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Jewish Refugees of World War Ii Remembered at Caux

A tree planting ceremony honoured the nearly 2000 refugees housed at Caux during World War II

The historic Christian-Jewish rift in Europe was 'one of the deepest and darkest of European society' and needed healing on a deep enough level, Rabbi Dr Marc Gopin, a professor at George Mason University, Washington DC, said at Caux. He was taking part in an 'hour of remembrance' for the nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees of World War II who had been housed at the MRA centre-then the Hotel Esplanade-from October 1944 to July 1945.

Gopin said that the rift between Christians and Jews needed to be transformed, 'not on an official level, not on the level of rights or politics but on a level of spiritual faith'. If not, European culture would repeat its mistakes and these would 'continue to be a poison'.

The hour of remembrance followed a tree-planting ceremony on the front promenade of the MRA centre. After a prayer in English and Hebrew, given by Gopin, conference participants from many nations queued to spread a shovel of earth around the young oak tree.

The refugees being remembered included civilians who had fled across the border from Nazi-occupied France and 600 Allied servicemen who had escaped from German prison camps in neighbouring countries.

Two groups of Jewish refugees, including 1,600 originally from Budapest, had been delivered by the German SS directly from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to the Swiss authorities, in cynical deals which demanded concessions in return. 'Even if the motivations concerned were often crooked, quite a number of lives were saved,' commented Pierre Spoerri, a member of the Caux Foundation.

He read out letters from two of the refugees who had been housed at Caux. Shaul Ladany, now a professor at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, had been eight years old when he arrived at Caux with his two sisters. 'Even though we stayed [with] many persons in large rooms, sleeping on camp beds, we were happy,' he wrote. 'The children played freely and wildly in the snow. The pressure disappeared.' Sole Margalit wrote from Tel Aviv: 'In 1944 I had to wear the Jewish star and was confined to the Ghetto with my little baby and my whole family.... Then in December 1944 we were set free. We arrived at two o'clock in the morning in St Gallen.... We glimpsed afresh "human dignity".'

Spoerri said there were two other groups to be remembered: 'One, which we as Swiss do not ever want to forget, is those Jewish refugees who were turned away from our borders and to a large percentage did not survive the war. The other group are today's refugees, or asylum seekers, who are facing a very uncertain future, especially those from Bosnia and Kosovo.'

The Rev Heinrich Rusterholz, President of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, acknowledged his 'feelings of immense shame, deep mourning and helpless anger about the fact that people were turned away at the border to certain death', just across the Lake of Geneva from Caux and Montreux. People had a self-justifying side and a side that fights for justice, he said, admitting that both tendencies were also in him. He warned that people and nations harm themselves if they play off one side against the other.

'That is why I cannot remain silent. I want our country to accept both the light and shadows of our history. Any attempt to bargain over the amount of guilt denigrates those who were sent into darkness and death. This kind of comparing and calculating strangles justice and kills love.'

Rusterholz said that the Reformed Churches and the Jewish community in Switzerland planned to hold joint public gatherings from September to discuss these issues. 'We are committed to international solidarity to help people, both inside our country and outside,' he said.

Referring to recent accusations against Switzerland, for the alleged hoarding of Nazi gold, Gopin said that the Swiss had 'a strong sense of being a singled-out, shamed victim'. This was very similar to the way the Jewish people had felt for the past 1,400 years. 'Many Israelis today feel the same way as the Swiss right now, about the establishment of the Israeli state: they know there were things in 1948 which they do not want to talk about, but they also know that most of them did not do those things, and that they themselves were victims. This can help us to think about how we all get past the ways that we collectively assassinate each other.'

Gopin said he hoped that the 'conversation' on such issues would deepen and widen, 'even as people who were victims deservedly get reparations for what they went through'.

'For me,' he continued, 'it is important to realize that the strange relationship between the Jews and Christians since the 3rd and 4th Centuries is not unique. The way in which majorities and minorities relate to each other, and the way persecution is passed on, is something we see around the world. It often has to do with a reflection onto the other person, the other group, of the things that you dislike most about yourself.'

He warned that 'sometimes the process of both feeling victimized and accusing the other is so intense that it becomes one's identity'. People who looked successful were often the most damaged. 'People who have great military strength, or financial power, often have the most inside that they are hiding. My people have gone through 50 years from the worst moment in our history to success on a military and economic level. But we are not a happy people inside. We need the rest of the world to help us out of the hell that is still going on inside since the Holocaust.'

The 'hour of remembrance' was opened by two Swiss students from St Gallen, where many of the refugees had originally crossed into Switzerland. One of the students had recently visited the museum at Auschwitz commemorating victims of the Holocaust. This had prompted her to think about today's refugee situation around the world, she said.

As dusk settled, the hour came to a close with Caux citizen Sylvie Haller-Söderlund singing Psalm 121: 'I lift up my eyes to the hills; where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.... The Lord will keep you from all harm-he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for ever more.'

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