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U.S. Report Provokes Debate Among Swiss on Wartime Role

A debate has erupted in Switzerland in the wake of a U.S. report that harshly criticized the country’s wartime dealings with the Nazis.

The 200-page report, released May 7 in Washington by U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, included charges that Swiss purchases of Nazi-looted gold helped prolong the Third Reich’s war effort.

“This allegation can never be proved,” said Francois Bergier, who chairs an international group of historians and lawyers appointed last year by the Swiss government to probe Switzerland’s wartime past.

Bergier added that it would take at least 10 years before the probe would be completed. Earlier, he and other Swiss officials had said it would take up to five years before the Bergier panel would complete its findings.

On the other side of the debate, parliamentarian Jean Ziegler called on the Swiss government to return immediately to the Jewish people billions of dollars in gold the Nazis had stolen from Holocaust victims.

The report had charged that some of the gold Switzerland purchased from the Nazis had been looted from Jews and later melted into gold bars. But there was no evidence that Switzerland had knowingly purchased the gold of Holocaust victims, the report said.

Prior to the release of the Eizenstat report, months of mounting international pressure regarding the whereabouts of Holocaust-era secret Swiss bank accounts prompted the Swiss government in late February to establish the Holocaust Memorial Fund.

But last week, hopes that the fund would soon be making distributions to needy Holocaust survivors suffered a setback with word from Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel that he would not serve as international chairman of the fund.

In a May 6 letter to Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti, Wiesel said, “It has never been my role to measure or to quantify the suffering of others.”

His letter came less than a week after Switzerland bowed to Jewish pressures to appoint Wiesel to the fund’s seven-member executive board, which will oversee the distribution of millions of dollars to needy Holocaust survivors.

Wiesel said in the letter that he had been “reluctant” to serve on the board, adding, in a reference to the debate now taking place in Switzerland, “Recent statements in the Swiss media have only served to deepen my reservations.”

Created earlier this year with contributions from Switzerland’s largest banks and industrial firms, the fund is valued at about $190 million.

According to the March 1 bylaws establishing the fund, Switzerland was to name four of the executive board’s members and the World Jewish Restitution Organization would recommend the other three members.

In April, the WJRO proposed its three nominees, including Wiesel, Israeli elder statesman Yosef Burg and Knesset member Avraham Herschson.

After receiving Wiesel’s letter, Cotti called on the WJRO to name a replacement as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the Eizenstat report has generated fears in Switzerland that the United States will seek to renegotiate the 1946 Washington Agreement, under which the Swiss turned over some $58 million in Nazi-looted gold to the Allies.

According to the Eizenstat report, the Swiss held far more Nazi gold than it turned over — an amount estimated at between $185 million and $289 million at the end of the war.

An additional $120 million was also estimated to be held for other countries by the Swiss central bank.

Special Ambassador Thomas Borer, Switzerland’s leading troubleshooter for dealing with the accusations against his country, said no government in the world would agree to reopen negotiations on an already signed international pact.

“Where do you stop? How far do you go back — 50 years, 100 years, back to the Napoleonic war?” he asked.

“Governments have to respect international agreements,” he added. “I don’t know if the U.S. would want to renegotiate certain agreements it has made in the past.”

In a related development, Rolf Bloch, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, is warning of a resurgence of Swiss anti-Semitism.

In a speech last week at a synagogue in Basel, Switzerland, Bloch told federation delegates and government officials that he was alarmed by a new campaign launched by the Popular Party aimed at undermining public support for two Swiss funds created to help needy Holocaust survivors.

In posters and newspaper ads, the right-wing party, which is part of the governing coalition, sharply criticized the Holocaust Memorial Fund and a separate $7 billion “Swiss Foundation for Solidarity” that Swiss President Arnold Koller proposed in March to help the “victims of poverty and catastrophes,” including victims of the Holocaust.

The campaign charged that Jewish “blackmail” had forced the Swiss government to announce the funds.

Christoph Blocher, a Popular Party leader who financed the campaign, was “playing with fire,” Bloch warned.

“This can easily end with a conflagration,” he added.

In another development, the president of the 40 member central committee of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland is calling on the Swiss government not to devote funds from the multi-billion “Swiss Foundation for Solidarity” to needy Holocaust victims.

Claude Nordmann said that the proposed foundation, which is expected to face a referendum next year, will not be approved by the Swiss people if some of its funds are to be given to Holocaust survivors.

Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Jewish federation, disagreed with Nordmann’s stance.

“We do not have any mandate from the survivors of the Holocaust to disclaim any single dollar” in reparations, he said, adding the belief that the foundation would be approved in a referendum by “a comfortable majority.”

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