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NEWS ANALYSIS Swiss officials win plaudits from watchful Jewish groups

NEW YORK, March 17 (JTA) — Matching deeds to their words, Swiss officials have won a vote of confidence from Jewish leaders that Switzerland is at last prepared to confront its wartime past. The Swiss have shown a willingness to “face their past with honesty and courage so they can have an honorable future,”” said Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, the organization that has led international calls on Switzerland to make a moral as well as financial accounting of its actions. Bronfman was speaking last week at a joint news conference with Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti, who came to New York and Washington to convey that the Swiss are committed to understanding the truth about their country”s past. “We must try to answer the questions put to us, openly, self-critically, yet also self-confidently,”” Cotti said in a March 13 address to Jewish leaders gathered for a kosher-catered lunch at the posh Four Seasons restaurant. Those questions deal with the nature of Switzerland”s wartime ties to the Nazis and its handling of Holocaust victims” bank accounts. Underlying the controversy is the issue of Switzerland”s famed neutrality. Special Ambassador Thomas Borer, Switzerland”s leading troubleshooter for dealing with the accusations against his country, joined in Cotti”s efforts to emphasize that the Swiss role in the war was complex. “Under international law, neutrality refers only to military neutrality,”” Borer said in an interview. By this limited definition, the Swiss were clearly neutral. But Borer went further, addressing the questions of economic and moral neutrality. “Economic neutrality was not feasible when we were surrounded on all sides by the Axis powers,”” he said. “Switzerland was never morally neutral,”” he continued. “We were always on the side of the Allies. In fact, the Nazis accused us of being biased toward the Allies. “Ironically, 50 years later, we”re now being accused by the Allies of being biased toward the Nazis. The tables have been turned on us.”” Jewish leaders appear to be willing now to accept the complexity of Switzerland”s position as they and Swiss officials have come to establish a working relationship after months of tense exchanges. Bronfman”s words of support were hard-won, coming as the Swiss engage in the wrenching process of collective self-examination. Released documents have provided crushing evidence that Switzerland helped finance the Nazi war machine by providing Germany with Swiss francs and materiel in exchange for tons of gold bars from Hitler”s Reichsbank. Switzerland”s purchases of gold ingots imprinted with the Nazi insignia touched a particularly raw Jewish nerve because of growing suspicions that the gold came not only from the central banks of European countries overrun by the Nazis — so-called monetary gold. It also may have included privately owned, or non-monetary, gold — some of which may have come from wedding bands and tooth fillings stripped from Jews on their way to the death camps. Further tarnishing the Swiss, and exacerbating Jewish sensibilities, were charges that Swiss banks have withheld from their rightful Jewish owners the contents of bank accounts opened during the war years. Jewish organizations have said Swiss banks hold up to $7 billion from Jewish deposits made during the war years. At a speech last Friday at the National Press Club in Washington, Cotti referred to past Swiss actions as “immoral,”” “outrageous”” and “inexcusable.”” His comments stood in marked contrast to the angry, defensive posture projected by some Swiss officials in recent months. For half a century, Switzerland was widely perceived as the glorious haven across the Alps where refugees could escape the devastation engulfing the rest of the European continent. Suddenly, as the charges mounted against them, the Swiss were being perceived as a country of greedy, jack-booted bankers secretly in league with the Nazi oppressors. Gradually, however, Swiss anger was replaced by a seeming willingness to explore the darker side of the country”s wartime experience. Cotti”s U.S. visit was intended to serve as the capstone of that change in posture. Some observers have suggested that his comments were intended purely to protect Swiss banks from growing threats of boycotts. Indeed, the general manager of Switzerland”s second largest bank, Swiss Bank Corporation, said last week that the institution had lost several customers in the wake of the mounting accusations. In addition, according to some, the timing of Cotti”s visit was suspect, coming just weeks before a U.S. panel issues its findings. According to sources familiar with that inquiry, it will soon deliver a scathing verdict indicating that Swiss purchases of Nazi bullion included Jewish-owned gold. While in Washington, Cotti met with Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, who is heading the investigation. He also met with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — but not with Sen. Alfonse D”Amato (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and one of Switzerland”s harshest critics. Cotti”s visit, the observers added, was part of a public relations onslaught aimed at softening the impact of some hard blows to come. Such skepticism may certainly reflect more than a grain of truth. But Bronfman took a different tack. When asked whether he trusted the Swiss, Bronfman said at the news conference with Cotti, “I will have trust in them based on what they do.”” Bronfman was signaling that he is watching Swiss actions closely. Those actions include Swiss President Arnold Koller”s proposal to create a so-called “Swiss Foundation for Solidarity”” to help the “victims of poverty and catastrophes,”” including “of course, victims of the Holocaust.”” To create the foundation, the Swiss National Bank would sell off some $5 billion of its gold reserves. Interest and other investment income from the proceeds of that sale would generate some $200 million annually to support humanitarian causes. But Holocaust survivors should not expect support from this foundation anytime soon. The Swiss Parliament is expected to vote next year on Koller”s proposal, after which it will be subject to at least one national referendum because the proposal requires a change in the Swiss Constitution. Cotti and other officials promised that they would actively campaign to get the proposal ratified by the Swiss public. Cotti also told reporters last week that current indications are “promising,”” referring to two recent newspaper polls showing some 50 percent to 73 percent support among the Swiss for the foundation. Yet, even after a successful referendum, documents provided by the Swiss indicate that the process of selling off the $5 billion in gold reserves may take up to eight years. Only then would the foundation have the $200 million in annual income to distribute. Needy Holocaust survivors, Cotti and other officials maintain, should apply to a separate “Special Fund”” that was created recently by Switzerland”s three largest banks. This fund, which has received additional contributions from Swiss industrial giants and from the country”s central bank, now contains some $190 million, according to Cotti. The procedures for applying to the fund are being developed, and “the first payments should come by this summer,”” Borer said. In their comments, Cotti and Borer sought to strike a balance between conceding the vast injustices that Switzerland had committed and reminding their audiences that the Swiss could still stand proud. In his speech to Jewish leaders, for example, Cotti acknowledged that Switzerland had turned away 30,000 Jewish refugees during the war. But he added that “it was nonetheless possible for more than 25,000 Jews to cross the border and survive the war together with Switzerland”s 20,000 Jewish citizens.”” Similarly, at the National Press Club, Cotti said he was trying to “create a certain balance in a time where this period seems to be painted only with black colors.”” Borer, for his part, readily admitted that international pressure had forced the Swiss to reassess their wartime actions. But he also called for a letup in the criticism, saying in an interview that it would have a negative impact on a Swiss public already “stung”” by world opinion. Such criticism, he added, could hurt efforts to gain public support in the upcoming referendum. Cotti made a similar observation to reporters in Washington, telling them, “The Swiss do not like to be backed into a corner or to be unfairly accused.”” Bronfman and other Jewish leaders appear to be giving the Swiss leaders the benefit of the doubt — for now. But at the same time, it appears certain that they will keep a watchful eye that Swiss leaders live up to their promises.