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In Shadow of the Alps, a Swiss Family’s Private Underground

Andre Cherbuliez is a lean, spare man of average height, completely bald, with astonishingly elastic, expressive features evocative of the young Yul Brynner.

I came to the offices of the Allseas Shipping Company last month to talk with Cherbuliez about our shared alma mater, the International School of Geneva. Cherbuliez, now 73, attended the school as a teenager during World War II, and I came hoping to hear some reminiscences. I did, but it was not what I expected.

Ecolint, as the school is known, has sought since its founding in 1924 to educate youngsters of all races, creeds and nationalities that race, religion and nationality are anachronisms. Or, in the words of its principal, Othman Hamayed, that culture is simply “one’s own truth.”

“Go ahead,” he said as I sat down in his office. “I don’t think I have anything interesting to say.”

Drawing him out was a challenge until the subject turned to the school’s wartime principal, the legendary Madame Maurette. “Oh, she had no great love for me,” Cherbuliez said, grinning. “She was always irritated with my misbehavior. All the more so because my mother would often call to pull me and my brother out of school.”

“You were taken out of school often?”

“Yes. To go get people, for my mother.”

“To ‘get people’?”

“My mother would bring people in. If it meant going into Germany or Austria, she would go herself. Austria! You had to have guts to go there. But often it was just to bring people over from France, and she would send my brother and me. I was 13, and he was two years older. We would leave school and go to the mountains. We’d cross the border, cut across the open fields, usually we’d spend the night in a little chalet, and we’d come back the next day with the people.”

“With Jews?”

“With people. Human beings. Yes, they were Jews. Who cares? You couldn’t bring them over at night or they’d catch you. But during the day you were fine. You’d just stroll across the fields of grass. The ideal moment to bring people was at midday, when the border police would eat. You could really do anything then. Once, I left a group of about 10 people in the chalet overnight and told them, ‘Don’t let it even occur to you make a fire in the fireplace. No way. Don’t go anywhere, don’t make a fire, and I’ll be back tomorrow.’ The next day, they were gone and I found ash in the fireplace. The border police saw the smoke.”

Geneva lies in a small basin encircled by mountain ranges — the Alps, the Salve, the Jura — and winter can be relentless, long months without a ray of sun as the mountains trap the clouds between them. This December, when I returned, the only signs of color were Christmas lights on the trees and the cheery, bright red, yellow and black flutter of Geneva’s coat of arms.

“I learned what fear was from these people,” Cherbuliez continued. “Here I was, at 13, and I’d walk across with absolute serenity. I knew those guys wouldn’t shoot me. But for these people the police meant terror. I’d hear the things they said at home, talking with my parents. These were people who had been destroyed, who had had unpardonable things done to them. What they did in France is eternally unpardonable. They took people and told them: ‘You are not even animals, you are nothing. You are not even a beast.’ These aren’t the Germans I’m talking about, but the French. There is no forgiveness for these things.”

“For my mother” — Dr. Jeanne Stephani, a physician, and her husband, Emile Cherbuliez, a professor of chemistry, were a prominent Geneva couple — “it was an intolerable situation. She found it unacceptable. She was a woman with an impossible character, impossible to live with, but she was blessed with a prodigious intelligence. Thanks to her I learned about survival. What a woman!”

“You know, she never paid her taxes. She’d tell the tax collectors, ‘You treat me as chattel, and I’ll pay you the taxes chattel pays.’” (Women did not gain the vote in Switzerland until the mid-1970s.) “They’d turn to my father and he’d say, ‘Do you really think she reveals her finances to me?’”

“It was understood that at school we were not to speak about what happened at home, about the people who passed through. We were told to be discreet. Fifty, 60 people must have passed through our house. Once, someone sent us 50 kilos of coffee from Colombia, and that was how we knew they had made it safely.”

“Was your family honored for what you did?”

“What ‘honor’ are you talking about? From my point of view, we are a part of the worst moment these people lived. The only thing we want is for them to forget us. Why remind them? We only ever wanted them to live their lives. There were only a few of us who did what we should have done, but that was all we did: what needed to be done.”

“You have never received any honors?”

“Oh, we are approached every once in a while, especially my brother, who lives in New York. It is intolerable! There is no reason to have to remind people of these things. You know, actually, once I did receive an honor. I was introduced to an Israeli called Avraham Tamir” (a prominent military and political figure during the 1970s). “I took one look at him and said, ‘You’re Tamir? You’re Polinski!’ He sort of inclined his head and said ‘Yeah…’ And so I said: ‘Remember? In the Canton of Valais? A kid was with you? Remember eating a fondue and how sick you got?’ And he said ‘Yes, but who are you?’ So I said ‘I’m the kid! I grew up.’ That is my recompense. Full stop.”

When Andre Cherbuliez speaks his face animates every word he utters like a dance, explicitly. His hands — large, delicate, European hands — remain utterly still, folded and inert on his lap.

I mentioned his story to Daniel Lack, a Geneva attorney and human rights advocate. Is it possible, I wanted to know, that there was an underground railroad here? “Cherbuliez?” he said. “Every word is true.”

One of the hallmarks of my Geneva childhood, years before the Swiss banking scandal, was an annual holiday in which we would skip classes and stroll from home to home in pairs selling bouquets of a powdery yellow flower called mimosa that had been handed out at school. We were to raise funds for child welfare. In our little world, this did not seem such an odd way to spend a school day; we were occasionally given afternoons off to campaign for baby seals. The mimosa flowers were a tribute to a similar yellow flower that was the ostensible cargo of wartime trains coming from France to Switzerland with smuggled children on board.

During those years, in the late 1970s, we would exchange small, chauvinistic jokes about the sang-froid of wartime Swiss generals and the prowess of the few, and untried, Swiss soldiers. “What will you do if I send 20,000 men over the Alpine passes?” the German general of our imagination would ask his Swiss counterpart. “I’d tell my soldiers to shoot,” the Swiss would reply. “And if I send 40,000 men?” “I’ll tell them to shoot twice.”

Early in our conversation about the school, Cherbuliez said: “When the war ended, there was no joy. We knew that no matter who won, among our comrades there were those who had lost everything. So we felt intense relief — relief also that Switzerland had not been invaded, which was a permanent fear — but no joy. Only hindsight has made me realize what those teachers achieved.”

However reprehensible the postwar behavior of its banks, Switzerland, alone in continental Europe, maintained its sovereignty and protected all its citizens’ civil rights throughout the war. Still, Cherbuliez said, what the banks did “is unforgivable. Completely, totally unforgivable. The money should have been turned over to the federal government as soon as the war was over, as soon as it was clear no one was coming back for it. We could have avoided the entire disgrace.”

I asked Cherbuliez if he had talked about the war with his children, who range in age from their early 50s to almost 30, or if he thought they too should just forget.

“Of course I talked to them. You have to talk about these things. You have to recount exactly what happened if you want it not to happen again. But you know what? I’d talk to them about it, like I’m talking about it with you now, and none of it seems possible. None at all. How is it possible that people could be destroyed in such a way?” His shoulders quivered.

Dr. Jeanne Stephani-Cherbuliez died young, in her 50s. After the children were grown, her husband remained alone in their 12-room apartment. “Whenever refugees arrived he’d open his doors,” Cherbuliez recalled. “I remember he once filled the house with Bulgarians, and he received a formal letter informing him that the apartment was not zoned for subletting.” Recalling this letter, Cherbuliez’s face cracked into a huge, contented smile.

“How did he reply?” I asked.

Cherbuliez arched his eyebrows. “One doesn’t respond to such letters,” he said.

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