Why Paul Grüninger Couldn't Say No
In the years leading up to World War II, Switzerland saw waves of Jews come to them in order to escape the Nazi regime. Despite a long tradition of welcoming those fleeing persecution, concerns about rising anti-Semitism prompted authorities to forbid any more Jews from entering the country. Local police captains were instructed to deport any Jews, returning them to the border where they entered.
A strong culture of obedience and structure ensured widespread compliance—except with the police commander in St. Gallen, a man named Paul Grüninger. He was admired and respected by the citizens of his town, with a reputation of being an excellent police commander. This is why it came as such a surprise when in 1939 he was arrested for backdating and otherwise forging visas for thousands of Jews, allowing them to remain in Switzerland instead of being deported.
Grüninger lost his job and was jailed and fined. He was also falsely rumored to have rescued these Jews in exchange for money and sexual favors. His reputation ruined, Paul Grüninger struggled to make a living for the rest of his life. Even well after WWII and the evils of the Nazi regime were widely known, the Swiss government resisted multiple efforts to restore his honor. He died a controversial figure.
Why did he do all of this? Or perhaps more importantly, why didn’t the other police commanders do the same as Grüninger? In the book Beautiful Souls, the author Eyal Press noted from his research a fascinating but important distinction in their process. Most police commanders delegated the visa processing of incoming Jews to subordinates. Grüninger, instead, met with each one. Press argues that this was the key difference. The commander of St. Gallen saw each person and each family personally. He saw them as individual people, not as a mere policy to be enforced.
In total, he rescued 3,600 Jews, but he rescued them one-by-one.
Grüninger was interviewed on national television a year before his death. When asked why he did what he did, he replied:
My conscience told me that I could not and may not send them back. And also my human sense of duty demanded that I keep them here.
And after years of suffering ignominy for his heroic defiance, he also said that he would do it all over again.
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