WASHINGTON (Jan. 15)
Jewish officials are declaring their dealings with Switzerland “back on track” after an apology from a top government official who called Jewish demands for a Holocaust compensation fund “blackmail.”
Then-Swiss President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, who lashed out at his nation’s critics on the eve of stepping down from the rotating post, said he was “very sorry that I offended your feelings as well as those of many other people concerned, particularly those of the Jewish community at large.”
“I assure you this was not my intention,” he wrote to Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress.
WJC officials said Delamuraz’s apology has removed the principal obstacle to returning to negotiations with the Swiss on creating a preliminary fund to begin compensating Holocaust victims and their heirs who might be entitled to assets deposited in Swiss banks.
But just as Switzerland doused one firestorm surrounding the search for missing Jewish assets, a Swiss bank at the center of the investigation inflamed new tensions this week when it admitted to shredding documents from the World War II era.
The Union Bank of Switzerland said one of its employees discarded the documents last week, thinking that they were unimportant.
At a hastily called news conference Tuesday in Zurich, the bank said it “regrets the incident.” The action comes just weeks after the Swiss government ordered Swiss banks to preserve all archival material that might reveal details about wartime transactions.
“In principle, the documents and the Holocaust debate have nothing to do with each other,” a bank spokesman was quoted as saying.
Authorities have opened an investigation into the material’s contents.
A security guard reportedly rescued the documents and handed them over to Jewish community representatives in Zurich, who then turned them over to the police.
The guard was then reportedly suspended from his job, pending an investigation.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) called the reports “shocking and distressing,” and the WJC said it was “astounded they would be doing this when the entire world is watching them.”
The latest controversy comes amid new disclosures about the extent of Swiss- Nazi collaboration.
A recently declassified American intelligence report from 1946 released this week provides the first concrete evidence that Switzerland was actively and directly involved in shipping looted gold for Nazi Germany.
And other newly released documents reveal that Switzerland’s wartime relationship with Nazi Germany extended beyond the economic to the military sphere.
Attention in Switzerland, meanwhile, continued this week to focus on whether to create a $250 million compensation fund for Jewish claimants — a proposal that came out of discussions between Jewish and Swiss officials late last year.
A public dispute between Switzerland and Jewish groups broke out earlier this month when Delamuraz accused Jewish officials of trying to “blackmail” Switzerland into paying Holocaust victims $250 million.
“If we agreed now to a compensation fund, this would be taken as an admission of guilt,” Delamuraz said in parting shots published in a newspaper one day before his term as president expired.
“This is nothing less than extortion and blackmail.”
Jewish officials were outraged by the remarks, which they said bordered on anti-Semitism. Moreover, WJC officials said the $250 million figure had been proposed by the Swiss side.
Delamuraz, now economics minister, said in his letter of apology this week: “The information on which I had based my statement regarding the fund was inaccurate.”
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, said that with Delamuraz’s apology, “it’s fair to say that we have now removed the principal obstacle to returning to the constructive negotiations that were taking place” on creating a preliminary compensation fund for Holocaust victims and their heirs.
There have been some indications that Switzerland may be bowing to international pressure to set up a such a fund.
The Swiss Cabinet said it would support the creation of a fund provided that it comes from dormant bank accounts, not government money.
However, Jewish officials have rejected the offer, saying that the money is not Switzerland’s to offer and should come from the government.
Before reaching any decisions, the Swiss Cabinet said it would await the results of an investigation into Switzerland’s wartime dealings.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Delamuraz’s blackmail charge, Swiss Jewish officials have expressed concern about a wave of anti-Semitic activity in the country.
Martin Rosenfeld, general secretary of the Swiss Jewish Federation, said this week that anti-Semitism has been surfacing in letters and phone calls to Jewish groups and virulent letters to newspapers.
“There is clearly a connection,” Rosenfeld was quoted as saying. “Many feel justified by Delamuraz, and also have the feeling that if a Cabinet member is allowed to express himself this way, then the threshold of anti-Semitism has been lowered.”
Meanwhile, the latest installment in the evolving Swiss wartime collusion narrative provides evidence that Switzerland transported millions worth of looted Nazi gold to Spain and Portugal.
D’Amato and WJC officials released documents this week showing that the Swiss National Bank shipped 280 truckloads of looted Nazi gold to Spain and Portugal as payment for German imports during World War II.
The gold, worth an estimated $250 million to $500 million, was plundered from Europe’s central banks and confiscated from Holocaust victims, officials said.
The gold was carried in trucks bearing the Swiss national emblem and insured by Swiss companies, according to a 1946 U.S. intelligence memo and a transcript of a 1945 military interrogation of the Nazi official who headed Germany’s wartime gold department.
“Switzerland emerges as not only a banking center for Hitler’s Germany, but a one-stop laundering center,” Steinberg said.
A top Swiss National Bank official acknowledged that such shipments were made, but said they amounted to only one-fourth of the total cited by D’Amato and Jewish leaders.
He denied claims that Swiss banks had laundered money for the Nazis and insisted that the shipments to Portugal and Spain were consistent with Switzerland’s neutral posture during the war.
Responding to the Swiss assertion, D’Amato said, “We are tired of half-truths that only come out when they are faced with overwhelming evidence.
“The Swiss bankers were the profiteers, they were the Nazi bankers. They made blood money and that doesn’t seem to me to be neutrality.”
Other documents uncovered from the U.S. National Archives by WJC researchers show that during the war, the United States was aware that Switzerland was providing military aid to Nazi Germany.
The United States, in fact, was so outraged by massive Swiss supplies of munitions to Germany during the war that it considered imposing a total economic blockade of Switzerland, according to an October 1943 letter from Adm. William Leahy, a member of the joint chiefs of staff, to Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
Leahy wrote that an increase in Swiss military aid to Germany was damaging the Allied war effort.
“It is particularly significant that at the very time that the British and American combined bomber offensive is beginning to substantially affect German production of munitions,” the letter states, “Swiss exports of munitions to Germany have been considerably increased, thus materially decreasing the military effectiveness of our air attacks on the Axis.”
The joint chiefs of staff suggested a ban on imports to Switzerland, but the WJC said it had not been able to determine whether any sanctions were ever imposed on Switzerland.
Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the WJC, said Switzerland’s military collaboration with Germany “effectively lengthened the war and cost precious Allied and Jewish blood.”