Paul Grüninger was born in Switzerland in 1891, He grew up in the city of St Gallen, not far from the border with Austria-Hungary. From his youth, Paul was a talented footballer. By 1913, aged 21, he was a starring as outside-left for St Gallen’s top team, SC Brühl. At that time, Football in Switzerland had not gone professional but SC Brühl were a fine team. In the 1914-15 season, they won the national league title. Paul Grüninger seemed set for a long, successful career in the game. But after SC Brühl’s triumph in 1915, football in Switzerland, like almost everywhere else, was halted by the First World War.
The Quiet Hero
After army service during the First World War, Paul Grüninger became a policeman. He carried on playing for SC Brühl but his team was no longer competing for championships, mostly fighting against relegation. By the 1930s, Paul had become St Gallen’s police chief, respected for his discipline and hard work but little known outside his home region. What made him famous was the Anschluss, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in April 1938. In the months that followed, thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution came into Switzerland over the Rhine bridge at Diepoldsau. The Swiss government issued strict orders they must be sent back into Austria. Paul Grüninger disobeyed. He permitted the refugees to stay illegally, helped them with winter clothing and provided hundreds of them with falsified documents to obtain legal status. These actions ruined his career.
For his selfless actions, Paul Grüninger was sacked from his job in April 1939 and put on trial, ‘defended’ by a far-right, anti-Semitic lawyer. He was found guilty of illegally aiding and abetting 3,600 refugees and heavily fined. After the war, his criminal record made it hard to find employment. Paul lived a difficult life until his death, aged eighty, in October 1972. Just before then, his sacrifice and heroism was beginning to be remembered. In 1971 the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Centre in Jerusalem named him one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In the 1990s, his story was told to the world by a book, The Grüninger Case, and by a documentary film of the same title. The Swiss government quashed his conviction. Streets and squares were named after him. So was the Rhine Bridge at Diepoldsau, where so many refugees had crossed the border. In 2006, the football world gave him recognition in a way he might have liked best of all, when SC Brühl’s ground in St Gallen was re-named Paul-Grüninger-Stadion.
What made a quiet, loyal police chief help Jewish refugees in 1938-39, ruining his life and career? Why did the Swiss government and legal system punish him so severely? Why did it take so long for the authorities to rescue his reputation from injustice and rehabilitate his memory? How did his surviving family members feel when his true story was told to the world? And what is the responsibility of football clubs to respect the memory of the players, coaches and supporters who belong to them?
Find out more
Click here to find a brief account of Gruninger’s story online.
The inspiring story of Paul Grüninger can be compared with other heroic figures who saved innocent lives from the Holocaust, such as Nicholas Winton, Oskar Schindler and Hannah Senesh. Other life stories linking football to the Holcaust and how it is remembered are included in the Lives on footballmakeshistory.eu: Jewish players like Julius Hirsch, Eddy Hamel & Bela Guttman, or two great friends and team-mates, Asbjorn Halvorsen and Fritz ‘Tull’ Harder, and the way their memory was handled by SC Hamburg.
A big thank you to Diana Hildebrandt for the tip on Paul Grüninger and the background info! Do you know any amazing football lives that we haven’t gotten to yet? Do not hesitate to contact us.