Roslï Näf

Roslï Näf

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.

Chateau de la Hille

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).

Forcibly Removed

It’s hard to know what to say about the most recent news coming out of Ukraine. The Russian occupiers in the eastern part of the country appear to be moving people from there into Russia. The latest was that 2,389 children have been illegally removed from Donetsk and Luhanks oblasts to Russia. This follows news from yesterday of several thousand Mariupol residents having been deported to Russia.

It has been reported that after processing at “filtration camps”, some had been transported to the Russian city of Taganrog, about 60 miles (100km) from Mariupol, and from there sent by rail “to various economically depressed cities in Russia.” Ukraine’s human rights spokesperson, Lyudmyla Denisova, said Ukrainian citizens had been “issued papers that require them to be in a certain city. They have no right to leave it for at least two years with the obligation to work at the specified place of work. The fate of others remains unknown.”

Russian news agencies have reported that hundreds of people, that Moscow calls refugees, have been taken by bus from Mariupol to Russia. Denisova said the “abductions and forced displacements” violated the Geneva and European human rights conventions and called on the international community to “respond … and increase sanctions against the terrorist state of the Russian Federation”.

In a time of war, it is difficult to know what is true or not. I am reminded of how German Nazi’s removed Jews to concentration camps during WWII. Whether fate will be kinder to these people remains to be seen. I can only imagine what a difficult trade-off it is between constant bombardments, hiding in shelters without food, water and heat, and the relative “safety” of being removed as the onslaught continues.

Regardless, the developments cause a deep concern in my own heart.

All You Can Ever Know

Nicole Chung

With Asians on my mind this morning, I stumbled on this book when an essay in Time magazine titled “My adoption didn’t make me less Korean” got my attention. I can not locate a digital link for this (I will share some excerpts – her own words about being Asian at this fraught time – later in this blog). In my all things adoption group, there have been a number of Korean adoptees. The international adoption of Korean children by Americans was the result of a large number of orphaned mixed children from the Korean War after 1953. That is not Nicole’s story.

In looking for her book, I found a New Yorker review by Katy Waldman – Nicole Chung’s Adoption Memoir, “All You Can Ever Know,” Is an Ode to Sisterly Love. Like many adoptees, her parents believed she was a gift from God. Like many transracial adoptees, growing up among white, Catholic Oregonians in the eighties and nineties, students teased her for being adopted and for looking “different.” 

Her adoptive mother couldn’t tell her much about her original parents. They “had just moved here from Korea” and “thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.” This brief story, one of love and sadness and altruism, “may be all you can ever know,” her mother told her.

After a protracted and unglamorous process of filing paperwork and wrangling lawyers, she finally uncovered the reality of her original genetic family, the Chungs. She discovered an older sister, Cindy. Sadly, her sister had been physically abused by their natural mother. She learned that her parents are divorced and not speaking to one another. Her birth father had told Cindy that Nicole had died. 

Nicole explains why having a baby mattered to her so much, “I wouldn’t be alone anymore. There would be someone who was connected to me in a way no one else had ever been.” For her memoir, Chung wanted to explore “the quiet drama of the everyday adopted experience.” 

Remembering the fiction she scribbled down as a kid, Chung writes that she “found a measure of previously unknown power” in envisioning “places where someone like me could be happy, accepted, normal.” 

From Chung’s Time essay – What her adoptive parents struggled with was to fully and consistently see and understand her as a Korean American woman. She doesn’t blame them for this, she notes – “Acknowledging it flew in the face of everything ‘experts’ had told them when they adopted me in the early 1980s – the adoption agency, the social worker, the judge had all maintained that it wouldn’t, shouldn’t matter.” She shares the things they would say to be color-blind with her.

She also notes – “Often, people who’ve read my memoir will note my white family’s ‘color-blind’ approach and ask whether this led to me thinking of myself as white. My answer is always swift, unequivocal: no, I never thought I was white.” However, she goes on to say her adoptive parents did “assume that I’d be protected from racism because the world would see me as they did – their child, no more, no less – and as my race was irrelevant to them, they could not imagine anyone else caring about it either.”

She says, “While my adoptive family saw me as almost raceless and therefore safe from racists, I lived every day from the age of 7, when I heard my first slur from a classmate, understanding that my Korean face made me hypervisible where we lived – and that it could also make me a target.”

This startled me. I cannot imagine children that age knowing racial slurs. Then, I remember reading once that children learn racism in the family. I thought about WWII, the Korean War and more recently the Vietnam War. I could believe that some returning veterans, having done battle with Asians, might have brought bias home with them.

Chung describes how from the start of the pandemic and racial scapegoating, she has thought of other Asian American kids growing up in white families and white spaces, even as she knows their experiences are not interchangeable. She says, “I know it can feel like a unique burden when you witness or experience racism in a kind of isolation, unable to retreat and process your rage or sorrow with people who also know what it’s like to live in an Asian body.”

She speaks of the experiences of transracial adoptees – “asking, sometimes begging our adoptive relatives to acknowledge our experiences; to stand with us; to challenge the racism endemic in our society as well as our own families and communities.”

Her adoptive parents have died. She says, “I’ve had to accept that there are questions I’ll never get answers to, things we’ll never be able to settle. That my parents didn’t entirely understand or accept my racial reality will always be with me, part of my adoption story.”

In her final thoughts she says, “I know the last thing either of my parents would have wanted was for me to despair, or live my life in fear. And so, for their sake and my own, I won’t.”