representatives of American refugee organizations in Switzerland could observe and report on Swiss refugee policy and on the situation faced by refugees in Switzerland. These Americans and their Swiss colleagues also developed influential relationships with Swiss government officials. The correspondence of American agents and representatives offers insight into policy decisions made by Swiss government officials. Their correspondence also reflects on Swiss public opinion about refugees. Policy decisions and public opinion are important considerations when trying to reconstruct the development of a country's policy.

A good way to begin research in the U.S. on Swiss refugee policy is by reading published literature. I suspect this holds true for investigations into other nations' refugee policies as well. Most of the published material in English on Swiss refugee policy is available at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum library, which is open to the public. There are two types of books useful to this area of research. First, there are books of published documents, such as Sybil Milton and Henry Friedländer's Archives of the Holocaust and the volumes that accompany David Wyman's Abandonment of the Jews. These books literally reproduce documents, so the documents appear on the page as they would in boxes of archives. These publications are good resources because they include particularly interesting documents, which have already been sorted through and selected by archivists and historians. One caveat, however: the documents included were selected by individuals with interests and agendas that may differ from yours. Perusing these volumes does not replace the process of going through archival collections yourself, but it may be a good way to decide whether a particular archive might have useful material for your research. Archives of the Holocaust includes documents on the Holocaust from archives around the world — such as the World Jewish Congress and American Friends Service Committee Archives — and each volume is devoted to a different archive, some of which include documents on refugees and refugee policy. David Wyman's book, Abandonment of the Jews, examines how the United States failed to help Jews during the Holocaust, and the volumes of reproduced archival material that accompany his book include documents supporting his argument.

There are also historical studies in English of the Holocaust and World War II that include discussions, albeit brief ones, of Swiss refugee policy. Admittedly, all of the English-language literature that touches on this subject that I have encountered thus far (and that actually includes over 25 books) approaches this topic from a singularly American perspective. They tend to focus on larger subjects: Richard Breitman and Alan Kraut's American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, for example, examines American refugee policy; Haim Genizi's American Apathy: The Plight of Christian Refugees from Nazism and Arthur Morse's While Six Million Died focus on American inaction during World War II; and Yehuda Bauer's American Jewry and the Holocaust surveys the role of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as a rescue and relief organization during World War II. These and many other such books touch on Switzerland as only a small and incidental part of a much broader literature. Although this lack of analysis presented obvious disadvantages, because I had to piece together bits and pieces from many books to create a comprehensive picture of Swiss refugee policy, this process also had its advantages. Namely, it revealed which areas remain unexplored. Also, if you read German, you may consider looking at Carl Ludwig's official report on Swiss refugee policy between 1933 and 1957, which offers a comprehensive history of Swiss refugee policy during this time period.

We began looking at archival documents on this subject with the volumes of Foreign Relations of the United States for the pre-war and war years. Like the published literature in English on this subject, Foreign Relations refers to Swiss refugee policy mostly in the larger context of U.S. foreign policy, including how the U.S. offered aid to neutral countries to encourage them to accept refugees from occupied Europe. The State Department documents are arranged by decimal numbers, so skimming through Foreign Relations provided us with appropriate starting decimal numbers in State Department documents for further research at the National Archives. But I'll let David Pfeiffer tell you about the available resources on refugees and refugee policy here at the National Archives.

We also researched Swiss refugee policy at the archives of the American refugee organizations that had sizeable operations in Switzerland during World War II. There were three major private American refugee organizations with representatives in Switzerland. All three have archival collections that are open — I think — to bona fide researchers. Remember to contact the archivists at these archives in advance to schedule appointments to research, though, because they often have limited research space and staff.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (commonly known as the JDC) is a Jewish philanthropic organization based in Manhattan. During the war, it had an unofficial representative in St. Gall, Switzerland, named Saly Mayer. Mayer was the President of the Swiss Jewish Community in St. Gall, and he played a crucial role in the ransom negotiations with the S.S. that led to the release of thousands of Jews from concentration camps. The JDC archive at the organization's headquarters in New York City has a lot of material on these ransom negotiations and on the JDC's efforts to lobby Allied and neutral governments to liberalize their refugee policies.

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, maintained an office in Geneva from 1942 until 1946, and the records from that office can be found at the Friends' headquarters in Philadelphia. Their records are particularly valuable because they include the extensive correspondence of Roswell and Marjorie McClelland, the AFSC representatives in Switzerland. This married couple maintained close relationships with key players in Swiss refugee policy like Heinrich Rothmund, who was the Swiss Chief of the Division of Justice and Police and officer in charge of the alien police in the Swiss government during the war. Roswell McClelland also became the American government's War Refugee Board representative in Switzerland in 1944 and his letters about his WRB work are included in the AFSC archival collection. With these records, researchers can piece together a picture of the kind of rescue and relief operations carried out by refugee organizations based in neutral Switzerland. Furthermore, the McClellands' correspondence includes reports on the conditions at Swiss refugee camps based on their visits to these camps.

The third major private American refugee organization working in Switzerland was the World Jewish Congress, which had an office in Geneva during the war. Unfortunately, the records from the WJC's Paris and Geneva offices were burned during the war to prevent them from being seized by the Germans. The archives from the New York WJC office are now in Cincinnati at the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College. These records include the New York office's correspondence with the Geneva and Paris offices and demonstrate typical relief activities of a rescue and relief organization. These records describe WJC representatives' efforts to secure visas, exit permits, and passports to help refugees escape German-occupied Europe. This collection is particularly useful because of the correspondence from the WJC representative in Geneva, Gerhard Riegner. Riegner was Swiss and is well-known for his role in communicating news about the Final Solution to WJC representatives in the U.S. In his letters, Riegner shows how Switzerland played a role as a central point for gathering information about the realities of the Final Solution.

In 1944 President Roosevelt responded to public outrage in the U.S. about the Final Solution by creating the War Refugee Board. This official U.S. government body was made up of the Secretaries of War, State, and Treasury and had representatives throughout Europe. The War Refugee Board records are now housed at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York. They are relevant because the War Refugee Board's Bern office made many attempts to influence Swiss refugee policy. For instance, when European Jews holding both genuine and spurious Latin American passports (which they had managed to buy at Latin American Consulates) were being deported from France, the WRB convinced the Latin American governments to recognize the passports so that the Jews wouldn't be killed. After securing the assurances of these governments that the documentation would be recognized, the WRB convinced the Swiss government to explain this agreement to the Germans so that they wouldn't deport these Jewish passport-holders.

The FDR library at Hyde Park also houses the Henry Morgenthau, Jr., diaries and papers. Morgenthau was the Secretary of Treasury under Roosevelt. He was particularly concerned about Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, and he actively encouraged U.S. government policies on behalf of victims of Nazi persecution. His papers include some material on refugees escaping to Switzerland, American refugee policy, and efforts to rescue or provide relief to refugees in Europe.

All of this said, it would be negligent to research Swiss refugee policy without examining Swiss archives. Two Swiss archives include documents in German on refugees and Swiss refugee policy: The Swiss Federal Archives in Bern (also known as the Bundesarchiv) and the Archiv für Zeitgeschichte in Zürich. The Federal Archives has documents from the Swiss Federal Department of Justice and Police as well as documents issued by Army authorities responsible for admitting or refusing entry to refugees at the Swiss border and for sending military refugees to internment camps. It also has a database on civilian refugees accepted into Switzerland and individual files of official and private documents on each civilian and political refugee allowed to enter Switzerland during the war. The Archiv für Zeitgeschichte contains archives from Swiss Jewish organizations, relief organizations in Switzerland, and institutions responsible for refugee camps. In addition, each Swiss canton has an archive. These collections include documents on the cantonal refugee and immigrant police and on the relationships between cantonal authorities and the federal government.

The researcher's role is to seek explanations for historical events. I've mentioned some resources that have been particularly useful in helping me to formulate such explanations. Although the Independent Commission of Experts has a broad mandate, our research covers specific areas relating to Switzerland's role during World War II, which leaves plenty of other, related, but as-yet unexplored areas for researchers to approach. Let me therefore close by proposing some interesting areas of research that I have come across but have been unable to pursue given the focused nature of my work. First, no one has written a comprehensive study comparing the work of various refugee organizations working around the world on behalf of both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees in Europe during World War II. Second, the finances of rescue and relief work have yet to be examined thoroughly. Such a study could address the intricacies of philanthropic fundraising and the complications of wartime transfers of funds overseas for use in enemy territories. This financial aspect of refugee policy is important because it contributes to the understanding of the limitations imposed by governments on humanitarian work during the Holocaust. These financial questions are relevant because they address the limitations imposed by Allied and neutral countries on humanitarian work during the war. Third, there is no study that compares the refugee policies of neutral and belligerent nations and explains how these policies influenced one another. Finally, the role of the International Red Cross and national Red Cross committees during the Holocaust needs to be investigated further. I encourage you to take up these topics and to contribute to this unprecedented historical reevaluation of wartime neutrality during World War II.