• Swiss victims of the Holocaust

Guest article | Switzerland set to have its own official Holocaust memorial

19.03.2021 – FABIAN EBERHARD*

Within the next few weeks, a broad alliance of stakeholders is due to present the Federal Council with a detailed plan for the creation of a national memorial site.

The Holocaust was the most monstrous crime in human history, yet there is still no official monument in Switzerland honouring its victims. This is set to change. Over the past two years, a project group has put together a proposal for a national memorial. The relevant paper is due to be submitted to the Federal Council this spring.

Remo Gysin, president of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, came up with the idea – together with representatives of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities as well as the Swiss umbrella organisation of representatives of Christian and Jewish communities, the Archives of Contemporary History and the Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Basel. “We will present our plan to the Federal Council in a few weeks’ time,” he said.

According to Gysin, Switzerland has a responsibility to “finally create a national memorial to the victims of National Socialism”. Switzerland already has around 50 relatively minor Shoah memorials that commemorate Holocaust victims as well as individuals who helped save Jewish lives. However, these sites were mostly the result of private initiatives. There is no national memorial.

“The Confederation should fund and support the new memorial,” says Gysin – possibly supported by the cantons and municipalities. Those championing the proposal would like the memorial to be in Berne, because the capital is in a central location at the beating heart of government. Any decision on this would be made by the Federal Council.

The aim is for the memorial to be combined with an educational aspect that would appeal to school classes, for example. The project group also envisages an information centre. Gysin: “We don’t just want to remember and commemorate the past – we also want to learn lessons for the future. The memorial needs to teach us how dangerous racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination are.” The site must not only make us stop and think, but also encourage us to reflect on current threats to democracy, he adds.

Sabina Bossert specialises in Jewish history at the ETH Zurich Archives of Contemporary History and has also worked on the project. This is how she puts it: “Commemorating and remembering is not enough.” A commemorative plaque or sculpture would be insufficient without background information, she says.

In particular, discussion is likely to surround the issue of whom exactly the site is meant to commemorate. The project group has suggested that the memorial not only remember the several hundreds of Swiss victims of National Socialism, but also every single person whom the Nazis persecuted, disenfranchised or murdered, as well as the individuals who saved Jewish and other lives.

In addition, the memorial’s concept features the following statement: “Remembering the men, women and children whom the Swiss authorities refused to rescue during the Second World War.” This is a bombshell that would see the government clearly admitting Swiss complicity for the first time. Bossert: “A confident Switzerland should not shy away from looking back and learning lessons.”

“Switzerland could have saved dozens of lives if it had acted with greater courage and tenacity,” say authors Balz Spörri, René Staubli and “SonntagsBlick” journalist Benno Tuchschmid in their 2019 book “Die Schweizer KZ-Häftlinge”.

The trio explain how the Swiss authorities abandoned many in their hour of need. They also reveal that the Nazis deported at least 408 Swiss to concentration camps between 1933 and 1945 – including resistance fighters, Jews, socialists, social dropouts, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sinti, and Roma. Of these, over 200 died.

No specific information has been provided on the cost of the project. The next step is for the Federal Council to flesh out and refine the plan. The prospect of Switzerland being able to open its first publicly funded Holocaust memorial in a few years’ time looks good. A number of Federal Councillors back the idea.

The plan for an official monument enjoys broad support. Behind the scenes, some 200 individuals and organisations from civil society, business, and politics have already teamed up to drive the idea forward. These include Switzerland’s ecclesiastical community as well as personalities like former Federal Councillor Ruth Dreifuss or author and “SonntagsBlick” columnist Milena Moser.

Zurich SVP National Councillor Alfred Heer is also on board. “A commemorative, symbolic site is important for a strong democracy like Switzerland,” he says, adding that the memorial must stimulate critical reflection. The SVP politician wants the Federal Council to submit the necessary legislative framework to parliament as soon as possible so that the site can be built.

Historian Sabina Bossert already has her own preferred date for the inauguration: 13 August 2022. This would be the 80th anniversary of the day on which Switzerland began turning away Jews at its border, thereby condemning many to certain death.

See also Benno Tuchschmid’s opinion piece.

* FABIAN EBERHARD studied history and social anthropology and currently writes for “SonntagsBlick”. This article originally appeared in “SonntagsBlick” on 7 March 2021. Link to original article.