Escape Assistance

As of 1941 it was virtually impossible to leave Germany and its allied and occupied countries legally. Europe’s borders were sealed and heavily guarded. Brave people helped Jews escape. The most common destinations were Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, the British Mandate in Palestine, and North and South America. The escape helpers risked punishment, as they could be subjected to inspections at any time. Groups that smuggled people out of Germany procured documents, arranged lodgings, and brought refugees across the border, sometimes over mountain passes or by sea. The human smugglers were not always reliable. They often demanded huge sums of money for their assistance.

Rescue from Denmark

Danish Jews were supposed to be deported in September of 1943. Germany’s Reich Plenipotentiary in Denmark, Werner Best, was in charge of their deportation. His colleague Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz passed the date of the raid on to Danish politicians. News of Germany’s plans ultimately reached the Jewish communities, which passed the warning on to their members. Most of the Jews were able to leave their homes in time. Several hundred Jews were arrested and deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, but more than 7,000 Jews managed to escape. Danish fishermen brought most of them to Sweden in their boats, crossing the Øresund strait.

Escape Assistance by the Emergency Rescue Committee

The American journalist Varian Fry worked in Marseilles for the escape assistance organization Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). The ERC’s goal was to save artists and intellectuals. Up to 1942 the organization had helped between 1,000 and 1,500 Jewish and non-Jewish individuals at risk in their escape from France. They were smuggled illegally via Spain to Portugal. In Lisbon they boarded ships bound for the United States. Fry and his helpers procured visas and forged passports and arranged illegal border crossings. Fry’s activities brought him in conflict with the Vichy regime in southern France, which collaborated with the Nazi regime. Fry was expelled from France in September 1941.

“We, we said, will not surrender. We have a task. It is our task to escape from this trap. We must save ourselves ... we must try to save each other.”

Lisa Fittko in her memoir, 1992.


Border Policeman Paul Grüninger

Paul Grüninger, the director of the cantonal police in St. Gallen, was in charge of refugee affairs. In August of 1938, Switzerland closed its borders to the German Reich. Grüninger and his helpers nevertheless continued to let Jewish and non-Jewish people suffering persecution cross the border and made sure they would not be expelled. In so doing, Grüninger disregarded official instructions. He also forged entry permits or dated the entry with a time before the borders were closed, making the refugees’ status appear to be legal. He thus saved several hundred people threatened with Nazi persecution and murder. Paul Grüninger was fired without notice in 1939; in 1940 he was convicted of breach of duty and forgery of documents by the St. Gallen district court and required to pay a fine.

“It was basically a question of saving human lives threatened with death. Under those circumstances, how could I be concerned with bureaucratic considerations and calculations?”

Paul Grüninger in his vita, 1954