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Key players on Swiss issue shift from pressure to fund allocation

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 (JTA) — When the World Jewish Restitution Organization meets in New York on Friday, discussions about Switzerland and the issue of missing Jewish assets are expected to take a welcome new turn. Strategizing over how to bring international pressure to bear on Switzerland will give way to dealing with the mechanics of transferring Swiss francs into the pockets of Holocaust survivors, officials said. “Essentially we’ve now moved into a situation where we are no longer trying to prove that restitution is due, but we’re now at the point where restitution is beginning to happen, where the funds are actually being shifted,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. In 1992, the WJC and other leading Jewish organizations created the WJRO to secure compensation and restitution of Jewish property and assets confiscated during World War II. Last week, three Swiss banking giants, under fire from critics over their handling of Holocaust victims’ assets, transferred 100 million Swiss francs — $71 million — into a Holocaust memorial fund. The action marked the first concrete move to begin compensating Holocaust victims and their heirs whose families transferred their wealth to Swiss banks for safekeeping during the World War II era. Jewish organizations claim Swiss banks hold up to $7 billion in such assets, but the banks say initial searches of their archives turned up only $32 million in unclaimed accounts. Several Swiss businesses are now beginning to make their own contributions to the Swiss humanitarian fund. This week, the industrial group Alusuisse-Lonza Holding AG said it would contribute “generously,” and the Swiss Foreign Ministry said other business leaders were soon expected to make similar pledges. The Swiss government and the Swiss National Bank have also given assurances that they will contribute to the fund in coming months. At the WJRO meeting, officials said they would turn to practical questions posed by a new phase in the struggle for moral and material restitution. Determining specifics regarding the humanitarian fund are some of the nuts and bolts issues the group said it will begin to examine. Among those issues are when it can be tapped, who will be its beneficiaries and how best to coordinate distribution with the Swiss government. Those scheduled to attend the meeting included Special Ambassador Thomas Borer, who is coordinating Switzerland’s response to all issues surrounding its wartime financial role, U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s point man on the issue, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, head of an international panel investigating missing accounts, and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.). Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Avraham Burg, a member of the WJRO and the Volcker panel, was also scheduled to attend. Meanwhile, New York politicians this week went ahead with plans to probe the issue of missing Jewish assets. The New York City Council held a hearing Monday to examine ways to help Holocaust victims reclaim their wealth, and the New York State Assembly was set to hold a similar hearing on Thursday. The two bodies backed down from earlier threats of punitive steps to be taken against Swiss financial institutions after Credit Suisse, Swiss Bank Corp. and Union Banking of Switzerland moved last week to set up the humanitarian fund. Jewish groups also ruled out a boycott. “We’re now in a new mode of cooperation in winding down this unfortunate chapter in a manner which finally, in a symbolic way, seems to address the grievances of the Holocaust,” Steinberg said. “I think we’re in the end game. Hopefully this will be seen as a victory for Jewish dignity and perseverance.”

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