Switzerland was a neutral state during World War II. Nevertheless, numerous Sinti and Roma were the victims of a ‘Gypsy policy’ that had led to extensive expulsions from the country ever since the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1848. During the National Socialist period, this policy culminated in borders being closed to Sinti and Roma who were fleeing persecution, and even in them being deported back to the German Reich should they somehow have succeeded in entering the country.
Closure of Borders and Expulsions
The Vagrancy Act of 1850 led to travellers who practised an itinerant trade coming under the scrutiny of state authorities. This affected several groups, one of which was the large number of Yenish who were indigenous to Switzerland. Their identity was checked in order that they could be assigned to a local Swiss borough, where they were accorded civil rights but were nonethless subject to severe discrimination in exercising a profession. The far smaller groups of Sinti and Roma, however, were declared undesirable ‘non-Swiss’ and expelled. In 1906, the borders were permanently closed for foreign Yenish as well as for Sinti and Roma. At the same time, a directive was issued that prohibited transport companies from allowing ‘Gypsies’ to travel by rail or ship. A police ‘Gypsy registry’ was established even before World War I. In 1914, ‘Gypsies’ in Switzerland were interned and expelled from the country. This meant that very few Sinti and Roma families were actually living in Switzerland at all. The ban on ‘Gypsies’ entering the country was only rescinded in 1972.
Racist Population Policies: Removing Yenish Children from Their Families
The discrimination targeting Sinti and Roma as well as Yenish took place against the backdrop of a broadly accepted eugenics discourse. ‘Vagrancy’ was considered harmful, and something which should be eradicated through forced sterilisation and re-education measures. The Yenish in particular were affected by this. The aid organisation Hilfswerk Kinder der Landstraße, which was founded in 1926 and run by the Swiss foundation Pro Juventute, forcibly removed 600 children from Yenish families up until 1972, placing them in homes or with foster families. It was only after a series of articles created a scandal about the practice that the ‘aid organisation’ was forced to cease its work in 1973.
Refusing Entry and Deportation Back to the German Reich
Despite the obvious danger facing Sinti and Roma, the borders remained closed even after the outbreak of World War II. Numerous families were shunted back and forth between France or Italy and Switzerland for weeks or even months. One prominent case is that of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who succeeded in escaping to Switzerland, only to be deported back to France. It is not known how many attempts by Sinti and Roma to flee the German Reich failed at the border with Switzerland. Even when Sinti and Roma with Swiss citizenship were threatened with deportation to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp, Swiss diplomats – as in the case of Swiss Jews – did nothing to get them released. This was the case for families detained in the Netherlands who had been sent to the Westerbork transit camp, and who could have been saved had there been any intervention. There are particularly dramatic cases of Sinti and Roma fleeing persecution who succeeded in crossing the border, but were then sent back to the German Reich.
The Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – World War II
It was only in the 1990s that a broad public discussion began about the role Switzerland had played in World War II. The first issue raised was the scandal about the assets belonging to Jewish victims of persecution, which were not transferred to the legal heirs of murdered victims after 1945. The Commission of Experts, which was active in the country from 1996 to 2001, also undertook the first ever investigation into the Swiss ‘Gypsy policy’ during the years of the Nazi dictatorship.