Righteous Swiss honoured in Geneva

Refugees from the Alsace region at the Swiss border in November 1944 Keystone

Sixty Swiss citizens, who used their courage and skills to help save thousands of Jews during the Second World War, have received official recognition in Geneva.

This content was published on January 29, 2008 - 17:23

More than 600 people, including Swiss President Pascal Couchepin, paid homage to the individuals, who were awarded the "Righteous Among the Nations" title by Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial during the 1990s.

The ceremony, organised by the Geneva-based Intercommunity Coordination against Anti-Semitism and Defamation, was held on Monday two days after International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"It's quite late, but it's good that people think about it," August Bohny told swissinfo about the special occasion organised for him and the other 59 Swiss.

"At the end of the war and for over 20 to 30 years, no one wanted to talk about this period of history, even within families."

The 88-year-old former teacher from Basel, who has spent his entire life dedicated to the underprivileged, arrived in France on May 6, 1941 to take charge of a home for handicapped children. He later moved to the village of Chambon-sur-Lignon in the Auvergne region.

Throughout the war he managed to open five homes that took in some 600 children, including 120 Jews who had escaped the Nazis and the French Vichy-regime police.

"When the police came the village population helped us hide the Jewish children. It was extraordinary," he remembered. Back in Switzerland in 1945, the Basel teacher looked after 300 children who had escaped the Buchenwald concentration camp.

In 1990 Bohny, together with the village of Chambon-sur-Lignon that helped save some 3,000-5,000 Jews, was awarded the "Righteous Among the Nations" title by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

"It was my destiny," he said, describing his actions which could have got him killed. "I was from a modest background and my parents were always ready to help others. I am very grateful that they passed on this gift to me."

"Follow your conscience"

Former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss underlined the importance of the action of the 60 "Righteous" Swiss.

"They are people who acted as individuals," she said. "The message is 'Follow your conscience, help the people you can save and, if necessary, defy laws which may be contrary to this humanitarian duty'."

The current president, Pascal Couchepin, reiterated this line of thinking.

"The 'Righteous' are models for present and future generations. These people have simply said 'no' to barbarity. They had the courage and the inner strength to say so. Human dignity depends on such acts," he said.

Commenting on the Holocaust funds controversy, which resulted in the $1.25 billion settlement between Holocaust survivors and Swiss banks in 1998 and forced Switzerland to review its actions during the Second World War, Couchepin said: "This look at reality and its less glorious aspects are important.

"Today, this homage to the 'Righteous' gives a more positive message; we declare our willingness to insist on the value of moral conscience over particular circumstances."

While reminding the audience that Switzerland cannot clear its name by simply putting forward the action of the 60 'Righteous', Dreifuss drew parallels with recent incidents in Switzerland where people have hidden illegal immigrants from the authorities.

"Of course, history is different and you have to analyse it according to specific events. But I think that among the people who committed themselves to help those in danger in their own country, even by breaking the law on foreigners, some of them acted by following their own conscience. Who are we to judge this conscience?"

swissinfo, based on an article in French by Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

In brief

The "Righteous Among The Nations" title is awarded by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel to non-Jewish people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Persons recognized with the title are presented with a specially minted medal bearing their name, a certificate of honour, and the privilege of their names being added to the Wall of Honour in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. More than 21,000 people have received the award, including 60 Swiss citizens.

A Swiss parliamentary committee is responsible for rehabilitating Swiss citizens found guilty of helping refugees, mostly Jews, during the Second World War. Such an act was against Swiss law at the time, as the country wanted to protect itself against the possible huge arrival of refugees and not annoy its neighbour, Nazi Germany. More than 100 people have so far been rehabilitated.

According to the former president of the Rehabilitation Committee, Françoise Saudan, the cantons were asked last year to go through their archives to see if there are any outstanding rehabilitation cases.

Monday's homage to the 60 'Righteous' was also the occasion to announce the launch of a book entitled "The Righteous Swiss" by François Wisard, head of the history department at the Swiss foreign ministry. The book will be distributed free to Swiss schoolchildren.

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