Border between France and Switzerland in Geneva, September 1943.
Border between France and Switzerland in Geneva, September 1943. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Finding sanctuary in Geneva

During World War II, hundreds of Jews fled from France into Switzerland via Geneva. After the border was closed in August 1942 this escape route became more difficult to navigate, but not impossible, as the stories of Lilian Blumenstein and Lili Reckendorf show.

Gabriel Heim

Gabriel Heim

Gabriel Heim is a book and film author and exhibition organiser. He is principally concerned with research into topics of modern and contemporary history and lives in Basel.

On 17 November 1942, 43-year-old Elsa Blumenstein and her 22-year-old daughter Lilian entered Switzerland by crossing the border at Thônex, where it follows the course of the river Le Foron. The two women had endured a long journey of uncertainty and anxious moments as they took the final steps towards sanctuary that foggy November morning. Lilian has never forgotten that moment. “It was in broad daylight. My mother and I crossed a field. No one noticed us. After a while we were on a street where a tram was coming towards us that said ‘Geneva’ as the destination. We simply stepped aboard and were taken into town. It was that easy – just unbelievable. But you have to have a little bit of luck in life!”
Border crossing at the Moillesulaz railway station in Thônex, 1943.
Border crossing at the Moillesulaz railway station in Thônex, 1943. Staatsarchiv Aargau/Jean-Pierre Grisel/RBA1-10-93_1
Mother and daughter Blumenstein, who had fled from Antwerp to Marseilles in May 1940 after German troops invaded Belgium, reported to the territorial command in Geneva and were taken from there to the Camp des Charmilles reception camp, which had been opened on 28 September 1942 to accommodate the increasing flow of Jewish refugees. The Blumensteins, who had spent two years in Marseilles waiting in vain for their visa for the United States, managed to escape largely unchallenged to the Swiss border a few days before the German occupation of southern France. Just a month later, this journey became life-threatening for Jewish people, as the systematic persecution and deportation of Jews intensified dramatically under German occupation of the entire territory of France. The number of admissions to Geneva’s internment camps also gives an indication of how much the pressure ramped up. From October to December 1942, 4,463 people seeking protection were registered in the Camp des Charmilles. Switzerland did not accept all of them.
Lilian and François Bondy married as soon as the war ended.
Lilian and François Bondy married as soon as the war ended. Keystone
On 18 December 1942, the Federal Department of Justice and Police contacted the cantons with a survey to clarify their willingness to accept refugees. Many of the cantons failed to even respond to the circular. Appenzell-Ausserrhoden said it would take 25 refugees – if absolutely necessary. Ticino refused; St Gallen agreed only on condition that the emigrants be distributed evenly among the cantons – which amounted to a refusal. Geneva, on the other hand, agreed to provide places for 400 people in the canton – a figure that would triple in just a few months.
Refugees in Geneva’s Varembé reception camp, 1942.
Refugees in Geneva’s Varembé reception camp, 1942. Staatsarchiv Aargau/Willy Roetheli/RBA1-10-75_2
Measured against the secureness of the country’s northern and eastern borders, the city canton was a permeable territory. On 4 April 1942, five months before Switzerland was almost hermetically sealed off by the border closure of 13 August, Lieutenant Coral from Geneva complained to the Territorial Command that, despite the increasing strain on the 110 kilometres of cantonal borders, fewer and fewer personnel and vehicles were being made available, and the higher-ups were unable to rectify this situation. But this wasn’t the only thing that made it possible for Geneva to become, despite the federal government’s rigorous refugee policy, a “terre d’acceuil” for scores of desperate people. The efforts of the city’s Conseil œcuménique, the forerunner of the World Council of Churches, show how help was given in the Calvinist-influenced Rhone city. After the border was closed, the Conseil had sought ways to legally bring to Switzerland persecuted people – Jews and Christians – who were in hiding in France. With the help of church networks, lists of names were compiled which were presented to Heinrich Rothmund, the head of the Eidgenössische Fremdenpolizei, Switzerland’s Federal Police for Foreigners, in autumn 1942. In tough negotiations, a quota of “non-refoulables” was set. This was the term used for people who, even without valid documents, were not to be turned away at the border crossings. This arrangement saved the lives of about 450 people by the end of the war. Fifty-four years old Lilli Reckendorf, who was stateless at the time, figured on one of these lists. Lilli had managed to escape from the Gurs camp in the Pyrenees and had been living in hiding ever since. Her account of her perilous journey to the Swiss border has survived.
Heinrich Rothmund, head of Switzerland’s Fremdenpolizei, the Federal Police for Foreigners, during World War II. Portrait dating from 1954.
Heinrich Rothmund, head of Switzerland’s Fremdenpolizei, the Federal Police for Foreigners, during World War II. Portrait dating from 1954. Dukas / RDB
Departure on 22 January 1943. We took 2nd class tickets. An elderly Jewish woman who was well-groomed but no longer capable of thinking, with her anxious son – they probably wanted to get past Chamonix – travelled with us for a while. Annecy was swarming with military. In Annemasse nobody got out of the station without having their papers scrupulously checked. You just had to go along with it – there was no choice. And never speak a word. We walked through the town to a small restaurant where a “passeur” [smuggler] was to meet us. A “dubious” party of tourists was still socialising in the restaurant. A younger woman came with her husband and son and desperately sought help from the proprietor to find a hole to get across. We took the omnibus towards Thonon. We got off at Loisin and walked in twos along a dirt track. Our escort now had to lead us to a farm at the border. Our sketch of the route was badly drawn. As we set foot on the farm territory, our escort babbled: “C’est bien ici, tout est réglé, déchirez vos papiers.” She jumped on to her bike and was gone. Now our route went this way and that through marshland and woods, across pastureland and along tracks. There were no sentries to be seen. The man next to me pointed to the barbed wire. The triple-layer entanglement of wires suddenly opened up, so wide that a hay cart could have driven through it, and we stepped into no man’s land. We were given brief directions on which way to go to find the tram line. Quick farewells. We were standing on farmland.
File on Lili Reckendorf held by the Fremdenpolizei of the Canton of Basel-Stadt.
File on Lili Reckendorf held by the Fremdenpolizei of the Canton of Basel-Stadt. Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, PD-REG 3a 47018
We must have gone about 20 to 30 steps when we heard the shout: Hold on! It was clearly a Swiss-German! He led us past a sentinel to the guardhouse. Now we were interrogated separately. Mouths shut. We knew that we wouldn’t be “refouliert”. Another truck. Our hearts were pounding in our chests – would they do it anyway? But no. We picked up other night-time border-crossers as the patrols made a round, and then we were delivered to a children’s school in a Geneva suburb. Early in the morning we were able to have a wash, and drink cocoa from bowls in another classroom and eat bread, as much as you wanted. I was astonished. The next day came the next push, and then the surprising and overwhelming news that I had a residence permit and a visa.
Investigations at the Archives d’Etat de Genève have revealed that about 25,000 individuals were checked by the Geneva Territorial Commando between summer 1942 and the end of 1945. In the same period – it is believed – 86% of the refugees, Jewish and non-Jewish, were admitted after attempting to cross the border one or more times. Of the people turned back at the border, 35% were Jewish. Since 2016, a plaque in Geneva has commemorated the canton’s former internment camps. Not everyone who found their way to Switzerland back then was allowed to stay. The fact that this expulsion and rejection was tantamount to a death sentence is also remembered.

Anne Frank and Switzerland

09.06.2022 06.11.2022 / National Museum Zurich
The diary of Anne Frank is world famous. It’s less well known that the journey to global publication began in Switzerland. While Anne, her sister and her mother were killed in the concentration camp, Anne’s father was the only family member to survive the Holocaust. Otto Frank moved to live with his sister in Basel in the 1950s. From there, he made it his task to share his daughter’s diary with the world whilst preserving her message on humanity and tolerance for the coming generations.

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