Half a century after the Second World War had ended, Switzerland decided to forgive the citizens punished for helping the Jews persecuted by the Nazis. Such acts of compassion had been considered by the Helvetian country as violations to the strict neutrality of Switzerland during the conflict. As a consequence of that, hundreds of Swiss lost their jobs and remained with penal records for the rest of their lives. Only after 2004 did Switzerland rehabilitate not only those known as ”Jews’ Helpers”, but also the international reputation of the country.
One of the most popular victims of this act of injustice was Paul Grüninger, the Chief of the Police of St. Gallen. At the end of the thirties, by issuing entrance permits Grüninger organized a way of escape which benefited thousands of Jewish refugees who had asked for asylum in Switzerland. At the end of the war, his generosity was rewarded by an unpleasant confinement and a shameful string of insults which put an end to his career.
He was born in the city of St. Gallen, in the North East of Switzerland, in 1891. He took his studies in Roschach. During the First World War he served in the army as Lieutenant. At the end of the war he joined the Police Corps in his native canton where he was promoted to the rank of Captain in 1925.
He was also the president of the Swiss Policemen Association and an active member of the Animal Protection Association.
In the morning of April 3rd 1939 Grüninger arrived at his work as he did every day, but the Cadet Antón Scheneider blocked his way following a Commander in Chief’s order. Although he protested against the decision and stated that he did not know the motives, the move did not take Grüninger by surprise. In his book ”The Righteous of Switzerland” Meir Wagner says that he knew he was ”guilty” of having allowed the entrance of Jewish refugees and of giving residence permits.
Grüninger had received the order to slow down the wave of refugees and even to send them back. He was forced to choose between the moral law and the law of the State.
A friend of his family, who was working in a border post near Bregenz, a town in Austria, annexed to the Third Reich, had warned him about the risks he was taking. He told him that he was on the black list of the Gestapo and that he should stay away from Germany. However, Grüninger did not pay much attention to this warning and continued with his illegal activities.
The Gestapo became aware of his activities because of a Jewish woman who had been helped by him. The woman had left her jewels behind in a hotel in Bergenz. Once in Switzerland, she asked Grüninger to help her recover her belongings. To do so he got in touch with Ernest Prodolliet of the Swiss Consulate in that town. As he had worked with Prodolliet on several similar missions he felt he could trust him.
In a letter to her relatives in Vienna the woman wrote: ”There is a wonderful police Captain called Paul Grüninger. He promised me that he would look after my jewels and bring them to me from our friend’s hotel.” The letter was intercepted by the Nazis. The Gestapo imprisoned the hotel owner and confiscated the jewels. From that moment on the Secret Police decided to watch Grüninger’s moves. Not long after that, the Swiss Federal Authorities in Bern were informed about Grüninger’s illegal activities.
As a punishment he was fired from his office without any right to his compensation or pension. He had sacrificed his work and position to save refugees. He lived the rest of his life in a difficult situation, not even receiving a single recognition for his actions.
In 1995, fifty years after the war had ended and twenty three years after his death, in the same court room where he had been condemned, other judges decided to reopen the trial and absolved him from the charges. In 1996 Grüninger was completely rehabilitated by the Swiss government.
The film ”The Affair of Grüninger” by Richard Dindo (1997), based on Stefan Keller’s book, was filmed in that very court room where the Jewish immigrants, who had survived thanks to Grüninger, came to give testimony of his deeds and to pay him homage.
A voice-over narrates the story while an out-of-field interviewer and photographs of documents underline the testimonies of the characters whose faces are taken by close-up shots several times in order to show the emotions that reflect harsh and painful memories.
In 1971 the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem granted Grüninger a Medal of Honor as a ”Righteous among the Nations”. On that occasion his words of gratefulness were: ”My natural inclination to help had its roots in my deep Christian beliefs and in my conception of the world. Although I got myself in difficulties in many cases, there was always a way to get through. I felt God’s help in a powerful and abundant way”.
After some months, the Swiss television aired ”Captain Grüninger”, a documentary directed by Felicia Vitalis.
The association ”Justice for Paul Grüninger” was created to fight against racism and anti-Semitism with the same spirit demonstrated by the Swiss policeman. One of the initiatives of this association was to ask the Government of St. Gallen to compensate Paul Grüninger for the damages he had suffered and to rename a public town square close to the Police Headquarters after him.
The government of the city acted accordingly. His name also appears in the plaque of the monument in the memory of the Jews in Washington D.C. Paul Grüninger was the first Swiss citizen to be honored by the government of the United States of America.
Paul Grüninger died on February 22nd 1972, at the age of 81. His example lives among us.
Translation: Nora Bellettieri