NEW YORK (Feb. 18)
Jewish and Swiss leaders are pointing to a new spirit of cooperation in their efforts to learn the fate of Jewish assets deposited in Swiss banks during the World War II era.
The mutual praise comes in the wake of a decision by Switzerland’s three largest banks to create a humanitarian fund for Holocaust survivors that might begin to make payments as soon as this summer.
“The mood has brightened,” Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, told reporters during a break in last Friday’s meetings in midtown Manhattan of his group, Swiss Jewish community leaders and Swiss government representatives.
Also in attendance were Israeli and U.S. officials involved in the issue, including Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
Bronfman also is president of the World Jewish Congress, which, with the Jewish Agency for Israel and other leading Jewish groups, created the WJRO in 1992.
The reciprocal admiration is somewhat unprecedented. Past negotiations have been marked by mistrust on both sides.
One focus of the private meeting was how to transfer Swiss francs into the pockets of Holocaust survivors.
The humanitarian fund, which now stands at more than $100 million as a result of contributions from the three banks and other Swiss businesses, is separate from the outstanding issue of how much Jewish wealth is sitting in dormant accounts in Swiss banks.
Jewish organizations have said Swiss banks hold up to $7 billion in such accounts. Preliminary audits of the dormant accounts could come as early as mid-1997, an official said.
The Swiss government and the Swiss National Bank have pledged to infuse the fund as well, but only after the release of two “fast-track reports.” An independent Swiss historical commission is expected to complete the reports by June.
“There has been a move from confrontation to cooperation,” said Eizenstat, the Clinton administration official who deals with restitution issues.
“It is without precedent in history for a government to shine the spotlight on itself and live with the consequences,” he added.
Special Ambassador Thomas Borer, who is coordinating Switzerland’s response to all issues surrounding its wartime financial role, said, “I think it’s a historic moment. What was hard and overly emotional is now back on track.”
Borer, who also spoke of a “spirit of cooperation,” said the details of the fund would be worked out with Jewish groups in the “next days and weeks.”
“We want to do something our people and descendants could be proud of,” he said.
Other developments emerging from last week’s meeting included:
Payments from the humanitarian fund may first go to Holocaust survivors now in Central and Eastern Europe, because those people suffered under both communism and Nazism, a Jewish official said.
Borer talked of a second humanitarian fund. Last Friday, Swiss academics, writers and politicians unveiled a private aid drive, dubbed the “Fund for Humanity and Justice,” for Holocaust victims.
The government of Switzerland invited Israel Singer, chairman of the WJRO executive committee and secretary general of the WJC, to meet with Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti. Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy has also been invited to meet with Cotti.
Knesset member Avraham Herschson, chairman of the body’s committee on restitution, invited D’Amato and Bronfman to address the Israeli Parliament.
Meanwhile, British politicians seeking compensation for Holocaust survivors won Switzerland’s backing for a proposed conference of all countries that handled Nazi gold during World War II. One of those seeking support for the conference was British lawmaker Greville Janner, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
And earlier this week, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center called on Switzerland to investigate all secret bank accounts opened by Nazi officials during the Third Reich and turn over the money to Holocaust victims.