Chesex, one of Switzerland’s foremost writers, is practically unheard of in the English speaking world and yet this novella, A Jew Must Die, (running to around 100 pages) is an important little book. It is a book based on a true story, relating the brutal and senseless murder of a Jewish trader by a group of local fascist thugs in 1942. It is important because Switzerland is so often portrayed as a haven for refuges from Nazi Germany and as a country that kept its head during the rise of fascism elsewhere in Europe and he march of German Nationalism at this time. And yet for all its neutrality, for all its role as a clearing house for those fleeing the Gestapo on their way to America, Switzerland did not emerge untainted from the period. As with much German literature published in the years immediately after the war, this book is about confronting history and collective guilt.
A neutral tax haven, surrounded by the fascist states of Germany, Italy amd the annexed Austria, more recent revelations about Nazi gold have started to suggest a murkier past which Switzerland has hitherto not faced up to. In this novella Chesex too holds a mirror up to Switzerland and through his retelling of this story suggests that the sweep of fascism did not simply stop at the Swiss border.
In this sense, Chessex’s writing is redolent of that other master of the Swiss novella, Friedrich Duerrenmatt. In his allegorical story Der Tunnel (The Tunnel), a train careers outs of control into a seemingly endless and increasingly vertical tunnel. As it descends into darkness, the bourgeois passenger stops his ears, nose, mouth and close his eyes, like the three wise monkeys, refusing to face up to a terrible reality. Duerrenmatt’s story, an allegory of the decsent into fascism, directly exposes (and challenges) Switzerland’s complicity in this dark period of history.
And Chessex’s story does the same, documenting a hidden history that shouldnot be hidden. More than this, though, A Jew Must Die is an articulate condemnation of the banality, ignorance and brutality of racism in all its forms.