H o l o c a u s t   S u r v i v o r s '   N e t w o r k


I N   T H E   N E W S
NY Times



January 14, 2004


A Swiss Woman Steps Forward Again to Aid Refugees




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 knowing it."

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.


Aimée Stauffer-Stitelmann,
the first Swiss to seek pardon for the wartime "crime" of aiding Jews.

"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."

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 debate it.

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 request.

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 much."

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 Nazis.

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 Montreal.

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 herself."

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 kind."

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 late 1980's.

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."