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  • Swiss victims of the Holocaust

Opinion piece | Any Swiss memorial to Nazi victims needs to be more than just a physical landmark

19.03.2021 – Benno Tuchschmid*

Hundreds of Swiss died in Nazi concentration camps. Remembering these victims also means coming to terms with, and learning from, a dark chapter in Swiss history. Otherwise, there is no point remembering.

If you are wondering why Switzerland needs a memorial for Nazi victims, just stop for a minute to consider the story of Anna Böhringer.

On 22 September 1939, the authorities in Basel deported the Swiss-born mother of seven to Germany because of her “loose lifestyle”. Her crimes? Illegitimate children, prostitution, and life on the margins of society. Deportation was technically possible in her case because she had forfeited her Swiss citizenship by marrying a German. Shortly after Böhringer was banished to the German town of Lörrach, the Nazis arrested her and shipped her off to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Böhringer’s relatives pleaded with the Swiss authorities to restore her citizenship – her only chance of survival. In an internal memo, the cantonal government of Basel-Stadt wrote: “Böhringer is getting what she has long deserved. She only has her immoral life choices to blame. Switzerland also has sanctions for such people.”

The Nazis murdered Böhringer, 53, at Ravensbrück on 20 February 1945. A memorial to victims of Nazi persecution is vital to remembering Anna Böhringer and others. It would remind us that the Swiss authorities served these people to the Nazis on a plate.

Benno Tuchschmid co-authored the book “Die Schweizer KZ-Häftlinge. Vergessene Opfer des Dritten Reichs” (The Swiss concentration camp prisoners – forgotten victims of the Third Reich), published by NZZ-Libro (available in German and, from September 2021, also in French).

At least 408 Swiss citizens were deported to concentration camps during the Second World War. We can add to this number at least 334 men, women and adolescents who were born and grew up in Switzerland, spoke dialect in many cases, but never held Swiss citizenship. Out of these 742 in total, 468 never came back.

In many, but not all, of these cases, Switzerland acted just as disgracefully as it did towards Anna Böhringer. Back then, the authorities regarded Jews, leftists, homosexuals, resistance fighters, disabled people, and social dropouts as second-class citizens not worth defending. Switzerland was happy to wash its hands of such elements. Tellingly, these were the same minorities that the Nazis wanted to exterminate.

Remembrance is important, but a memorial is worthless if we as a society fail to take a serious look at these past injustices and learn from them. Until recently, no other country in Western Europe had shown quite the same indifference as Switzerland towards its own Nazi victims – they were simply forgotten.

Change began last year, when Simonetta Sommaruga became the first President of the Swiss Confederation to acknowledge the suffering of Swiss who were persecuted. Activists in Zurich have since teamed up to install commemorative “Stolpersteine” (biographic plaques) in front of the former homes of Nazi victims. Seven of these stones have been embedded into the pavement to date. More are to follow in Basel, Berne and Winterthur. Teachers have been proactive in addressing the topic in schools, while the stories of Swiss Nazi victims have also been the subject of master’s theses.

The groundwork for a national memorial (including an information centre) has been laid. It is now up to us to ensure that this commemorative site makes a difference. We owe it to Anna Böhringer and all the other victims.

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


*Benno Tuchschmid is chief editor of the “SonntagsBlick” magazine supplement. This piece first appeared in “SonntagsBlick” on 7 March 2021. Link to original article.