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Swiss aided Holocaust - study

Swiss banks made money on victims of the Nazis.
The report has confronted neutral Switzerland with unpleasant truths about its World War II role  

ZURICH, Switzerland -- Switzerland ducked responsibility for the suffering of victims of the Nazis by claiming neutrality during World War II, international historians have concluded.

In a 600-page report they state that the country, which has a long tradition of non-alignment, instead collaborated with the Axis powers by turning back thousands of refugees and avoiding returning wealth to Nazi victims when peace came.

"Large numbers of persons whose lives were in danger were turned away -- needlessly," said Jean-Francois Bergier, who led an international panel of historians given first-time access to government and company archives.

"Others were welcomed in, yet their human dignity was not always respected," he told The Associated Press.

The report is the result of a five-year study of Switzerland's wartime role commissioned by the government, and is an effort to explore allegations from Jewish groups that the Swiss banks and industry enriched themselves at the expense of victims of the Nazis.

An emotional debate about the country's past escalated into a bitter row four years ago, which only ended with the biggest banks in Switzerland agreeing to pay $1.25 billion to settle all Holocaust-era claims against the banks, industry and the government.

The report throws light on an anti-Jewish wartime refugee policy, extensive Swiss gold purchases from Nazi Germany even when it became clear some of the gold was looted, and the use of 11,000 forced labourers in Swiss-owned factories in Germany.

Concessions 'went too far'

Bergier, professor emeritus at Switzerland's prestigious Federal Institute of Technology, gave an overview singling out the country's most "egregious failures" during the war.

"We are obliged to sustain the affirmation, perhaps provocative in form, but nonetheless in conformity with the facts: The refugee policy of our authorities contributed to the most atrocious of Nazi objectives -- the Holocaust," he said.

The historians said they could not determine exactly how many Jews reached the Alpine country's borders. Overall Switzerland provided shelter during the war to nearly 30,000 Jews, they said. The number rejected was much more difficult to pin down, but previous estimates of 30,000 Jews turned back was "unfounded."

The historians said "it must ... be assumed that Switzerland turned back or deported over 20,000 refugees" during the war, and that a large proportion were Jewish.

Many of those rejected are thought to have been captured by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps, where they died.

The historians rejected the "boat is full" policy of some wartime Swiss officials, who claimed the small country was unable to care for more refugees without being swamped.

The government "knew that a more flexible and magnanimous attitude" would have been bearable for citizens' living standards, "however precarious it might have been at the time," Bergier said.

Surrounded by the Nazis and their allies, Switzerland made concessions to the Germans, and it was difficult at the time to tell how far they had to go, the historians concluded.

"Still, we established that we often did go too far," said Bergier.

Other members of the nine-member panel included Israeli professor Saul Friedlaender, Harold James of Princeton University in the United States and Poland's Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp.


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