Swiss government to manage bank-financed Holocaust fund

BERN, Feb. 12 (JTA) — Swiss Jewish leaders are giving a mixed response to their government’s decision to formally establish a fund to compensate Holocaust victims and their families. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, the communal umbrella group, welcomed what it described as the “quick” decision of the Swiss government to establish the $71 million fund. But Swiss Jewish leaders also criticized the government’s decision not to contribute to the fund at this time. Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti said at a news conference Wednesday that his government would set up and manage the fund. The monies have been supplied by the country’s three largest banks. While saying that disbursements from the fund would be made to Holocaust survivors in a “very short time,” Cotti added that the Swiss government would not make any contributions to the fund until a panel of Swiss historians submitted its findings about Switzerland’s wartime activities. Months of mounting international pressure on Switzerland to confront its wartime past culminated last week in the dramatic announcement by the three banks that they would contribute $71 million to a Holocaust memorial fund. Several Swiss businesses subsequently announced plans to make their own contributions to the fund. Jewish organizations, led by the New York-based World Jewish Congress, have claimed that Swiss banks hold up to $7 billion in unclaimed accounts belonging to Holocaust victims, but the banks say initial searches of their archives turned up only $32 million in unclaimed accounts. The Jewish claims came amid a series of revelations, based on material contained in recently declassified wartime documents, that Switzerland hoarded the wealth of Holocaust victims while helping to finance the Nazi war effort. Cotti said Wednesday that he could not commit taxpayer money to the fund until the panel of historians announced its first findings, which he said should be issued “before summer.” Those findings are expected to deal with Swiss purchases of Nazi gold and with its wartime immigration policy, which researchers say resulted in some 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish refugees being turned away at the Swiss border. Swiss Jewish leaders expressed impatience this week at the government’s decision to wait for the panel’s findings. Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, said Wednesday that it would have been better if Switzerland made the decision to contribute now. The world already knows “the facts about Switzerland’s immigration policy during the Second World War,” he added. Rolf Bloch, president of the federation of Jewish communities, asked the Swiss government in a letter this week to establish a private foundation within a “few weeks” to distribute monies from the fund. Bloch also asked that Swiss Jewish officials and representatives of the WJC be represented on the foundation’s board. The Swiss government will act on the request in the coming days, a government spokesman said in an interview. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Swiss National Bank confirmed in an interview that the $71 million has already been deposited with the bank, adding that the money would be carefully invested to ensure a maximum return. In New York, WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg welcomed Cotti’s remarks, saying that they “bode well for the future.” He downplayed concerns about when the Swiss government would contribute to the fund. Based on conversations with Swiss officials, he said, Bern could begin making contributions as early as April.

NEXT STORY