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Switzerland Pardons Those Who Helped Jews Escape Nazis

When thousands of Jews sought refuge in Switzerland during World War II many Swiss residents helped them cross the border into safety. But at the time offering help was a crime.

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"There are lots of people who did a lot to help the refugees."

In 1942, Jakob Spirig was arrested by Swiss police. The 23-year-old was charged with helping Jewish refugees, including four older women from Berlin, cross the border into Switzerland, where they would be safe from persecution by the Nazis.

Thousands of Jews from Germany and Austria were saved from murder in the Nazi concentration camps by Swiss residents who helped the refugees. Switzerland provided a safe haven for approximately 300,000 refugees during the Nazi period.

But in the eyes of the Swiss government, helping the refugees was illegal and an offense against the state. It wanted, after all, to avoid conflicts with Nazi Germany.

Spirig, and many others like him, was sentenced by a military court to years in prison and he served the sentence to the last day. Now, nearly 60 years later, these refugee helpers are being officially rehabilitated.

Long overdue pardon

Starting on Jan. 1, a new law went into effect that pardons people who were persecuted for helping refugees escape Nazi Germany.

The law does not provide for any financial compensation for the misdeed -- and many of the people involved, including Spirig, are not alive anymore.

Nonetheless, it was important for repairing Switzerland's image, said Paul Rechsteiner, the Social Democratic member of parliament who sponsored the bill.

"It shows that within the Swiss population there are lots of people who did a lot to help the refugees, who did a lot of anti-Nazi activities and this also restores the honor of Switzerland," he told the swissinfo news service. Earlier, Rechsteiner had pushed for the rehabilitation of a Swiss policeman, Paul Grüniger, who had been prosecuted for forging documents that allowed Jewish refugees into Switzerland.

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