5 Refugees in front of the "Emigrantenheim" in Diepoldsau, 1938

Leon Sternbach in Arosa, 1939

The kitchen crew of the Bad Schauenburg labor camp, 1942

Refugees excavating clay in Bad Schauenburg labor camp, August 1941

«Refugees were forced to do hard, physical labour»

Barbara Häne sheds light on a photo album from wartime Switzerland

Among the objects in the Jewish Museum’s coll­ec­tion is a pho­to album from war­ti­me Switz­er­land (JMS 930). Bar­ba­ra Häne, a Swiss his­to­ri­an spe­cia­li­zing in refu­gees of World War II, rese­ar­ched the pho­tos as part of the pro­ject «JMS goes digi­tal» (2022). The muse­um direc­tor, Nao­mi Lubrich, asked her what she learned.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Bar­ba­ra, tell us about the pho­to album JMS 930. Whom did it belong to?

Bar­ba­ra Häne: The album belon­ged to Leo Stern­bach, a refu­gee who had fled Vien­na in Novem­ber 1938 to Die­pold­sau in St.Gallen, and was sub­se­quent­ly inter­ned in num­e­rous labor camps across Switz­er­land. The pho­tos show the ever­y­day life of the refu­gees in the camps. They show them buil­ding roads and toi­ling in the kit­chen, but we also see how they spent their free time, even play­ing soc­cer (UK: foot­ball). This pho­to album is an important tes­tim­o­ny to the lives of Jewish refugees.

NL: You use the word «refu­gees» (Ger­man: Flücht­lin­ge), not «emi­grants» (Ger­man: Emi­gran­ten). What’s the difference?

BH: Until the 1940s, Jewish refu­gees in Switz­er­land were refer­red to as «emi­grants.» The term impli­ed that they were unde­si­ra­ble for­eig­ners, as oppo­sed to peo­p­le per­se­cu­ted for poli­ti­cal reasons. As «emi­grants,» they were given only a short-term resi­dence per­mit, and the con­di­ti­on was that they con­ti­nue their jour­ney abroad as soon as pos­si­ble. The requi­re­ments were seve­re: The refu­gees had to pay a depo­sit or pro­vi­de some other gua­ran­tee that they had inde­pen­dent means. And they had to show evi­dence that they had con­cre­te plans con­ti­nue their jour­ney to a third coun­try. As «emi­grants» their resi­dence per­mit was only tem­po­ra­ry. But in rea­li­ty, most of the refu­gees had had to flee hasti­ly from Nazi per­se­cu­ti­on and wit­hout con­cre­te plans of tra­vel­ling on. I the­r­e­fo­re pre­fer the term «refu­gee.»

NL: Leo Stern­bach was inter­ned in various labour camps in Switz­er­land. Why?

BH: Refu­gees were rare­ly gran­ted work per­mits in Switz­er­land, so most could not find employ­ment. Ins­tead, they were inter­ned in camps and forced to work on govern­ment infra­struc­tu­re pro­jects, pri­ma­ri­ly road con­s­truc­tion. Switz­er­land depen­ded on refu­gees for cheap and hard labour, becau­se at the time, the young Swiss men were doing mili­ta­ry ser­vice. This was the time of the so-cal­led «gene­ral mobi­liza­ti­on.» The work was phy­si­cal­ly taxing, and the accom­mo­da­ti­ons were extre­me­ly mode­st, as you can see in the pho­tos, whe­ther in the camp in Die­pold­sau, St.Gallen, Bad Schau­en­burg, Basel­land or in the labor camp Zweid­len-Weiach near Zurich. Leo Stern­bach was inter­ned in each one. He was lucky: He had been assi­gned to work with the kit­chen crew, which was less stre­nuous than many of the other tasks. Refu­gees recei­ved a com­pen­sa­ti­on, but it was meager. And they were not allo­wed to use it as they wis­hed. It was depo­si­ted in a blo­cked account and was only allo­wed to be used to emi­gra­te to a new country.

NL: Do you know any­thing about Leo Sternbach’s life after he left the labour camps?

BH: Yes, the album con­ti­nues after the war ended. We see that Leo Stern­bach kept in touch with his fel­low inma­tes from the labour camps. They beca­me fri­ends. The pho­tos also show that many Jewish refu­gees had to lea­ve Switz­er­land after the war and find a new coun­try to live in. What sur­pri­sed me, is that many pho­tos from the labour camps are cheerful. Bes­i­des the hard work, they show hap­py times, fri­ends at the swim­ming pool. I per­so­nal­ly was inte­res­ted in the pho­tos show­ing the refu­gees cele­bra­ting Jewish holi­days in the labour camps, for exam­p­le Rosh ha-Shanah in Die­pold­sau or Suk­kot and Cha­nuk­kah in Bad Schauenburg.

NL: Very inte­res­t­ing! Bar­ba­ra, thank you very much for tel­ling us about this chap­ter of Swiss history.

verfasst am 22.06.2023