ZURICH (Mar. 30)
At least one member of the Swiss Cabinet is questioning whether a local Jewish leader should chair the body that will oversee disbursements from Switzerland’s recently established Holocaust Memorial Fund.
Rolf Bloch, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, confirmed last week that “it was the understanding” of Jewish leaders involved in the nomination process that he would serve as chairman of the seven-member executive board in charge of administering the fund.
But one member of the Swiss Cabinet, Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss, called for a meeting next week of fellow Cabinet members to discuss the naming of Bloch to the top post of the fund’s executive board.
Last week, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which can nominate three members for the executive board, said it had put forward its candidates: Elie Wiesel, Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat and Israeli Knesset member Avraham Herschson.
The Swiss Cabinet, which has final approval of the nominees, will meet April 9 to discuss the list of proposed board members, according to a government spokesman.
Dreifuss, who is Jewish, questioned the wisdom of appointing a “Jewish president for the fund’s directing committee” in a private letter to Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti that was subsequently made public.
In the letter, Dreifuss requested that Bloch’s appointment be discussed by all seven members of the Swiss Cabinet, or Federal Council, which issues governmental decisions on the basis of a consensus of its ministers.
Dreifuss “was very upset that the content of her internal letter to Cotti was made public,” Dominique Rueb, the minister’s spokeswoman, said in an interview.
“It is obvious that Ruth Dreifuss has nothing against Rolf Bloch as a person,” Rueb added.
Swiss leaders, stung by mounting accusations about the country’s handling of Jewish wartime deposits and its economic ties to Nazi Germany, are apparently sensitive about having a local Jewish leader chair the fund’s executive committee.
According to one political analyst, Dreifuss is not alone in questioning Bloch’s nomination.
“It is very clear that the nomination of a Swiss Jewish leader as president of the fund’s directing committee is opposed by several members of the government,” the analyst said.
Another nominee to the fund’s executive board, Eizenstat, may also be opposed by the Swiss Cabinet on the grounds that he is a high-ranking official of a foreign country.
The approval of a “U.S. government official by the Swiss government is a very delicate matter,” according to a source within the government.
The Swiss Cabinet formally approved the Holocaust Memorial Fund in February, after Switzerland’s three largest banks announced that they would contribute to a fund to help needy survivors and their heirs.
The fund now totals some $190 million as a result of pledges made by the three banks, and from subsequent pledges made by the Swiss central bank and by several industrial giants.
The question of who would be in charge of distributing the funds was the subject of delicate negotiations between the Swiss government and the World Jewish Congress, which spearheaded an international campaign to compensate Holocaust survivors and their heirs who were unable to reclaim assets deposited in Swiss banks during World War II.
In late February, the two sides reached a compromise on representation whereby the foundation administering the fund would be run by a seven-member executive board.
According to the agreement, the board would include four “eminent Swiss persons,” including the president of Switzerland, and three “eminent persons recommended by the WJRO,” which was created in 1992 by the WJC, the Jewish Agency for Israel and other leading Jewish groups.
The object of the fund, the agreement says, “is to support persons in need who were persecuted for reasons of their race, religion or political views or for other reasons, or were otherwise victims of the Holocaust/Shoah, as well as to support their descendants in need.”
Non-Jewish victims, including Gypsies, are also expected to receive compensation.
According to Jewish and Swiss officials, the fund is expected to make its first payments in the summer.
The fund was created in an effort to provide immediate relief to needy victims of the Holocaust while investigations continue here into the whereabouts of Jewish assets deposited in Swiss banks during the war.
Needy Holocaust victims who receive payments from the fund will still be eligible to regain those assets once the investigation concludes.