The Courage to Defy
“Whoever had the opportunity, like me, to witness those heartbreaking scenes, the victims’ collapse, the cries of mothers and children, the suicide threats as well as suicide attempts – that person could no longer comply.” Paul Grüninger, Swiss border policeman
Within six months, the violent atmosphere following the annexation of Austria in March 1938 and the terrorization of the Jews, combined with the loss of their livelihood, had induced half of Austria’s 192,000 Jews to flee the country, penniless. Consequently, the Swiss government closed its border to refugees from the German Reich, which now included Austria, and instructed its border police to turn back Jews who had no entry permits. One of the escape routes ran south of Lake Constance across the Swiss-Austrian border in the St. Margarethen area, where Paul Grüninger was in charge of the Swiss border police. Faced with the plight of the desperate Jewish refugees, Grüninger decided to permit them to cross the border, and in order to make their stay legal, falsified their dates of entry into Switzerland, so that the records showed they had entered the country before the requirement of a visa was enacted.
Grüninger’s insubordination was discovered, and he was dismissed from the police. He was brought to trial on charges of illegally permitting the entry of 3,600 Jews into Switzerland and falsifying their registration papers. In March 1941 the court found him guilty of breach of duty. His retirement benefits were forfeited, and he was fined and had to pay the trial costs. The court recognized his altruistic motivations, but found that nevertheless, as a state employee, it was his duty to follow his instructions.
In 1954 Grüninger spoke about the court verdict:
"I am not ashamed of the court's verdict. On the contrary, I am proud to have saved the lives of hundreds of oppressed people. My assistance to Jews was rooted in my Christian world outlook… It was basically a question of saving human lives threatened with death. How could I then seriously consider bureaucratic schemes and calculations? Sure, I intentionally exceeded the limits of my authority and often with my own hands falsified documents and certificates, but it was done solely in order to afford persecuted people access into the country. My personal well-being, measured against the cruel fate of these thousands, was so insignificant and unimportant that I never even took it into consideration."
Ostracized and forgotten, Grüninger lived for the rest of his life in difficult circumstances. Despite the difficulties, he never regretted his action on behalf of the Jews. He was only exonerated in 1995, 23 years after his death.
On April 20, 1971, Yad Vashem recognized Paul Grüninger as Righteous Among the Nations.