How 9 Ordinary People Became Heroes During The Holocaust — And Risked Everything To Save Jewish Lives

Published September 1, 2021
Updated March 12, 2024

Paul Grüninger: The Swiss Border Commander Who Falsified Documents To Save Jews

Paul Gruninger

Wikimedia CommonsPaul Grüninger used his position to quietly help thousands of desperate refugees enter Switzerland.

By the late 1930s, conditions in Germany and Austria had become increasingly terrifying for Jewish people. Many tried to enter Switzerland, where border commanders had been ordered to turn them away.

But one border commander, Paul Grüninger, decided to help.

Grüninger seemed an unlikely person to break the rules. A former soldier and longtime policeman, he had literally made a career out of following the law. But when Swiss authorities ordered him to deny Jewish people entry into Switzerland, Grüninger quietly defied his superiors.

From 1938 to 1939, Grüninger falsified 3,600 Jewish refugees’ passports, allowing them to evade detection and enter the country. “I’d rather break the rules than send these poor, miserable people back to Germany,” he said.

Jewish Refugees

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Courtesy of Ike BittonJewish refugees attempting to flee Europe. Lisbon. 1940.

In addition to helping Jewish people enter Switzerland, Grüninger also did what he could to help the terrified refugees. On one occasion, he bought shoes for a little boy. On another, he paid for a young girl’s visit to the dentist.

But Swiss officials became suspicious. They had given orders: “Those who are Jews or probable Jews are to be turned back.” Yet a shockingly high number of Jewish refugees seemed to be pouring into the country.

Before long, Grüninger’s superiors realized that he had defied their directives. As a result, he was fired from his post, found guilty of breaking the law, saddled with a criminal record, and stripped of his pension.

Despite his punishment, Grüninger never regretted what he had done. “I am not ashamed of the court’s verdict,” he said in 1954. “I am proud to have saved the lives of hundreds of oppressed people… My personal well-being, measured against the cruel fates of these thousands, was so insignificant and unimportant that I never even took it into consideration.”

author
Kaleena Fraga
author
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
editor
John Kuroski
editor
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "How 9 Ordinary People Became Heroes During The Holocaust — And Risked Everything To Save Jewish Lives." AllThatsInteresting.com, September 1, 2021, https://allthatsinteresting.com/holocaust-heroes. Accessed May 23, 2024.