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Swiss approval of Holocaust fund ends months of public acrimony

NEW YORK, Feb. 26 (JTA) — Needy victims of the Holocaust may soon be the beneficiaries of tens of millions of dollars as a result of a long-sought agreement on a Swiss humanitarian fund. The Swiss government Wednesday signed off on a delicately negotiated agreement on control of the fund, recently established by Switzerland’s three largest banks. The announcement earlier this month of the fund, which the banks initially 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 debate between Swiss and Jewish officials over a compensation fund reached a high pitch when the president of Switzerland at the time accused Jewish groups of “blackmail” and Jewish groups threatened a possible boycott. Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, which spearheaded the campaign for compensation, hailed this week’s agreement as “marking an historical turning point in Swiss-Jewish relations and seeking to right some of the terrible wrongs” committed during the Second World War. The Swiss government has said it, too, will contribute to the fund, but only after a panel’s investigations into Switzerland’s wartime role is released later this year. This week’s intense negotiations over administration of the fund added last-minute drama to the agreement. The issues of contention involved who would control the funds and who would be its beneficiaries, officials said. The WJC had insisted that there be a Jewish majority on the committee administering the fund and that the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which was created by the WJC, be in charge of distributing the funds to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. For their part, the Swiss wanted Jewish groups to play an active, but not dominant, role. 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 complications emerged, including the role Israel would play, according to sources. In the end, the two sides reached a compromise on representation, said WJC officials, whereby the foundation administering the fund would be run by a seven-member executive. According to the agreement, the executive will include four “eminent Swiss persons,” including the president of Switzerland, and three “eminent persons recommended by the WJRO.” To assure equality, Rolf Bloch, the president of the Swiss Jewish community who also serves on the WJRO, will be one of the four Swiss members. Bronfman will also serve on the fund executive, according to Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC. According to the text of the agreement, the object of the fund “is to support persons in need who were persecuted for reasons of their race, religion or political views or for other reasons, or were otherwise victims of the Holocaust/Shoah, as well as to support their descendants in need.” Non-Jewish victims are also expected to receive compensation, including Gypsies, who were represented at the meetings this week. The decree for the fund takes effect March 1. Steinberg said distribution of the fund could begin as early as this summer. (JTA correspondent Fredy Rom in Zurich contributed to this report.)