During World War II (WWII), approximately 300,000 people crossed the border into Switzerland from Nazi-occupied countries. Of the refugees, around 30,000 were Jews. An estimated 24,500 mainly Jewish civilians, however, were turned away. To review its wartime policies, the government set up an “Independent Commission of Experts on the Second World War,” which started its work in 1996 and produced a report that was welcomed by the government in 1999. Switzerland continues to dedicate resources and implement programs toward the goals it endorsed in the Terezin Declaration, as well as promote Holocaust education and remembrance.
According to the Gamaraal Foundation, an organization established in 2014 that provides Holocaust education to the wider public and financial assistance to Holocaust survivors, there are approximately 450 Holocaust survivors among Switzerland’s 18,000 Jews. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) currently provides funding for social welfare benefits to 64 Holocaust survivors through the Swiss Welfare Jewish Organization.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
The Swiss government stated in its 2012 Green Paper on Immovable Property that immovable property was not confiscated or otherwise wrongfully seized in Switzerland during WWII, and thus “legislation and administrative measures regarding specifically immovable (real) property were not adopted or prepared.” Separately, a U.S. Department of State interagency task force in 1997 detailed ways in which the Swiss Central Bank knowingly converted Nazi-looted gold bullion stolen from countries occupied by Nazi Germany into Swiss francs and that these funds assisted German war efforts. Historical investigations undertaken by the Independent Commission of Experts in the 1990s came to similar conclusions about the role of the Swiss Central Bank and included anecdotal evidence that Swiss banks and insurance companies were implicated in immovable property transactions involving Jewish property and assets elsewhere in Europe.
In 1998, the Department of State’s Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Holocaust-Era Issues and the World Jewish Congress identified more than 20,000 bank accounts as belonging to Jews who had moved their money to Swiss private banks for safekeeping. These funds were never returned to them or their heirs. In 1998, class action lawyers and the World Jewish Restitution Organization reached a $1.25 billion settlement with defendant Swiss private banks for their handling of Jewish-owned bank accounts, including the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) and Credit Suisse. The settlement resolved all outstanding restitution claims against Switzerland (i.e., against the Swiss state, cantons, private persons, and businesses) involving nearly all forms of wealth, including real estate, cash, shares, precious metals, and jewelry, among others. Of the $1.25 billion awarded, $800 million was earmarked for repayments to victims or targets of Nazi persecution (such as Jews, Roma/Sinti, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others) whose money had remained in Swiss bank accounts after the war. Another $425 million was distributed to other classes in the settlement agreement, including victims who were forced laborers or were allowed entry into Switzerland but were abused or mistreated; victims who were forced laborers at German companies (as the proceeds were sent to Switzerland); and an allocation was made on account of those victims who had the proceeds of their looted assets pass through Switzerland.
While the Swiss government did not take part in the settlement, it co-created a $300 million special memorial fund for Holocaust victims with the Swiss Bankers’ Association. The fund drew on contributions from the country’s private sector to offer assistance to Holocaust survivors and relatives of victims whose assets lay dormant in Swiss banks since the war.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art
While the 1998 Swiss bank settlement covered the vast majority of restitution claims, looted art did not fall under the agreement. As a signatory to the 1998 Washington Principles, Switzerland continues to support the identification of Nazi-looted art. Following the adoption of the Washington Principles, the Swiss government established the Contact Bureau for Looted Art, with the Federal Council commissioning the Federal Department of Home Affairs and Foreign Ministry, in collaboration with the cantons and the Swiss Museums Association, to draw up a memorandum to achieve “just and fair solutions” concerning restitution claims of Nazi-looted art. The memorandum outlined several possible actions to take if investigations determined the existence of Nazi-looted art in Swiss institutions. Possible actions included the return of the artwork to the former owners or their surviving heirs or tying the return of the artwork to a loan or donation of the work to the institution that uncovered its provenance.
According to the Director of the Fine Arts Museum of Bern, that museum’s acceptance of the controversial Cornelius Gurlitt bequest in 2016, which comprises hundreds of artworks once held in Germany by the son of a Nazi art dealer, has increased awareness about Nazi-looted art in Switzerland. Since the bequest, the Swiss government allocated more funding and expertise to address the issue, with the Federal Office for Culture for the first time designating $2 million to Swiss museums for conducting provenance research during the years 2016 to 2020. In addition, the Fine Arts Museum of Bern asked the commission that was created in Germany to review other parts of the Gurlitt collection to determine if any of its bequests involved Nazi‑confiscated art. So far, 12 provenance research projects have been completed, and an additional 14 projects were announced in November 2018. The office published online the findings of its completed provenance research. The Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs ministries also published a progress report on the Swiss government’s work in the field of Nazi-looted art for the period 2011-2016, which detailed the Swiss National Museum’s return of a silver drinking vessel in 2012 to the heirs of Jewish art collector Emma Budge, whose collection in Hamburg, Germany, was seized by Nazi authorities and auctioned for Nazi profit.
There remains much art in Switzerland that has not yet been researched, but in the decentralized Swiss system, many museums and art collections are under the purview of the cantons rather than the federal government or are maintained by private organizations and private individuals.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
The Switzerland Independent Commission of Experts on the Second World War completed its research in 2001. The commission found no Holocaust-era looted Judaica or Jewish cultural property, including sacred scrolls, synagogue and ceremonial objects, libraries, manuscripts, archives, or Jewish community records in Switzerland.
The Jewish Cultural Reconstruction was created after WWII to handle the distribution of cultural property found in the American zone of Germany that was considered heirless. It operated under the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization that was authorized by the United States to handle the return of property that had been owned by Jews. Switzerland received 7,843 books from the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, including part of the Breslau collection that had been stored in the U.S. Army’s collection point in Wiesbaden, Germany, and which was deposited into the Geneva, Zurich, and Basel libraries. The Switzerland Independent Commission of Experts was not specifically tasked with researching Judaica that might have entered the country during the war; however, information regarding Judaica also did not surface in the course of the Commission’s work. Various museums in Switzerland hold isolated Judaica pieces in their collections. Some provenance research has been conducted, but to the Department of State’s knowledge, none of it has been made public.
Access to Archival Documents
The University of Bern and the Fine Arts Museum of Bern train provenance researchers on Nazi‑looted art, while several universities, including the University of Bern and the University of Basel, conduct research on the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. The Federal Archives maintain records of Swiss institutions’ research on looted art for public access. Switzerland also contributes reports to the German Lost Art Internet Database to document Nazi-looted art.
Swiss institutions such as the Archives for Contemporary History in Zurich maintain an archival access agreement with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Federal Archives are open to all individuals, regardless of nationality and profession, and are accessible for restitution claim research.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
Each year, the Federal Service for Combating Racism finances numerous projects for preventing religious prejudice and educating the public about the Holocaust. For example, in 2018, the Federal Service for Combating Racism provided the Osses Theatre in the canton of Fribourg with a small grant to adapt “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” to a stage performance to raise public awareness of the history of the Holocaust and to enable reflection and debate on racism, religion, and discrimination. Several school performances for adolescents took place, which were followed by discussions with directors and young professional actors. Mediation activities accompanied the performances, including an exhibition called “Anne Frank – A Story of Today,” which was organized by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
Although not a requirement, many schools provide Holocaust education. The government commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.
Switzerland is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and chaired the organization between March 2017 and March 2018. In January 2018, at the federal government’s initiative, Lausanne’s University of Teacher Education introduced Holocaust study topics into its curriculum.
According to research cited in the 2015 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Country Report on Switzerland, there are a total of 54 Holocaust remembrance sites in the country, which take the form of plaques, synagogue and cemetery monuments, public art works, parks, and street names. In 2011, a Holocaust museum dedicated to Jewish refugees was founded in Riehen in the canton of Basel. There are also plans under way to establish a Holocaust remembrance hiking trail in the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden.