January 14, 2004
Swiss Woman Steps Forward Again to Aid
BERN, Switzerland, Jan. 13 -- As
a 17-year-old Jewish schoolgirl in Geneva, Aimée
Stauffer-Stitelmann risked her life --and broke Swiss law
-- in rescuing Jewish children from the Nazis.
On Tuesday, nearly six decades
after she was censured and briefly jailed by a Swiss
military tribunal, she became the first citizen to seek
to clear her name under a new law offering to pardon
those who were penalized for violating Switzerland's
neutrality during World War II.
"It is absurd, laughable, to ask
to be rehabilitated after 60 years, and I had to be
persuaded to do it," Ms. Stauffer-Stitelmann, who is now
79, said in an interview. "But this is less about the
past and more about the future. I want to draw attention
to the suffering of immigrants who are here without
papers. I want the people of Switzerland to fight against
falling into the same situation again without even
The law, which went into effect
on Jan. 1, is considered a small but important step in
Switzerland's tortuous and uneven struggle to confront
its wartime history. It follows the "Nazi gold" affair of
the 1990's, when Switzerland and its banks were
identified as the main route for gold looted by Nazi
armies, and were forced into a $1.25 billion settlement
with Jewish groups.
"This law is part of the unfinished history of
Switzerland," said Stefan Keller, a historian who has
written about Switzerland and World War II. "This
rehabilitation is symbolic proof that decisions at the
time were wrong."
the first Swiss to seek pardon for the wartime
"crime" of aiding Jews.
It also underscores the limits
of Switzerland's willingness to make amends. Pardons are
not automatic and those who were affected or their
survivors must apply within five years. There will be no
financial compensation. The pardons will not extend to
Swiss who fought in the French Resistance or joined the
civil war in Spain against Franco.
Proponents of the legislation
complain that a five-year, 600-page study completed in
2002 that challenged the Swiss claim of strict neutrality
remains so sensitive that Parliament has refused to
A retired schoolteacher and
lifelong political activist, Ms. Stauffer-Stitelmann
came from her home in Geneva to the vast meeting hall in
the Federal Palace, the seat of Parliament, to announce
her request for a pardon at a news conference. A
12-member parliamentary commission will review her
With her husband, Henri
Stauffer, 80, at her side, some of her stories spilled
out. She said she knew so little about working in the
underground that she wore high heels when crossing the
border between France and Switzerland and a bright white
coat on nighttime reconnaissance missions.
She said she distracted customs
officers with endless chatter and either used false
papers to help her young charges or brought them on foot
across an unguarded stretch of the border. "I had a tiny
suicidal side," she said in the interview.
Asked to describe what she did
to save lives, Ms. Stauffer-Stitelmann replied, "Not very
In 1938, the year Germany
annexed Austria in the Anschluss, the Swiss government
began imposing border controls on refugees from Germany
and Austria in an attempt to appease Hitler.
"Switzerland, and in particular
its political leaders, failed when it came to generously
offering protection to persecuted Jews," said the 2002
study. "By adopting numerous measures making it more
difficult for refugees to reach safety, and by handing
over the refugees caught directly to their persecutors,
the Swiss authorities were instrumental in helping the
Nazi regime to attain its goals."
Several hundred Swiss lost their
jobs or were fined or even imprisoned for secretly
helping Jews and other refugees flee the
Born in Paris and holding both
Swiss and French passports, Ms. Stauffer-Stitelmann was
able to move across the border. She said she brought
between 15 and 20 Jewish children into Switzerland from
Nazi-occupied France from 1942 to 1945 and also helped a
small number of Resistance fighters.
Paradoxically, she was penalized
by the Swiss government for violating border laws by
helping Jews return to France in 1945. She was put in
detention in Geneva for 18 days.
Among those she saved were two
Berlin-born Austrian children, Hella Amelkin-Luft, now 68
and living in New York, and Uriel Luft, her 70-year-old
brother, a theatrical agent living outside of
In late 1942, Ms.
Stauffer-Stitelmann crossed the border into France and
picked up Hella, then 7, and Uriel, 9, in Annemasse.
Their father, a wealthy lawyer, had tuberculosis and was
connected well enough to flee to Davos, Switzerland, for
treatment and to arrange for his children's escape; their
mother and a grandmother died at Auschwitz.
Ms. Stauffer-Stitelmann hid the
children from the guard at the border by telling them to
hide behind a certain door and when to run to a train.
She hid them again under the seat of the train
compartment. On the Swiss side, in Geneva, she delivered
them to a man waiting with a bicycle. The children were
sent to live with different families, and were eventually
reunited with their father.
"My brother and I and our four
children and nine grandchildren are here today because of
what a girl of 17 did for us," said Ms. Amelkin-Luft. Out
of the more than 11,000 children deported from
Nazi-occupied France, only 300 came back. "They had no
use for children," she added.
Of the young woman who saved
her, Ms. Amelkin-Luft added, "If she had been caught in
France, she would have ended up in Auschwitz
As Mr. Luft put it: "I don't
want to dramatize this -- life is dramatic enough -- but
today, read the newspapers, and you will see so much to
lose faith in human beings. Today, more than ever, we
need heroes, and Aimée is a hero of the best
It is not known how many of the
Swiss who were censured are alive or who might seek
pardons. The Paul Grueninger Foundation said it had put
forward the names of 26 people.
The foundation is named for a
Swiss police officer and former school teacher who
illegally allowed about 3,000 Austrian Jews to enter
Switzerland during 1938 and 1939. Fired from his job, he
died in 1972 in poverty and isolation; he was pardoned
posthumously by a Swiss court in 1995, foreshadowing the
law that went into effect this month.
After the war, Ms.
Stauffer-Stitelmann said, she supported partisans
fighting Franco in Spain and organized protests against
apartheid in South Africa and the American war in
Vietnam, and was at the front of antiglobalization
marches last summer in Evian, France, during a meeting of
the major industrial nations.
After retiring as an elementary
school teacher in 1987, she helped set up an underground
school in a church to teach French to the children of
illegal immigrants. (The children were banned from
attending public schools.)
Her political activities were
secretly monitored by the Swiss government until the
1980's, until public revelations about the extensive
monitoring of Swiss citizens ended the practice in the
According to her file, which is
now public, she was accused, among other things, of
subscribing to Communist publications and helping Spain's
anti-fascist movement, and of organizing a news
conference in Bern against the Vietnam war, where she
even "paid for the room and the aperitifs."