BERN (May. 26)
Jewish leaders are giving a mixed response to the Swiss government’s reaction to a U.S. report that was sharply critical of Switzerland’s wartime dealings with the Nazis.
Switzerland last week acknowledged that it entered into “questionable deals” with the Third Reich, but denied that the country helped prolong World War II by serving as banker for the Nazis.
The May 22 declaration from the Swiss Federal Council, the nation’s Cabinet, represented the most detailed Swiss reply yet to a blistering 200-page U.S. government report that was issued May 7 by U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat.
The Eizenstat report accused Switzerland of cynically profiting from the war and of bankrolling the Nazi war machine through its purchases of Nazi gold.
In the Swiss government’s response, which was presented by Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti, the Cabinet maintained that the country was “seeing to its own interests” when it traded with the Nazis.
“The Swiss government regards the representation of Switzerland as the banker to the Nazis as a one-sided broad-brush judgment,” the government said.
A landlocked and officially neutral nation surrounded for much of the war by the Axis powers, Switzerland took actions that were first and foremost designed to protect its own population from the ravages of war, according to the Cabinet.
Swiss trade with the Nazis as well as with the Allies “was a question of national political and economic survival,” the Cabinet maintained.
Switzerland’s wartime activities also allowed the country to remain a refuge for tens of thousands of refugees fleeing fascism and to serve as “an oasis of democracy and freedom in a totalitarian Europe,” the declaration added.
The government conceded that the “Swiss business community had also pursued its own interests with the Axis and the Allies.”
This was viewed by some observers as a first step by the government to distance itself from questionable wartime activities pursued by private Swiss banks and industry.
Though the government admitted that the country made mistakes during the war, it also presented a defense of the country’s actions at the time.
“All in all, neutrality led to a difficult tightrope walk between adaptation and resistance. Today we know that this also led to mistakes. The faint-hearted refugee policy for Jews was inexcusable,” the Cabinet said, referring to the decision by the Swiss federal government to turn back tens of thousands of European Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
As a result of that decision, more than 30,000 Jews were returned at the Swiss border and most of them died in the Holocaust.
At the same time, however, Switzerland provided haven to some 25,000 Jewish refugees, who survived the war together with Switzerland’s 20,000 Jewish citizens.
The Cabinet also maintained that accusations found in the foreword and summary of the Eizenstat report were not backed up by the remaining, purely historical sections of the report.
Others who have studied the Eizenstat report in its entirety have issued a similar criticism.
The suggestion in the forward that Switzerland prolonged the war by trading with the Nazis is “unsupported” by the “report’s contents,” the Cabinet said.
The Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, the communal umbrella group, welcomed the Cabinet declaration.
The federation was particularly pleased that the government admitted the “inexcusable immigration policy toward the Jews” during the war, said Thomas Lyssy, the federation’s vice president.
On the other hand, the World Jewish Congress, which has spearheaded international efforts to get the Swiss to confront their wartime past, claimed that the Cabinet had admitted nothing in its declaration last week.
But this charge was criticized by Swiss Jewish leaders.
“Who said this on behalf of the WJC?” Rolf Bloch, the federation’s president, said in an interview.
“The WJC is a conglomerate of many people,” added Bloch, who was supportive of the Cabinet declaration. “They have a hundred vice presidents. They are speaking with a thousand tongues.”
His criticism, which reflected a split between the local Jewish community and the WJC over how best to deal with the Swiss government, was also voiced by Lyssy.
WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg, who issued the WJC’s criticism of the declaration, is “doing politics, too,” said Lyssy.
Steinberg “heard the things he wanted to. He responded to the things he wanted to,” said Lyssy.
But he did have one criticism of last week’s Cabinet declaration.
“The one thing they did not mention was the victim’s gold,” he said, referring to charges that a portion of the Nazi-looted gold purchased by the Swiss had been stripped from Jewish victims of the concentration camps.
“It would have been wise to state it” in the declaration, Lyssy said.
(JTA foreign editor Mitchell Danow contributed to this report.)