The Swiss twist

The Jews of Switzerland have endured burnings, expulsions and, in recent years, peaceful co-existence. But the billion-dollar Holocaust settlement with Swiss banks has fanned the flames of anti-Semitism again. Swiss Jews are asking: Was it worth it?

A few decades ago, when Pink Floyd and Santana ruled, I lived in French-speaking Switzerland and ran an experimental theatre troupe. Switzerland is a country made famous by the Protestant reformation, and one tends to associate it with Calvin and Luther rather than Cohen and Levy.

I was aware there was a synagogue in Lausanne, where I lived, though I never went there. I recall having a Jewish friend or two, but other than that, my identity was otherwise engaged.

In November, for the first time, I went back to Switzerland with my husband to see old friends, visit familiar haunts and discover how the country had changed. I found it odd that for a nation represented by a big red cross, I encountered items of Jewish interest that moved me deeply.

It was in Veytaux, during a tour of the Chateau de Chillon, made famous in a poem by Lord Byron, that a guide mentioned, “the horrible things that happened to the Jews in the Middle Ages.” Of course, having been raised with a Jewish tragedy-magnet in my breast, I asked what the horrible things were.

“Well,” said the guide, almost apologetically, “there was a devastating plague here, and they blamed the Jews for poisoning the wells and causing the plague. Jews were tormented and beaten and killed.”

What was wrong with those medieval folks? Didn’t they know that Jews bake matzos and light candles and don’t run around putting plague pills in the town water supply?

Then we were in Zurich, taking a private city tour, and our guide took us to the old Jewish area now called Froschauer, or Frog Lane. In the 12th and 13th centuries, it had been called “Jew Street.” Then, for a short period, it was called “The Street of Quarrels,” because the inhabitants quarreled with Christians and also among themselves. That made sense. Arguing is a Jewish birthright.

The guide explained that the Jews ticked off the people of Zurich because they ignored the local judicial system and went to rabbis in Strasbourg and Stuttgart to settle their disputes.

Then the guide took a deep breath and pointed to a plaque on the wall of a building. It was written in German, and he insisted upon translating it for us, word for word. It explained that the Jews who lived in these streets had been the victims of waves of persecution, violence, murder and forced expulsion from Zurich. By the 17th century, a few of the traumatized Jewish families were allowed to live in two villages where their basic rights were protected: Lengnau and Endinge (today these towns are in the canton of Aargau). They were safe, but there weren’t any great prospects for the future, and some – including the Guggenheim family – left to make their fortunes in America and elsewhere.

In 1862, Zurich changed its constitution and allowed Jews to come back. Today there are numerous synagogues and about 7,000 Jews living in greater Zurich.

“I am not proud of what happened to our Jews,” said the guide, “but I am proud of our city for openly acknowledging the sins of the past. And do you know any other European country that had a Jewish woman president? Ruth Dreyfuss. She was our president five years ago. And Vera Rotenberg is a member of the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. In Basel, the governor is Jewish too, and his name is Ralph Lewin.”

In Basel, I heard there was a Jewish museum on Kornhausgasse, albeit a very small one. “It was founded in 1966, so it’s been around a long time. You’ll be in and out in half an hour,” a Swiss Jew told me. Boy, was he wrong. I spent three hours there, and was dismayed when closing time came.

There is no entry fee for the museum, and it is clearly a labor of love for the gracious Jewish woman named Katia Guth who founded the institution and still greets people at the door. In the courtyard of the museum are rare and wonderful medieval tombstones, like the inscribed headstone for “Rabbi Salomo who died on the 13 Kislev 1234.”

In the main room, visitors are invited to watch a short film about the life and history of the Jews of Basel. There is an oral tradition that Jews first came to Switzerland with the Romans in the fourth century, but there isn’t any proof. In the Middle Ages, 1,200 Jews arrived in Switzerland from Alsace and the Upper Rhine area. In 1349, there was an official policy of persecuting, burning and murdering Jews, who were accused of bringing the plague. The museum includes a striking declaration from 1375 forbidding Jews to live in Basel.

The modern Jewish community was founded in the early 1800’s under Napoleonic rule, when France forced the Swiss to liberalize religion.

In 1868, the Eastern-style, domed, Byzantine synagogue was dedicated (it’s a few minutes’ walk from the museum), and rabbis came from Alsace to teach the Jewish population. In the 19th century, the main Jewish occupations were textile manufacturing and trade, peddling, cattle and horse dealing and? I always cringe? money lending.

In 1897 and in 1948, the first and last declarations of the Zionist Congress were passed in Basel, and it was in this city that Theodor Herzl drew up the blueprint of Zionism. By 1910, more than 2,000 Jews had come from Russia and the cultural identity began to change as Rhineland and Alsacian culture mixed with Eastern European customs.

In the 1930’s, there was extensive immigration of Jews fleeing Germany (29,000 came between 1939 and 1945, even with very restrictive immigration laws). About 24,500 Jewish immigrants were refused entry and sent back to their death. After the war, Switzerland, like most other countries, didn’t let Jews in. Today, the Jewish community of Basel numbers 2,000, and there are about 20,000 Jews in Switzerland.

The museum exhibits may be small, but they are beautiful and sometimes singular. Besides the usual assortment of ancient dreidels, menorahs and seder plates, there are a matzo maker, an etrog box made from a coconut, fabulous amulets from as far away as Ethiopia and Persia, a mizrach (a decorative plaque on the wall that faces East, towards Jerusalem) made from human hair, passports with a “J” stamped on them, a carpet from Kashan with the 10 commandments woven on it, and, my favorite, a chaliza shoe from the 19th century.

I had never heard of a chaliza shoe, but the description was intriguing. If a man dies childless, his eldest brother has to marry the widow to ensure the continuance of the family line. If this is impossible or the brother refuses, he must tell the widow explicitly. She shows her contempt by removing one of his shoes, and then she is free to marry again.

Perhaps the most provocative thing I saw in the museum was the Ed Asner-narrated film Swiss-Germany: An Island in the 20th Century. Among other things, it dealt with the behavior of Swiss banks during and after the war, and the aftermath of the historic $1.25 billion settlement with Holocaust survivors in 1997.

During the war, many Nazis and German Jews deposited their money in Swiss banks for safekeeping. When the war was over, the banks chose moolah over morality. They made it extremely difficult for survivors or the families of deceased Holocaust victims to reclaim prewar accounts and stolen riches. Their attitude was punitive and withholding rather than cooperative, and they demanded proofs that were impossible for claimants to produce.

After years of paltry response, in 1995 the Swiss established a 300 million-franc fund for Holocaust survivors. In 1997, under pressure from the U.S. and world Jewry, the Swiss banks agreed to a final settlement of $1.25 billion. To date, only a small fraction of that money – and the additional $9 billion received from France, Germany, Austria and Poland – has been distributed to survivors.

Says Jacques Picard, the outspoken Jewish scholar who first broke the story, “This looks like a scandal, a kind of hijacking by Jewish organizations in favor of their own needs. As I learned, the Israelis want to have a part of it for their military structures!”

Picard is not the only Swiss Jew who expressed ambivalence about the settlement. In the film, as in life, citizens who are both Helvetian and Jewish said the historic settlement was both a triumph for Jews and, because of the hard-nosed and insistent negotiations, a provocation. Some Swiss people felt extorted. There were acts of anti-Semitism, letters to the editor, graffiti. It was the first time there had been waves of anti-Semitism in Switzerland since the 1930’s. “The idea that billions of Jewish money has been and still is in Switzerland turned out to be a myth,” claims Picard. “This myth is the result of the behavior of the Swiss banks after 1945 – because they did not look properly to the records, and they created the attitude of suspicion against them.”

I found the film and the issues raised about the bank settlement fascinating and haunting. Today’s Swiss Jews are Jews, but they are also Swiss and they relish the peace and safety they have known in the country. And all of it must, I think, be tinged by the fact that many Swiss people sympathize with the Palestinians and condemn the Israelis, creating a climate where anti-Semitism can flourish. One can only hope the religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence of Christians and Jews that has recently been characteristic of Switzerland will continue.

When the door of the museum closed behind me, I walked a few blocks to the Schmutz bakery, at Austrasse 53. Although the owners are not Jewish, they have been baking kosher goods for 40 years. It made me smile. They serve challah on Fridays, and during the week patrons can find pineapple cakes, chocolate roulades, nougat cakes, prune tarts and leckerli, a Basel specialty made with honey, nuts, flour and a little sugar.

I mused that Swiss-Jewish relations were complex, long-standing, sometimes horrible, sometimes serene, and that the same country that burned Jews elected a woman Jewish president. And I, in my youthful ignorance when I lived there, had never known a thing about it.

Judith Fein is a travel journalist who gives talks about little-known, exotic Jewish communities and has just finished a film about Tunisia with her husband Paul Ross. Their website is


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