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New York Times

December 3, 2000, Sunday
Foreign Desk

Swiss Report Says Gypsies Were Turned Back in Nazi Era


Swiss officials systematically expelled Gypsies or turned them away at the border during World War II, returning many to likely death in Nazi Germany, a new report by historians has concluded.

The report, part of the examination of Switzerland's wartime actions, was issued Friday by an independent historians' commission that last year found Switzerland had refused to accept many Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany, leading to almost certain death for thousands.

Swiss authorities, the 100-page report said, carried out official policy against Gypsies ''without considering the persecution likely to face those under threat, and the danger to the lives of people expelled to Nazi Germany.''

Thomas Huonker, a Zurich historian who is an author of the report, said in an interview that officials carried out their strict anti-Gypsy policy even though they ''had good information about transportation of German Gypsies eastward to Poland, and about mass killings beginning in 1941.''

In reaction to the report, Swiss officials admitted that the Gypsies had been ''victims of an unjust policy.'' The report is expected to stir controversy and criticism, as have other reports reviewing Swiss actions during World War II.

Switzerland's wartime generation remains firmly committed to the idea that armed neutrality was necessary to fend off possible invasion by neighboring Germany. But the cost of its neutrality was steep, particularly for Jews and Gypsies, who were denied a safe refuge from Hitler's gas chambers.

Estimates of the number of Gypsies who died in the Holocaust range between 100,000 and 500,000, and the new report could not pinpoint the number of Gypsies turned away or expelled by Swiss authorities. Half-century old documentation was no longer available, forcing researchers to rely on case studies.

The report's authors concluded that their investigations ''found no indication'' that the Swiss authorities recognized Gypsies as refugees or guaranteed them asylum in the face of the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany.

In 1911, a registry was set up to record all Gypsies coming into Switzerland, and they were treated poorly, to encourage them to leave. During World War II, fathers were routinely sent to prison, and mothers and children sent to special establishments or mental institutions. They were only reunited at the border. Others faced forced sterilization or were denied the right to marry.

This included lifelong residents of Switzerland, some of whom were citizens, said Regula Ludi, an author of the report. The official Swiss policy, the report notes, did not change until 1972. ''The Swiss officials tended to see Gypsies in a racist way, and to see them all as criminals, another form of racism,'' Mr. Huonker said.

The report is one of a series being done by a commission, headed by the Swiss historian Jean-Francois Bergier, and was paid for from a 1997 fund to compensate non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The commission's report on the country's treatment of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany has come under attack in recent months on grounds that it overstated the number of wartime refugees turned away.

Serge Klarsfeld, who leads the organization called Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees, has challenged the commission's December 1999 findings. He said that Mr. Bergier erred in contending that rejected Jews were sure to die in concentration camps. Mr. Klarsfeld's arguments are based on a new study of Swiss and French archives that showed 117 out of 884 rejected Jews were deported, killed or vanished.

Other studies have contested the commission's findings that Swiss authorities turned back more than 24,000 would-be refugees at the country's borders between 1940 and mid-1945. While the numbers differ, several studies maintain that many fewer refugees were rejected and returned to Nazi Germany.

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