Jew­ish Refugees in Switzer­land Dur­ing the Holo­caust: A Mem­oir of Child­hood and History

Frie­da Johles Forman
  • Review
By – October 5, 2011
Jew­ish Refugees in Switzer­land Dur­ing the Holo­caust, the first Eng­lish lan­guage mem­oir of this expe­ri­ence that focus­es on children’s cir­cum­stances and dai­ly life in Swiss refugee camps, has a much broad­er sweep. In the wake of Kristall­nacht, the author, Johles-For­man, then four years old, fled Vien­na with her par­ents and old­er broth­er to Brus­sels and from there to unoc­cu­pied France. Their final, breath-tak­ing escape was to Switzer­land, where they were among the 25,000 Jews seek­ing refuge. It was not until many years lat­er, in 1999, that the author, liv­ing in Cana­da with her fam­i­ly, had the courage to revive her mem­o­ries and fur­ther explore those piv­otal years spent as a child-refugee in Switzer­land. Want­i­ng to know the expe­ri­ence of oth­er Jews who spent the war years in Switzer­land, she adver­tised in a Cana­di­an paper for those who might have had a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence and was reward­ed with a tremen­dous response; she then tried to find the com­mon thread in all their sto­ries and pic­tures. This book is the result. Woven into her own family’s sto­ries are those of many oth­ers, which helped to refresh the author’s mem­o­ry.

Switzer­land is a very Ger­man­ic coun­try, that even insti­gat­ed the J” on the pass­ports of the Jews who man­aged to cross their bor­der. The native born Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, num­ber­ing about 18,000, was pow­er­less, and could do lit­tle to stem its country’s his­tor­i­cal anti-Semi­tism. For a brief peri­od, fol­low­ing protests by church groups, social­ists, lib­er­al polit­i­cal par­ties, the media, and wel­fare orga­ni­za­tions, the bor­ders were eased, but only an esti­mat­ed 24,000 Jew­ish refugees were suc­cess­ful in enter­ing Switzer­land. At least as many, and like­ly more, were turned away. At most, only 10% of the 300,000 for­eign­ers who spent the war years in Switzer­land were Jews. The men were con­signed to work camps for about nine months, after which they could rejoin their wives and chil­dren at fam­i­ly camps where they were free to live an obser­vant Ortho­dox Jew­ish life. Some chil­dren went to hos­tels or children’s colonies. Oth­ers were sent to board with fam­i­lies, most­ly among non-Jews (Swiss Jews, who pro­vid­ed mon­e­tary sup­port, were not forth­com­ing in offer­ing them shel­ter). The Gen­tile fam­i­lies insist­ed on their guests attend­ing church with the fam­i­ly on Sun­days. Johles- For­man attests that those Swiss years between 1942 and 1946, when she was age five through nine, loom larg­er than any oth­er years in her life com­plet­ing her research uti­liz­ing new­ly released archives in Switzer­land. This is an excel­lent­ly writ­ten book that not only tells about the author’s war years but also enlight­ens the read­er about the larg­er refugee expe­ri­ence in Switzer­land. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, pho­tos, index.
Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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