Meet Paul Grüninger, The Forgotten WW2 Hero Who Defied Orders To Save Thousands Of Jews

Published December 29, 2020
Updated May 4, 2023

From 1938 to 1939, Swiss border commander Paul Grüninger falsified 3,600 Jewish refugees' passports, helping them escape the Holocaust.

Paul Grüninger

Wikimedia CommonsSwiss border commander Paul Grüninger falsified documents to allow thousands of Jewish refugees safe passage into his country.

Paul Grüninger is one of the most inspiring unknown heroes of World War II. As a Swiss border commander, he defied his superiors and helped thousands of Jewish refugees to enter neutral Switzerland.

But Grüninger’s home country did not celebrate him as a hero during his lifetime. Instead, they punished his good deeds by ending his career and labeling him as a criminal — which made it nearly impossible for Grüninger to find work.

But he never regretted his actions. Looking back, Grüninger mused, “It was basically a question of saving human lives threatened with death. How could I then seriously consider bureaucratic schemes and calculations.”

He died in poverty in 1972, unknown to most — but never forgotten by the 3,600 Jewish people whose lives he saved.

Paul Grüninger’s Life Before World War II

World War 1

Wikimedia CommonsAs a young man, Paul Grüninger enlisted in the Swiss army and served as a lieutenant during World War I.

Born in St. Gallen, Switzerland in 1891, Paul Grüninger spent his youth playing football for the local team, SC Brühl. He helped lead his team to victory in the 1914-1915 season.

A team player, Grüninger enlisted into the Swiss army when World War I broke out. Although Switzerland stayed neutral during the conflict, the country maintained an army to protect Swiss borders. Grüninger served as a lieutenant.

At the end of the war, Grüninger joined the police force in his hometown of St. Gallen. By 1925, Grüninger was promoted to captain, a role he would maintain for many years.

A figure of authority in St. Gallen, he also became the president of the Swiss Policemen’s Association. He participated in international police congresses and even provided security for state visits in St. Gallen, including for the Japanese leader Emperor Hirohito.

But everything changed in 1938. Nazi Germany announced its intention to annex Austria. The Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg met with Adolf Hitler in hopes of changing his mind.

Von Schuschnigg proposed putting the idea of annexation, or Anschluss, to a vote — but resigned under pressure before ballots could be cast. Nazi troops marched in, and cheering crowds gave Adolf Hitler an enthusiastic welcome.

Nazis ArriveIn  Vienna

Wikimedia CommonsCrowds gather in the streets as the Nazis make their way through the Austrian capital. March 1938.

On the other side of Austria’s border, the Swiss watched nervously. As Jewish refugees in Austria clamored to enter Switzerland to escape the increasingly terrifying conditions at home, Swiss authorities made a firm decision.

They did not want these refugees. At the request of Swiss authorities, the Germans began to mark all Jewish passports with a large “J” in order to restrict their immigration to Switzerland.

Half of Austria’s 192,000 Jews fled the country. One escape route took refugees south of Lake Constance, through the Swiss-Austrian border, to the St. Margarethen municipality — where Paul Grüninger led the Swiss border police.

Suddenly, it became Grüninger’s job to stop these desperate refugees from entering Switzerland.

A Quiet Rebellion At The Swiss Border Saves 3,600 Lives

German Passport J

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ursula Seligmann LowensteinA German passport, belonging to Siegfried Seligmann, marked with the letter “J”.

Paul Grüninger had his orders. An official dispatch in September 1938 commanded Swiss police to turn back refugees. “Those who are Jews or probable Jews are to be turned back.”

Grüninger left few relics explaining his decision. But his actions speak for themselves. For eight months, from August of 1938 to April of 1939, Grüninger quietly defied the orders from his superiors and allowed refugees to cross to safety.

To do so, Grüninger falsified documents to make it seem like refugees had arrived before the tightening of border restrictions. The St. Gallen police commander even went as far as to buy winter clothing for refugees who, in their escape, had left their things behind.

Quietly and steadily, Paul Grüninger turned in false reports about the number of refugees at the border and hindered efforts by authorities to track down refugees who had entered Switzerland illegally. Assisted by the Swiss Association of Jewish Refugees, Grüninger helped set up a refugee camp near Diepoldsau. He ordered officers at his command to be lenient.

The people who arrived were in bad shape — cold, hungry, in a state of shock, and mourning the lives they left behind. “If I could not do anything for them,” Grüninger later said, “then these people who had just escaped would have to be separated from their relatives, sent back and they would be lost.”

According to testimonies from people he helped, Paul Grüninger took a personal interest in their well-being. His acts of generosity included buying new shoes for a little boy and paying for a young girl’s visit to the dentist.

But the work was risky. Soon, a friend of Grüninger’s family alerted him that he was under investigation by the Gestapo. But Grüninger continued diligently in his work. “I’d rather break the rules than send these poor, miserable people back to Germany,” he said.

Jewish Refugees

US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ike BittonJewish refugees attempting to flee Europe. Lisbon, 1940.

Indeed, Grüninger told his daughter that seeing the refugees for himself convinced him that he was doing the right thing. Having looked in their eyes, he understood their desperation and could not have acted differently.

Survivors who escaped to Switzerland remembered the quiet policeman and his kindness.

Stopped at the border, they were advised by other guards that Grüninger would be on their side. All they had to do was plead for him to shoot them on the spot, rather than send them back to Austria. Once they said this, Grüninger would declare that they could stay in Switzerland.

For months, Grüninger toiled diligently — until April 3, 1939. On that day, Grüninger arrived at work as he normally did. But a cadet named Anton Schneider blocked his path.

“Sir,” Schneider said to Grüninger, “You no longer have the right to enter these premises.” Grüninger protested, but he knew that he had been found out.

Indeed, Grüninger’s actions had not gone unnoticed. Heinrich Rothmund, who gave the orders to stop the flow of refugees, and who is considered to be responsible for the Swiss request to add “J” to Jewish passports, had become suspicious of Paul Grüninger.

It appeared that many refugees were still getting into Switzerland via St. Gallen. And Rothmund found it very strange that many of them seemed to have arrived just before the border restrictions in August 1938.

Punished For His Kindness

Paul Gruninger As An Older Man

Yad VashemDespite his heroic bravery, Paul Grüninger’s supposed crimes weren’t cleared from his name until 1995.

Once he’d been found out, Paul Grüninger was dismissed from his post. At a trial that lasted two years, Grüninger was accused of illegally allowing 3,600 Jews to enter Switzerland and falsifying their documents.

The court found him guilty. As punishment, Grüninger paid a fine and his trial costs. He also lost his retirement benefits.

Despite the harsh sentence — and the fact that, with a criminal record, it would be difficult to find work — Grüninger did not regret his actions. “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.”

Following the trial, Grüninger struggled to find another job. Over the years, he would work as a laborer, a fabric trader, carpet salesman, a driving instructor, and the manager of a raincoat shop. Eventually, he found work as a teacher.

He died in 1972 after decades of struggle. His conviction for breaking the law and helping refugees enter Switzerland remained in place.

The Legacy Of This Swiss Holocaust Hero

St Gallen Grüningerplatz

Wikimedia CommonsA plaza in Paul Grüninger’s hometown of St. Gallen honoring his memory.

Paul Grüninger did not die a hero in Switzerland, but he certainly was not forgotten. A year before his death, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial and institute to European Jewish victims of the Holocaust, honored Grüninger.

The organization declared Grüninger one of the “righteous among the nations” and noted that Grüninger “paid a high price for the choice he made. In the struggle between his sense of duty as a police officer and dedication to the concepts of humanity, the latter triumphed.”

In 1970 after pressure from the public, the Swiss government sent Grüninger a letter of apology. But they did not go as far as to reexamine his conviction or restore his pension.

That wouldn’t come until 1995, 23 years after his death and 50 years after the end of WOrld War II. Then, his trial was reopened and Paul Grüninger was exonerated.

In 1998, Grüninger’s heirs were awarded 1.3 million francs “in reparation for moral damages.”

Then, in 2006, Grüninger’s old football team SC Bruhl named their stadium after him. A film was made about his heroic deeds in 2014. Today, Grüninger is honored with plaques throughout St. Gallen, including at the police station where he worked.

Trailer for the 2014 film based on Grüninger’s story.

Through it all, Grüninger made a powerful impression on those whose lives he saved. One woman remembers Grüninger saying to her kindly, “Chin up, lass! You’re in Switzerland now. You’re free.”

A survivor named Susi Mehl described Grüninger as, “A man in whose company you did not have to tremble. He behaved like a father and a friend.” Sadly, Mehl’s parents didn’t make it — they were murdered at Auschwitz.

In 1972, Swiss national television aired an hour-long show about Paul Grüninger and his case. The interviewer asks him if he was aware that he was defying direct orders from his superiors.

“Yes, I was certainly aware of that,” he responds. “But my conscience told me that I could not…send them back. Also my human sense of duty demanded that I keep them here.”

The interviewer asks Grüninger, “Would you act in the same way if the situation were the same?”

“Yes, of course,” the former police chief says. “I would do and act exactly the same.”

After reading about Paul Grüninger’s heroic acts, read all about Irene Sadler, who saved 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust. Then, learn about Julian Bilecki, a teenager who helped save scores of Jews during World War I.

Kaleena Fraga
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.
John Kuroski
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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Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "Meet Paul Grüninger, The Forgotten WW2 Hero Who Defied Orders To Save Thousands Of Jews.", December 29, 2020, Accessed May 27, 2024.