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Swiss, Jewish groups end fight over makeup of Holocaust fund

ZURICH, May 5 (JTA) — After weeks of wrangling between the Swiss government and Jewish groups, the two sides have reached agreement on the composition of an executive board that will oversee the distribution of millions of dollars to needy Holocaust survivors. The Swiss government last week appointed Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to serve as the international chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Fund’s executive board. Despite Wiesel’s title, the executive board will be headed by Rolf Bloch, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland. Wiesel’s appointment came days before the long-anticipated release of a U.S. government report about Switzerland’s role in World War II. The report, which is expected to be released later this week, was compiled under the leadership of Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat. Sources familiar with the report have stated that it will give a scathing verdict regarding Switzerland’s and other countries’ wartime purchases of gold looted by the Nazis. The report will indicate that the gold Switzerland purchased from the Nazis not only came from the central banks of countries overrun by the Nazis, but also included privately owned gold stripped from Jews on their way to the death camps, the sources said. In a speech Sunday in New York, Eizenstat reiterated that the report “will pull no punches.” Anticipating what may well prove to be another blow to the country’s image, Switzerland will send a delegation of parliamentarians to the United States immediately after the publication of the report, according to a spokeswoman at the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The purpose of the visit, she said, will be to explain the role of Switzerland as a financial center during war. In another development, the Swiss Bankers Association last week expressed its “unequivocal support” for publicly disclosing the names of the holders of dormant accounts dating back to the Holocaust. The step, which represents a major departure from Switzerland’s strict adherence to its bank secrecy laws, was welcomed in Washington by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and one of Switzerland’s harshest critics. Describing the step as a “major breakthrough” during a speech Wednesday on the Senate floor, D’Amato said the names of account holders could be made public “within a matter of days or weeks,” adding that there would be “certainly hundreds, maybe more” accounts disclosed by the Swiss. Months of mounting pressure regarding the whereabouts of Holocaust- era bank accounts prompted the Swiss to establish the Holocaust Memorial Fund earlier this year with contributions from Switzerland’s largest banks and industrial firms. The fund is valued at about $190 million. According to the March 1 bylaws establishing the fund, Switzerland was to name four of the executive board’s members and the World Jewish Restitution Organization would recommend the other three members. The WJRO, which was created in 1992 by the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency for Israel and other leading Jewish groups, has spearheaded international efforts to determine the whereabouts of assets deposited by Holocaust victims in Swiss banks during the war years and to investigate Switzerland’s wartime dealings with the Nazis. The Holocaust Memorial Fund was created to make payments to needy Holocaust survivors as soon as possible while the questions regarding the missing assets are worked out — a process that could take years. The Swiss Federal Council, or Cabinet, announced on April 16 its four appointees to the board. Among them was Bloch, whom the Swiss named to preside over the board. Bloch, a highly respected member of the Swiss Jewish community, has been moderate in his criticism of the Swiss banks and government. Wiesel has been more outspoken. Last month, the WJRO proposed its three nominees, including Wiesel, Israeli elder statesman Yosef Burg and Knesset member Avraham Herschson. For several weeks, the Swiss said they were waiting for the WJRO to present its nominees in a formal written request. But WJRO officials maintained that they had already made the written request. In addition, the Swiss appeared to balk at the WJRO request that Wiesel serve as the executive board’s international chairman, a position the Swiss said was not included in the bylaws setting up the fund. With Switzerland’s decision last week to accept Wiesel and the other nominees provided by the WJRO, the board is now expected to begin its work soon. In February and March, Jewish and Swiss officials stated that distributions from the fund could begin as early as August. But given the recent wrangling between the two groups, there may be some delay before payments begin. However, in welcoming Wiesel’s appointment, Bloch said the payments would likely begin this summer.