OSLO (Nov. 25)
The prime minister of Norway told Jewish leaders here this week that his government “shares your concern” over “the fate of property of the victims of the Holocaust.”
Prime Minister Thorbjorn Jagland delivered the keynote address Tuesday night as the World Jewish Congress executive meeting formally opened in the Norwegian capital.
The congress, which has been in the forefront of ongoing efforts to obtain restitution of property plundered in the Holocaust, chose to convene in Oslo in recognition of Norway’s position in this matter.
But the prime minister’s statement was less specific than had been hoped. It left many WJC delegates disappointed.
Jagland spoke of “allegations” that had “surfaced in the press” regarding “the fate of Jewish property confiscated by the Quisling Nazi government in Norway.”
He noted that the government had undertaken an independent inquiry, whose results were expected by March.
“We want all the facts on the table. When we receive the report we will consider appropriate follow-up measures and submit our proposals to Parliament,” he said.
“We have cooperated closely with the Jewish community in Norway,” he said, adding, “I can assure you that we will continue to do so after the inquiry has been completed.”
Jagland devoted the bulk of his speech to reviewing Norway’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“The time has come to show on the ground what was agreed on paper,” he said.
WJC leaders had hoped for a formal public commitment from Norway to pay compensation for the property lost by the country’s approximately 1,800 Jews, 700 of whom were slaughtered at Auschwitz.
Edgar Bronfman, president of the WJC, told the WJC executive earlier Monday that Norway had “undertaken” to provide restitution “at today’s values.”
Bronfman said the Norwegian position was “a great moral precedent” that strengthened the WJC’s hand in dealing with other Western European nations.
Bronfman cited Holland, Belgium and France as three countries with very substantial Jewish communities before the Holocaust that have not made restitution for properties lost.
But according to WJC officials, Norway has come under diplomatic pressure from other European countries to soften its commitment to pay restitution for Holocaust property lost in Norway.
Meanwhile, Paul Volcker, who heads the international commission set up to investigate claims against Swiss banks, told the Oslo gathering that he hoped for results by mid-1998.
Volcker, a past chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, flew late Monday from Oslo to London to hold his first meeting with representatives of the three major accounting firms that have been appointed to carry out the investigation.
Volcker told the WJC delegates that the process would involve:
Collecting background information from people still living on prewar and wartime Jewish deposits in Swiss banks.
Piloting audits at a number of large and small Swiss banks. These should be concluded by mid-1997.
Conducting audits of all Swiss banks “to the extent we feel it necessary.”
Volcker stressed his understanding that the Jewish people want finality.
He said he would proceed along this mandate unless he heard otherwise and stressed the need for cooperation from both the Swiss governments and banks and from Jewish organizations.
Some observers took his remarks as an expression of concern over reports this weekend that WJC officials, among them Greville Janner of the United Kingdom and Israel Singer, WJC secretary general, have been negotiating an interim settlement with the Swiss banks.
Ronald Lauder, treasurer of the WJC, urged his fellow delegates not to attack the Swiss bankers personally.
The more they were attacked, he said, the less cooperative they become. Bronfman, too, distinguished between the behavior of Swiss bankers during the Holocaust and that of their successors today. “While all Swiss must take some responsibility, we can’t expect them to feel guilty,” he said of today’s bankers.
While no restitution monies have actually materialized, there is already informal talk among Jewish leaders assembled here as to how it would be allocated were it to materialize.
Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, made an impassioned plea to other delegates to put needy survivors at the top of the list of priorities. Jewish Agency for Israel leaders, including Chairman Avraham Burg, angrily denied speculation that they are eyeing the putative restitution monies as a welcomed resource with which to meet the agency’s mounting deficit.
They and other world Jewish leaders speak of Diaspora Jewish education as the best and worthiest beneficiary of heirless assets of Holocaust victims.