It’s Switzerland in 1945 and the war has just ended. A group of deeply traumatized, ragged-looking Jewish teenagers recently liberated from Buchenwald have been sent to live in a former Swiss school building.
A young Swiss woman named Klara cares for them, while her new husband, Johann, runs her family’s textile business, whose success is dependent on the work of unrepentant Nazis living in comfort in Swiss exile. Johann’s brother, Egon, home from the war after five years working as a Swiss border guard, is wracked by guilt for having to turn away Jewish mothers and children at the frontier. His new postwar job in the attorney general’s office: hunting down ex-Nazis.
This is the premise of “Labyrinth of Peace,” an engrossing Swiss drama set in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust that is now available exclusively on ChaiFlicks, the Jewish streaming service in North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Shot in Switzerland and released in the country to great acclaim in 2020, the six-episode series is fraught with drama, romance and moral struggles.
“Labyrinth of Peace” is the brainchild of award-winning Swiss-Italian screenwriter and director Petra Volpe, who wanted to tell the compelling story of a little-known chapter of postwar history while also spotlighting the morally questionable role Switzerland took during and after the war.
“Switzerland wanted to show that they were on the right side of history, since they knew they had failed the Jews by locking down the country” during the Holocaust, and therefore took in Jewish refugees after the war, Volpe said in an interview from her home in Brooklyn. “When actual refugees arrived and they weren’t cute children younger than 12, and someone asked where the little boys were, the rabbi said of the youngest ones, ‘They were all gassed.’ Switzerland wasn’t happy when teenagers showed up. They didn’t treat them as nicely as they should have.”
The Buchenwald Boys, as they were called, had lost their childhoods and most of their families during the war years. More than 60,000 Jews died in Buchenwald — including my great-grandfather, after he, my grandfather and uncle were arrested on Kristallnacht and sent to the concentration camp. But some 900 youths survived and were among those liberated by U.S. forces.
Jewish refugee agencies came to their rescue, and they were sent to various sites in France, England and Switzerland for rehabilitation. “Labyrinth of Peace” turns the story of a group sent to Switzerland into an absorbing historical drama that belies the myth of Swiss neutrality and demonstrates how guilt and moral conflicts ran through families even after combat ended.
In the series, the recently liberated Buchenwald Boys find themselves at the heart of many more interests than anyone first realizes.
One of the teens, Herschel, falls in love with the Swiss Klara, whose father’s textile factory profited handsomely during the war. The family home is rich in sumptuous detail, from silk damask wall coverings to lush oriental carpets covering the floors to the gold-rimmed Limoges tea pot from which servants pour drinks. Nearby, the Buchenwald Boys live in empty classrooms without sufficient food or clothing, after arriving in the country wearing little but rags.
In real life, the 370 or so Buchenwald Boys who were sent to Switzerland became political pawns, Volpe says. They were promised several months of rest and rehabilitation, but their stay in Switzerland was cut short when authorities in pre-state Israel told them they were going to Palestine. Most didn’t want to go; some asked to settle in Australia and others wanted to stay in Switzerland.
“Everyone just wanted to bring them to Israel and get them out of sight,” said Volpe, who is not Jewish but is married to a Jewish man. “There’s collective guilt.”
In the series, the character of Egon is based on a real Swiss border guard whose story is known from frequent letters he wrote home to his wife. Egon is introduced to viewers as he arrives home just in time for his brother’s wedding to Klara. He is wracked with guilt and anger.
“Every day he had to drag mothers and young kids back across the border and it’s killing him,” Volpe said.
Desperate for expiation, Egon gets drawn into the U.S. authorities’ search for Nazis who moved to Switzerland and are living under cover with adopted names and identities.
Meanwhile, his brother Johann — Klara’s husband — is trying to transform his father-in-law’s textile business into a success by producing a low-cost synthetic alternative to nylon. Johann touts the achievement as a pure Swiss creation, but it turns out that it’s the work of a Nazi chemist working under an assumed name in the family lab — putting Johann in a morally dubious position and creating conflict with his wife.
Many Nazis who fled Germany after the war found new lives in Switzerland, where their pasts largely were overlooked. The same happened in America, too; the U.S. government put ex-Nazi scientists to work developing military hardware and even rockets for the country’s fledgling space program.
“Switzerland imported the knowledge of German war criminals,” said Volpe, who grew up near Zurich, lived in Berlin for 20 years as an adult and has resided in New York for the past decade. “They tried to hire scientists from the chemical industry. Swiss economic success is based on knowledge we took from the Nazis.”
Volpe’s series shatters the notion of Switzerland’s ostensible neutrality and demonstrates how many Swiss shared in the war’s sins.
“War criminals were treated like royalty in Switzerland because they had money, and refugees were treated like criminals,” observed Volpe.
“Labyrinth of Peace” was a hit when it aired on Swiss national television, and last year won awards at several Jewish film festivals in the United States. The series is now available nationwide on ChaiFlicks, the subscription streaming service that focuses on Jewish and Israeli content.
For Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 18, the JCC of Manhattan will screen two episodes from the series followed by a Q&A with Volpe.
At the end of the series (no spoilers!), Klara and a friend are shown driving while she opens a thin book that Herschel, the eldest of the Buchenwald Boys who fell in love with her, wrote and gave her. In his introduction Herschel writes, “I have done my best to prevent what was meant to be prevented. The eradication of us and our history.”
“The main message in his diary is: ‘They didn’t erase our voice and I can still tell my story,’ Volpe said. “That’s a form of victory also, and a very important message.”