Edith and Werner Guggenheim

Edith and Werner Guggenheim – Swiss Jews who were quite active participants in the struggle of the Soviet Jews for repatriation and free emigration. Among other families of refuseniks, which they visited being in the former Soviet Union as tourists, was a family of Yuri and Nelli Shpeizman in Leningrad, and after the visit they became friends. Shpeizman family got permission to leave Soviet Union in 1988, but to Israel Nelli has arrived alone – Yuri died from heart attack in Wien on the threshold of freedom. Interview was taken by Nelli Lipovich-Shpeizman while Edith Guggenheim was in Israel at November 24th, 2008.
Werner Guggenheim died in 2009 after a long and serious illness.

      Nellie Lipovich-Shpeizman: Edith, please tell us about your family background.

      Edith Guggenheim: I was born in Germany. When I was a little girl, my father went to Switzerland with one of my brothers. It was in 1937. My father was a doctor and he had a clinic in Heilbroun, Germany. Once his German patient, who had a friend in the Gestapo, came to my father and said to him: "Dr. Strauss, a woman who is a member of the Nazi party and works as a physician, wants your clinic. If you don't give her your clinic, you will be sent to Dachau”. My father analyzed the situation and decided to leave Germany. He sent his wife who was born in Switzerland to her relatives in Switzerland with two children. He joined them afterwards. Under pressure from Nazi Germany, the Swiss government stopped prolonging the validity of the passports of the Swiss Jews - citizens of Switzerland. They began to make a mark "J" on the German passports of the Swiss Jews in Germany.

      Our family was a typical case when Swiss Jewish women married German Jews. Now we couldn't live in Switzerland because of the absence of Swiss citizenship. That is why the family of Dr. Strauss was forced to move to Liechtenstein. There I studied in a Monastery School because there were no other schools in Liechtenstein.

      My older brother went to study in Berlin. He studied to become a tailor and my parents didn't want him to stop. He lived with his aunt in Berlin. During Krystalnacht he was alone in the apartment and barricaded the entrance with cupboards. All his life he was haunted by the memory of this frightening event. Until that night he didn't want to leave Germany in spite of the efforts of our parents. But now he changed his mind and decided to move to Switzerland. Our family lived then legally in Liechtenstein. My father suffered very much without his own clinic. He only could work as a replacement for Swiss physicians.

      We lived next to the Austrian border which meant next to the Nazis. We could leave the place, even occupied Europe. But it was very difficult because only some countries of Latin America were ready to accept the Jews of Europe, like Cuba or the Dominican Republic. Those countries were interested in raising their cultural level by getting the educated professional Jews of Europe.

      We already had all the needed documents. But once by listening to the BBC, my father jumped off the sofa and shouted: "We don't leave. We stay here. Hitler began his war against Russia. No one returned from Russia undefeated. It is his end!"

      After the war we received Swiss citizenship. I finished my studies at the French Philological Faculty in the University near Lausanne. In 1950 I married a Swiss citizen, Werner Guggenheim. His ancestors lived in Switzerland since the 17th century. All his family and he, in particular, felt the need to participate in the destiny of Swiss Jews and the Jews in the rest of the world. He feels that the Swiss government's help to Jewish refugees during the war was totally inadequate. The Jews of Russia and Israel need the help of Swiss Jews. The Swiss government refused Swiss citizenship to the Jews, refused to give them asylum and by this lack of essential help, killed them. Now it is the time to help.

      In the beginning of our life as a couple, Werner and I visited Israel. It was unforgettable. Together with Chana Berlowitz, Werner organized the Jews of Zurich to help Russian Jews.

      N.L.-S.: Chana Berlowitz and her deceased husband, Jacques were very active for Russian Jewry. I hope that Russian Jews will receive information from Chana about the help she organized in the period of the '70's and '80's to the refuseniks and prisoners of Zion in Russia. We wait impatiently for Chana to tell us about these valuable activities for Soviet Jewry.

      E.G.: Because we had double citizenship and could travel to the Soviet Union as Swiss citizens we could in a reserved way help the Foreign Ministry of Israel. A representative of the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Switzerland asked Zionist students in the beginning of the '70's from Bnai Akiva to help the refuseniks and prisoners of Zion in Russia.

      Pioneers were children in our family and in Chana's family. They were students. Afterwards young people from Hashomer Hatzair and Bnai Akiva (Zurich) joined them. The students went to Helsinki where they began their cruise by sea. The first stop for one day was Leningrad. The students had no visas and were obliged to sleep on the ship. Their guides were Russians and the students had to run away from them to visit a Jewish family. They had to be very careful. Our oldest daughter Evi was at that time a student at Hebrew University and Ralph was a student in University of Zurich. They were the first in our family to visit Jewish families according to a stated address in order to bring the refuseniks books, tapes, money and information for study of Hebrew. It was very dangerous because foreigners were always under observation of KGB agents. Our children's first visit was at the home of Aba Taratuta, one of the first refuseniks and aliya activists. We prepared for Evi special clothing with many pockets to put in textbooks from Israel. Then our son Claude with his friend from Alon Shvut went to Russia as part of a tourist group - following the initiative of our older children. Then the adults began to travel to Russia. As tourists we secretly visited refuseniks in Russia. To help Jewish families, Chana Berlowitz and I brought two very expensive fur coats. Each time we had to go through customs examinations and then invent changes during our departure from the Soviet Union. Our parents knew nothing about our travels. Chana and I were in Russia three times. Swiss Jews founded a special organization in Zurich for financial aid to Russian Jews. Jewish families in Switzerland were very active in helping Russian Jews. Many of them traveled to Russia as tourists and then used to escape from the Russian guides to visit Jewish families.

      N.L.-S.: Edith it seems that you used your experience when you was a school child in Liechtenstein and together with others helped the refugees who survived the Jewish Catastrophe and the concentration camps.

      E.G.: Christian organizations, also, participated in helping Russian Jews. As a result of the pressure of Swiss Jews, the government of Switzerland appealed to the Soviet government to take steps to let the Jews go.

      Werner addressed a meeting in Bern where about 3,000 Jews participated from all over Switzerland. They asked the participants to pressure the Soviet government to release the prisoners of Zion and permit the refuseniks to make aliya.

      Werner visited Russia twice. We used to travel to Russia in couples together with friends. But some Swiss enterprises were opposed to our initiative. For his activity in helping Soviet Jews, a Christian steward at Swissair, airline of Switzerland, was dismissed from his job.

      N.L.-S.: Thank you.