Not a good realization regarding the actions of Switzerland or the Swiss Red Cross during the Nazi occupation in France. After watching the movie Resistance last night which is about Marcel Marceau’s heroic work assisting Jewish children left orphaned by Nazi atrocities, I wanted to know what happened to the children who made it across the border from France into Switzerland. I didn’t actually find that answer but I did discover this woman, Roslï Näf.
She is an example of how Switzerland was swayed by Nazi pressure, which included the Swiss Red Cross. In late 1941, the agency dispatched a team of teachers and nurses on a humanitarian mission to care for a group of about 100 Jewish children who had been hidden in an ancient chateau Vichy-ruled France, known as Chateau de la Hille. A leader of the team was Roslï Näf, a nurse who had previously worked with the renowned German physician Albert Schweitzer.
In August 1942, when French police rounded up Jews around the country at the demand of German authorities, the 40 eldest children under Naf’s care at the chateau were taken, over her objections, to a French transit camp. She bicycled to the camp, talked her way in and insisted she wouldn’t leave until “my children” were freed. A week later, the French relented and released the children to Naf’s care, just hours before they were to be placed into boxcars for the journey to Auschwitz.
One of the surviving children, whose parents and younger brothers were murdered, Walter H Reed recalled Näf’s sacrifice: “For these acts—protecting the Jewish youngsters, obtaining their release from Le Vernet, and enabling many to escape into Switzerland—Roslï Näf was summoned before the chief of the Swiss Legation in Vichy and dismissed from her post at La Hille.”
In the months immediately after Naf’s heroic act, in late 1942, she and her colleagues from the Swiss Red Cross would assist several groups of teens in escaping from France and heading to Switzerland, where they were allowed to stay. But when a group of five teens tried to escape across the border in the first week of January 1943, German guards caught them.
Inge Joseph Bleier recalls that Näf, with her blonde hair, always had a stern look on her face, had steely blue eyes, and “conveyed a sense of purposefulness and authority.” One of those captured was 17 year old Inge. She managed to escape the Germans by jumping out a bathroom window and then proceeding to flee across the border into Switzerland. She walked far enough that she could see the lights of Geneva, when a Swiss gendarme arrested her.
Inge figured he might send her to a detention camp. But in response to the flow of children and adults escaping from France into Switzerland, the authorities had instituted a new law just a few days earlier requiring any refugee 16 or older to make it at least 10 kilometers into the country before being allowed to stay. Inge hadn’t made it far enough, and so she was returned to the chateau in France. Only one of 30,000 Jews sent back from Swiss border areas to Nazi-controlled France.
Within weeks of the aborted escape, Näf was fired for intervening on behalf of the “Jew children from Chateau la Hille,” according to an internal organization memo. It concluded: “Unanimously agreed the Swiss Red Cross needs to totally distance itself from the director (Näf).” Inge Bleier had realized in hindsight that, after helping Jewish children escape, Näf “was in big trouble. She had been turned into a scapegoat. Her career with the Swiss Red Cross was likely over.” Näf, was never honored by the Red Cross or Switzerland. She died alone in a Danish nursing home at the age of 85. She said shortly before death, that her biggest regret was that “I should have tried harder. There were more children to save.”
But Näf’s colleagues who remained in France continued to help Jewish children to attempt escapes. Ten months after her aborted escape attempt into Switzerland, Inge made a second dash into the country. This time with help from Swiss sympathizers, she was escorted through heavy woods the requisite 10 kilometers. Seven other young Jews were similarly aided in these dangerous cross-border escapes.
Näf as well as a dozen Swiss colleagues who helped Jews escape to Switzerland from France were mostly forgotten by their own country. When they were referred to at all, it was as “smugglers,” as if to suggest they were sneaking cigarettes, food and other bounty over the border for profit instead of saving lives.
In 2014, a group of Christians in the Vallée de Joux region of French-speaking Switzerland decided to try to bring Switzerland’s murky Holocaust past to light by recognizing people like Näf who had been heroes. Joel Reymond, a local journalist and head of the not-for-profit Association les Passeurs de Memoire, spearheaded a two-year campaign to raise funds for a monument in the lakeside town of Le Pont, a few kilometers from the French border, where much of the “smuggling” occurred.
To his surprise, Reymond tapped into an emerging groundswell of interest among younger people in honoring the Swiss heroes of the war. So on a sunny morning this past September, hundreds turned out in Le Pont to view the unveiling. They included the last surviving “smuggler,” 90-year-old Bernard Bouveret, who worked as a forester during the war years.
The weekend commemorations had the feel of a catharsis. These ordinary Swiss who have eagerly taken up the mantel of transparency and introspection can only hope Swiss bankers and art officials will do the same and finally confront head-on their country’s behavior during the Holocaust.
David E. Gumpert wrote much of the story above and is the author of “Inge: A Girl’s Journey Through Nazi Europe” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004).