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Fate of Holocaust memorial fund now lies with Swiss government

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BERN, Feb. 25 (JTA) — The fate of a Swiss Holocaust memorial fund now lies in the hands of the Swiss government. Lengthy meetings early this week here between Swiss and Jewish officials produced an agreement about how to administer the fund, recently established by Switzerland’s three main banks. The Swiss Federal Council was scheduled to consider final approval of the agreement on Wednesday. Announcement of the fund, which the banks infused with some $68 million, had ended months of public acrimony over Swiss compensation for dormant bank accounts of Holocaust victims as well as for the nation’s wartime role. The Swiss government has said it, too, will contribute to the fund, but only after a panel investigating Switzerland’s wartime role is released later this year. At issue has been who will be in charge of the distribution of the funds and who will be its beneficiaries, officials say. The World Jewish Congress, which has spearheaded the bid for compensation, has insisted that that the World Jewish Restitution Organization be in charge of distributing the funds to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Israel Singer, secretary general of the WJC and chairman of executive committee of the WJRO, and Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti, had reached an agreement in principle on the matter during talks Monday in Bern, according to a well-placed Swiss government official who asked not to be identified. But the Swiss official said the Israeli representative to the WJRO, Bobby Brown, had raised questions about the agreement. As a result, the Swiss official said, “we had to start from the beginning.” “The State of Israel has the most survivors of the Holocaust,” Brown said in a brief interview before Tuesday’s meeting. “Therefore, the prime minister decided that the State of Israel should play a more active role in the talks with the Swiss.” Non-Jewish victims are also expected to receive compensation, including Gypsies, who were represented at the meetings this week. Officials would not disclose specifics of the agreement, but sources said the WJRO was flexible on some issues, such as the inclusion of Swiss officials on the administering committee. But the Jews would not have agreed to anything less than the bottom-line demands that there be a Jewish majority on the committee administering the fund and that the Jews have ultimate authority for distributing the funds to Jewish victims. In New York, Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, said, “The shape of the agreement as it is now protects Jewish interests. That’s the bottom line for us.” Steinberg said if the committee is established quickly, victims could begin receiving funds as early as this summer.

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