Picture ‘Survivor’, Fishel Rabinowicz 1994, detail.
Picture ‘Survivor’, Fishel Rabinowicz 1994, detail. © Gamaraal Foundation

Voices of Holocaust survivors in Switzerland

Fishel Rabinowicz (*1924) is one of the last living eye-witnesses of the Holocaust. Switzerland’s acceptance and assimilation of him and other Holocaust survivors was by no means a certainty.

Erika Hebeisen

Erika Hebeisen

Historian and curator at the Swiss National Museum

As the number of living victims of the Holocaust dwindles, attention is turning in many quarters to ‘the last of the contemporary witnesses’. The Jewish Museum in Hohenems has just had an exhibition exploring this loss of first-hand remembrance. The exhibition presented us with all the questions that the deaths of the last contemporary witnesses raises: To what extent are the voices of these survivors crucial for a society in which ‘never again’ is not a secure value? What will it mean in political terms when there is no one left who can give a first-hand account of their horrific experience with the Nazi reign of terror? According to the Gamaraal Foundation, several hundred Jewish survivors of the Holocaust are still living in Switzerland. The Foundation, founded in 2014, cares for these very elderly victims of National Socialism and works to ensure their voices continue to be heard. Now, the Foundation has commissioned a number of Swiss directors to record eyewitnesses talking about their experiences; these films will then be presented in the touring exhibition ‘The Last Swiss Holocaust Survivors’. Thanks to such conversations with contemporary witnesses, future generations will be able to hear these voices too and learn from those who survived what people did to others during World War II. Their testimony must be kept alive, because: ‘The Holocaust is not indescribable or unthinkable’, as Gregor Spuhler pointed out in spring 2017 at the opening of ‘The Last Swiss Holocaust Survivors’. For many years, almost no one wanted to listen to these survivors; today, we don’t have much time left to talk to them. In recent years many of them have told their stories of suffering, frequently and vividly. As Spuhler stated, they speak ‘not of barbarians and beasts, but of other people – people who cruelly tormented them, who were “just doing their jobs”, who looked on or looked the other way or who tried to help.’
Drawing by Kalman Landau, who was incarcerated in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Drawing by Kalman Landau, who was incarcerated in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
After the war, children and adolescents from the Buchenwald concentration camp, where Fishel Rabinowicz was also imprisoned, were brought to Switzerland to recover. Some of them plucked up the courage to draw pictures recalling the horror of day-to-day life in the camps. These drawings are by Kalman Landau. Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich, Biographies Topics / 78
It wasn’t until the 1990s, with the more intensive reappraisal of Switzerland’s role in World War II, that a broader public realised there are Holocaust survivors living in Switzerland, survivors who have become Swiss. One of these survivors is Fishel Rabinowicz (*1924). He arrived in Switzerland in the immediate post-war period. Others found refuge in Switzerland later on, such as Gabor Hirsch (1930-2020), who came here after the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, and Nina Weil (*1932) and Ivan Levkovits (*1937), who were resettled after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. As displaced persons from communist countries they were welcomed during the Cold War, while during the Nazi regime they would have been dismissed in this country as persecuted Jews.
Contemporary witness Fishel Rabinowicz, who grew up in Sosnowiec, Poland. His mother and all of his siblings were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.
Contemporary witness Fishel Rabinowicz, who grew up in Sosnowiec, Poland. His mother and all of his siblings were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. © Gamaraal Foundation
Fishel Rabinowicz, who has lived in Switzerland for 74 years, weighed barely 29 kg when the Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated. On that 11 April 1945, the then 21-year-old Fishel wolfed down his first real soup with vegetables and bacon. In his recollections he describes in merciless detail the physical effects that meal triggered in him, with a roguish charm that twinkles again and again in conversations with him. This physical ordeal too he survived, to spend the next four years fighting his way back to life with medical help. From 1947 onwards he spent two years in a Davos sanatorium convalescing. He wasn’t cared for at Switzerland’s cost; instead, as Rabinowicz recently said: ‘All my hospital stays were paid for by an American Jewish organisation. Switzerland didn’t do it free of charge.’
Video conversation with Fishel Rabinowicz, recorded by Eric Berkraut on behalf of the Gamaraal Foundation, short version, 2017. © Gamaraal Foundation
After his recovery he was able to stay in Switzerland, and wanted to do so. He became a decorator and with his wife Henny Better moved to Ticino, where their son was born. The family was naturalised in 1964, before the ‘foreign infiltration initiatives’ policies were brought in. Since then, said Fishel Rabinowicz in the spring of this year, he has been a ‘Papierlischwiizer’, a Swissman only on paper. Now 97, Rabinowicz says this with quiet irony, while in other respects he reminisces with great earnestness and strives for accuracy as he recounts the four harrowing years he spent in labour camps, the death march on which he was sent, and his liberation from Buchenwald.
Picture ‘Survivor’, Fishel Rabinowicz 1994. The Holocaust has wrecked the order of the characters, while the character aleph in the upper right of the picture symbolises the artist as a survivor caught in the chaos.
Picture ‘Survivor’, Fishel Rabinowicz 1994. The Holocaust has wrecked the order of the characters, while the character aleph in the upper right of the picture symbolises the artist as a survivor caught in the chaos. © Gamaraal Foundation
In addition to his oral recollections, Rabinowicz brings an additional medium of remembrance into the conversation with pictures he has created since his retirement. Among other things, these pictures reflect on the Holocaust, but mainly they help him process his continued existence living with the horrific memories and the immeasurable loss. Although he is physically more or less healed, psychologically he is still trapped in his painful experiences. The 50 or so pictures by Fishel Rabinowicz are thus also indicative of an act of self-therapy through art. In addition to the recorded conversations, these images are therefore another valuable medium of Holocaust remembrance.

History of Switzerland

In the permanent exhibition on Swiss history, the National Museum Zurich presents four video conversations with Swiss people who survived the Holocaust.

Further posts

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Landesmuseum Zürich
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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).