Naomi Lubrich is director of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland. She studied literature and art in New York and Berlin with a focus on Jewish studies and costume history.
“Dear Herr Generalkonsul! I was pleased to note your willingness to issue a HONDURAS passport also for myself, as you did for my children living in Holland, the Wilhelm Neuburger-Gundelfinger family. [...] I know that the requested passport cannot be used in any way to travel and immigrate to America. It is solely for my use for any eventuality that may arise.”
On 5 May 1943 Johanna Gundelfinger-Nahm, known as Jenny, wrote these words to Alfons Bauer, the Consul General of Honduras in Bern, who was not above accepting an under-the-table payment or two. For between CHF 700 and CHF 2,000 – corresponding to two to six months’ wages for a secretary at the time – he issued Honduran passports to Jews with the necessary funds. However, the passports didn’t give holders the possibility of emigrating to Honduras. In 1943 no country in the world, including Honduras, was accepting Jews. The “eventualities” for which the passport was supposed to help referred to life-threatening situations: in 1943, millions of Jews from German-occupied areas were transported to extermination camps and murdered.When anti-Semitism became state policy in Germany in the early 1930s, Jenny Gundelfinger and her husband Benno decided to emigrate to Switzerland. They moved into an apartment at Mythenquai 22 in Zurich. Her daughter Irene and her family were less fortunate. In March 1940 Irene, together with her husband Wilhelm Neuburger and their daughters Erika and Marion, fled from Munich to Amsterdam where, just a few weeks later, in May 1940, the Germans seized power.
From Zurich, Jenny Gundelfinger pulled every string she could find to save her family. In August 1942 Irene had been to the Swiss consulate in Amsterdam and tried to get her claim to British citizenship recognised – a move that could have been successful, since Irene was born in South Africa. Jenny Gundelfinger had arranged for her to enter Switzerland in November 1942, but that arrangement fell through. On 30 April 1943, Jenny finally managed to obtain Honduran passports for the family.The passport helped – but only to a limited extent. It saved the Amsterdam family from deportation to the Auschwitz death camp. Instead, they were sent to the slightly less dangerous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They were listed as “preferred prisoners” and had been selected for a prisoner exchange for Nazi sympathisers abroad. But because Wilhelm was already dangerously weak the family chose to stay with him in Bergen-Belsen, in hopes that he would recover. Irene died in 1943, under the dreadful conditions in the camp, and Wilhelm followed her in 1945. However, their daughters survived. Several months after the war ended, they were finally allowed to go to Zurich to live with their grandmother.The fact that Jenny Gundelfinger was able to acquire life-saving passports from Alfons Bauer was a godsend and highly secret, but not unique. Rudolf Hügli, Honorary Consul of Paraguay in Bern, Max Alfred Brunner, Consul for Haiti in Zurich, and José María Barreto, Consul General for Peru in Geneva, also cashed in on the persecution of the Jews. For a fee, they issued passports, passport copies and citizenship certificates (while El Salvador’s consulate in Geneva helped people free of charge). The consuls were acting in a legal grey area. While they were authorised to issue documents, they should have informed the governments they represented, which, as Rudolf Hügli later admitted, had “prohibited the immigration of Jews to Paraguay”.
“My heartfelt thanks go to Dina Wyler and her family (Winterthur / Zurich) for the items on loan and for the information.”
Jenny Gundelfinger was also lucky for another reason. She received the passports just days before the people issuing these ‘bogus’ passports were discovered. In April 1943 the Federal Prosecutor’s office had stumbled upon a German spy, Heinrich Löri, who had wormed his way into the confidence of someone who was helping the passport buying agents. After he was interrogated by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, in May 1943 officials searched the homes of numerous people involved in the racket, in Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux and Zurich. In July 1943 the Swiss police reported their findings to the country’s Foreign Minister, Marcel Pilet-Golaz, who, after consulting with his colleagues, put a stop to the trade in passports. In December 1943, Alfons Bauer was asked to step down from his post as Consul General.
Erika and Marion Neuburger started families of their own in Switzerland. They remained close throughout their lives. As a survivor, Erika spoke in Swiss schools about the Holocaust. Marion never talked about it, even among family.
The diary of Anne Frank is world famous. It’s less well known that the journey to global publication began in Switzerland. Anne, her sister and her mother all died in the Holocaust. Otto Frank was the only family member to survive. After the war, he initially returned to Amsterdam. In the 1950s, he moved in with his sister in Basel. 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.
Dominik Landwehr23.09.2020Why were the Germans able to listen in on Switzerland’s encrypted radio communications so easily during World War II? Secret documents released by the US have solved the mystery.